Crusted soil is no gardener’s picnic since it can seriously damage whatever you’re trying to grow and can alter the dynamic of the soil and the delicate ecosystem that lives within it. If your soil is crusting, it can be challenging to know how to fix it since you likely want to prevent any further damage. The best way to keep your soil from crusting is by consistently tending to the soil and preparing for heavy rains.
To keep your soil from crusting, you’ll need to take care of your topsoil, be mindful of watering, and ensure your soil doesn’t become compacted. You can also encourage the natural biological processes in the soil to prevent crusting. Using landscape fabric to protect the soil is a popular method.
I’ll now dive into the details to prevent your soil from crusting. Every step will enable you to maintain good, healthy soil that won’t easily become crusted. Additionally, we’ll go over some ways to use compost to improve the soil, how to protect the ground from the rain, and how to maintain good moisture levels.
1. Manage the Topsoil Consistently
When your soil is crusting, it might be because of heavy rains after a period of relatively warm weather. This sudden temperature change can cause the soil to take in too much moisture from the rain. Once the rain has gone, your soil will quickly become cracked due to all the soil particles being crushed together too tightly. This ultimately results in crusted soil that has almost no aeration or moisture, which is absolutely no good for your plants.
If you’re managing your topsoil well and keeping it in good condition, the likelihood of this happening decreases over time. Your topsoil should be a good mixture of organic materials such as compost, leaf mulch, or shredded bark. It should also contain plant materials and other helpful soil amendments. Healthy topsoil is key to keeping your garden in top-notch condition.
Additionally, if you’ve planted crops or plants in the soil, they should have strong roots that extend down past the topsoil and into the subsoil. This gives the soil a bit more strength and holds it in place, preventing the dreaded crusting from taking place.
To adequately prevent crusting, you’ll want to ensure that you mix the topsoil and subsoil so that they aren’t two entirely separate layers. Hand-tilling the topsoil and organic materials into the first few inches of subsoil can significantly reduce the chance of poor aeration and, eventually, soil crusting and compaction.
Additionally, it will mean your plant’s roots will stop after your topsoil layer, making it much more difficult for roots to stretch down and have a firm grip on the soil. This will make moisture channels much more difficult for the roots to reach, and your plants will eventually die–even before your soil becomes crusted.
Ensure that your topsoil is a good blend of different materials. It should be a mix of clay and sand. Soil containing too much clay is at greater risk of crusting due to its natural density, and soil containing too much sand won’t hold the plant roots. Therefore, creating proper drainage opportunities by mixing up different types of soil can benefit the soil itself and the plants.
The best way to improve your topsoil to prevent crusting is to use compost. Compost is the most effective resource for any gardener and will make the soil much healthier by providing those all-essential nutrients that plants and soil organisms need.
2. Don’t Drown Your Soil
Consistently watering your soil to the point of saturation is an excellent way to make your soil extra compacted, which can eventually lead to soil crusting. Overwatering your soil can lead the pores within the soil structures to close up, resulting in reduced aeration opportunities for soil organisms and overly compacted soil.
Soil crusting, when it occurs, makes it really difficult to water your garden. Any water applied just runs right off the top, and hardly any of it gets absorbed into the soil, so none of the essential moisture is getting into the subsoil. Avoiding soil crusting means keeping your soil nice and moist without completely saturating it.
Many people prefer to use a sprinkler over traditional water hoses since hoses can often drench the soil to the point of complete saturation. Automatic sprinklers can be set to water at specific times and will be much gentler to the soil–leaving it with a lower risk of compact and soil crusting.
Additionally, watering the bottom of your plants near the roots is much more effective than watering over the entirety of the soil base and the plant’s flowers above the topsoil. This helps to ensure the water goes deep into the ground and keeps moisture levels consistent for longer.
Try to only water your soil when it’s completely dry. Overwatering can be even more of a killer than underwatering, so be patient with your soil and allow moisture levels to fade naturally rather than constantly topping them up.
3. Work Your Soil Gently
Overworking your soil can make matters worse, especially if your soil contains lots of organic materials, but if you’re working your soil every week or so using gentle methods, it will keep those aeration passages intact to prevent crusting from occurring.
You can use a core aeration machine around once a month to keep the soil from becoming too dense. This machine creates tiny holes in the ground that are then churned up and turned over. However, with this method, be mindful of using the machine too much. This can damage plants and disturb the soil too much, leaving you with less organic matter and soil that isn’t compact enough.
4. Make Sure the Soil Isn’t Too Compact
Soil particles need the space to breathe to ensure they can keep plant life flourishing. If your soil is too compact, you might find the plants dying slowly and lots of weeds sprouting up in their place. If the soil is too compact in dry weather and then experiences torrential rain, there’s a high chance your soil will become crusty once it dries up.
You’ll know if your soil is too compact simply by pressing the ground with your hand. Soil should be slightly bouncy and shouldn’t be too hard to the touch.
Soil compaction can happen for a number of reasons. For example, if the soil is often used as a walkway or you often use machinery such as an electric grass mower, the soil could become compact without proper care.
Moisture retention and filtering become much more difficult when soil is too compact, and it also means air can’t get to the roots of your plants. This is never ideal and will need to be tended to if you want to ensure your soil doesn’t become crusted after the next rainstorm.
5. Encourage the Natural Biological Process of the Soil
Soil contains plenty of biological systems that can enhance plant growth and help the soil thrive. Maintaining these natural systems is essential to prevent your soil from crusting since it keeps the soil in good health over the long term.
One of the best ways to encourage microbes within the soil to thrive is to introduce earthworms. Earthworms are helpful little things that create tiny little channels in the soil that increase moisture retention for plant roots, allow the roots to breathe adequately, and consume and secrete organic matter that then decomposes to become natural food for your plants.
Once earthworms die in the soil, they leave behind their castings. Castings are another form of organic matter that gives plant roots a new lease of life – all while keeping the soil a vibrant and biologically-happy place.
Introducing earthworms to your soil is a good way to keep those biological processes going. In turn, it prevents soil compaction, and the ground will be in much better shape to withstand heavy rains that could lead to crusting in poorer soil conditions. This is an excellent way to maintain the health of the soil.
6. Use Landscape Fabric To Protect Your Soil
Landscape fabric is an excellent way to protect your soil if you know that heavy rains are coming. If your soil is relatively fresh, or there are plants in the ground that can’t withstand lots of water, such as little seedlings, using landscape fabric is an excellent way to protect all those things together.
Using landscape fabric is as simple as draping it over the area you want to protect, keeping a slight slope in the material to allow excess water to roll off the top. Of course, you can’t stop the rain from hitting the soil completely, and most landscape fabric will allow at least a small amount through tiny gaps.
However, this is not usually a problem since a little bit of rain is perfectly healthy for the soil. Landscape fabric is also a good choice if you’re particularly concerned about soil erosion, which washes away the topsoil and all the essential nutrients in the soil with it.
How Does Crusting Affect the Soil?
Crusting is essentially a process that stops air and moisture from reaching beneath the topsoil. It often ends in cracked soil that can’t absorb water sufficiently, leading to the death of any plant life that once thrived there.
Crusting affects the amount of space the plants’ roots have to grow, so when crusted soil dries, it locks roots in one place and doesn’t allow for sufficient movement. This stops nutrients from getting to the plants, and heavy rains leach out all the essential components of the soil.
Drainage becomes a real problem if you’ve got crusted soil since waterlogging means that water gets stuck in tiny, compact areas of the ground without being able to reach anywhere else. Your soil will likely be very hard since heavy rainfall separates the soil particles from each other, and when the area dries, they clump together to form very tight soil chunks.
If your soil doesn’t have a lot of organic materials, you may find it has a higher risk of crusting. This is because organic materials naturally open up the soil’s pores and keep particles from clumping together using biological processes spurred on by microorganisms within the soil.
Additionally, if your soil has a very high level of sodium, it might be more prone to crusting over time.
How To Protect Your Soil During Heavy Rains
One of the best ways to protect your soil during heavy rains is to improve its drainage capacity. Aside from adding organic matter to the earth, such as compost or leaf mulch, you can also create a drainage system using small dips in the soil leading out of the area.
This works much in the same way as a drainpipe, and in heavy rain, it will lead to much of the rainfall pooling at the side of your garden bed rather than soaking directly into it.
After very heavy rainfall, try to avoid foot traffic over the area. Foot traffic will create the density that ultimately leads to compaction, thus increasing the chance that your soil will dry into a crusted mess.
Rain is obviously very good for gardeners in many ways, and often means you don’t have to water the garden that day. However, too much rain can be a real problem. It washes away essential nutrients along with well-mixed topsoils, exposing the subsoil underneath and ultimately drowning the roots of your plants. Your soil is only built for a certain amount of drainage, so at some point, it will just withstand the water and allow it to soak well into the soil.
If you live on sloped land, building a temporary barrier is one of the best options to protect your soil from crusting. This stops the rain from pooling too much over your soil and will instead stop much of the rain in its tracks as it trickles down the slope. It’s a good way to create deliberate water channels that avoid the areas of your garden you want to protect.
Using Compost To Prevent Crusting
Compost is the most cost-effective and efficient way to prevent crusting–and a whole host of other problems, as well. Compost is cheap to make yourself at home and even means you’ll be throwing less waste away. Instead, you’ll be reusing your scraps in your garden soil, which happens to love compost.
The composition of your compost is essential. It should be a level mixture of carbon material and nitrogen material. An excellent example of carbon materials is coffee grounds or newspaper, and materials that contain lots of nitrogen include vegetable peelings and tea leaves.
Compost needs to be a relatively balanced mixture, meaning that it shouldn’t be mostly carbon or mostly nitrogen. Keeping track of what you’re putting into your compost will ensure your success in the long run. Additionally, you should try to ensure that the whole mixture doesn’t become too compacted since compost needs air in order to decay the materials you put inside it.
Your compost should also be relatively moist but not saturated (much like your soil!), and it definitely shouldn’t be completely dry.
A good compost heap should be done layer by layer. It should also be turned every couple of days to allow the mixture to get enough air to complete the decomposition processes.
How Moist Should Soil Be to Prevent Crusting?
Soil needs to maintain moisture, but it should never be sopping wet. On the other hand, if the soil is too dry, it can lead to a whole host of problems such as compacting, crusting, and inadequate nutrition channels in the soil. I’ve written an extensive guide about what happens to dry soil. Don’t miss it: Here’s What Happens to Soil When It Dries Out
Every time you water your soil, you should wait a couple of hours to see how moist the ground is. If it’s nice and moist, that should last more than a day or two, so you shouldn’t need to water the soil again.
You’ll know when you need to water the soil again when it is completely dry. Underwatering can be much worse than overwatering, so it’s usually best to stay on the safe side and keep the ground moist but not wet. Soil that is too wet will also cause root rot.
One of the best ways to keep the soil moist is using soil additives, such as peat moss. Peat moss can retain a considerable amount of moisture and slowly leeches water into the soil gradually over time. This can be especially helpful if you’re not in the habit of watering regularly.
If you want to keep your soil from crusting, you should take care of your soil and make it well-aerated and well-drained. It should have a good layer of topsoil with adequate organic matter, such as a good homemade compost, and you should ensure you don’t compact the soil too much.
Additionally, you can use temporary barriers if your garden is on a slope; these will protect the ground from too much rainfall and can potentially create temporary drain pipes through your garden to take the water elsewhere. Ultimately, as long as you look after your soil, it shouldn’t crust.