Gar­den doctor: com­pacted soil

Frances Tophill ex­plains how to help plants that strug­gle in hard soil

Gardeners' World - - Contents -

Soil is a mag­i­cal sub­stance that, if prop­erly cared for, holds the key to thriv­ing plants. But it can also be a real stum­bling block that trips us and pre­vents our gar­dens from reach­ing their full po­ten­tial. To get the ba­sics of your soil right it helps to un­der­stand two terms: ‘tex­ture’, which is the per­cent­age of silt, sand and clay par­ti­cles in your soil; and ‘struc­ture’, mean­ing how those par­ti­cles are held to­gether. One of the most trou­ble­some prob­lems with soil is com­paction, which oc­curs when the soil par­ti­cles lock to­gether in an im­pen­e­tra­ble, rock-like for­ma­tion. This is a prob­lem with struc­ture and is caused by pres­sure on the soil that, over time, com­presses it. It may be that peo­ple have walked on that piece of ground over sev­eral years, or that ve­hi­cles have driven on it. It could sim­ply have been badly wa­ter­logged and never cul­ti­vated prop­erly to bring it back to health. The good news is that spot­ting com­paction is easy: wa­ter won’t pen­e­trate, pool­ing on the sur­face, and dig­ging is re­ally dif­fi­cult. You’ll also no­tice your plants look sickly and small. They’ll be hav­ing dif­fi­culty break­ing through the tough ground caused by com­pacted soil, will be un­able to ac­cess ad­e­quate wa­ter and may be­come root-bound. In ex­treme cases, com­paction elim­i­nates vi­tal air pock­ets in the soil and plants will die. Be aware that some soil may look ab­so­lutely fine on the sur­face but be com­pacted be­low, of­ten at a spade’s depth, where over the years you’ve never dug deeper than that. This is just as crip­pling for plants as com­paction on the sur­face. Im­prov­ing the struc­ture To rem­edy the prob­lem, start by punc­tur­ing the soil with a fork and then wait for rain, as the wa­ter will help to soften the ground ready for dig­ging. Next, dig the soil with a spade, fork or ro­ta­va­tor. Make sure you dig right down to break any com­paction in the lower lay­ers. You should be aim­ing for a soil struc­ture that has a crumb for­ma­tion. This com­prises small frag­ments of soil, not dusty, but held to­gether in lit­tle clumps, which are easy to dig and have plenty of air pock­ets be­tween them. With some com­pacted soils, it may be pos­si­ble to sim­ply dig or fork the ground over to break up the large lumps, but with other, more se­ri­ous or long-term cases, a lit­tle more ef­fort might be needed. Be re­as­sured though, that your ef­fort with soil will be re­warded. While dig­ging, you can in­cor­po­rate ingredients that will help your soil avoid com­paction in the fu­ture. Add drainage ma­te­rial, such as washed gravel or sand, to help pre­vent wa­ter­log­ging (which leads to com­paction). You can also add or­ganic mat­ter (such as well-rot­ted gar­den com­post) which is the glue that holds the in­di­vid­ual par­ti­cles of clay, silt and sand to­gether in your crumb struc­ture. Re­mem­ber that once the prob­lem is solved, you should avoid walk­ing on your soil, es­pe­cially if it’s wet or the soil is clay. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween healthy soil and healthy plants is cru­cial. Given the right con­di­tions un­der­foot (or un­der-root), plants can flour­ish with min­i­mal in­put from us. A lit­tle ex­er­tion in the be­gin­ning will pay great div­i­dends for the fu­ture.

NEXT MONTH: Mark Lane looks at grow­ing plants in windy lo­ca­tions and dis­cov­ers that some not only sur­vive but thrive in such con­di­tions

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