Someone once said: if you fail to prepare, you should prepare to fail. And never a truer word was spoken when it comes to solving the problem of hard soil
One of the main culprits is clay, although loam soils and even sandy soils will compact under weighty gardening equipment, foot traffic and heavy downpours. Clay soil is either sticky and claggy or as hard as rock. It drains slowly, after which it hardens like concrete. Avoid over-digging the soil when it is wet and claggy, and never add sand to clay, unless you want to create your own concrete recipe.
One method for breaking up highly compacted soil is to use a rotovator. However, this will only break up the surface of the soil, so for best results, there is no avoiding the shovel.
The best way to loosen and improve heavy soil
Because the mineral particles in hard soils are pressed closely together, there is little room for the air and water that is essential for plant growth. The key to success is Organic Matter. Organic matter contains the remains of decaying plants and animals and will help to open up the soil. It will be drawn down by earthworms and other organisms to help break up the compacted particles. A light coating of organic matter spread on top of the soil at regular intervals will help to keep the soil in tiptop condition.
Organic matter can be bought or home-made, it can be manure, shredded leaf mulch, wood chips, straw or chopped leaves. Adding loads of well-rotted manure onto the surface during the winter will help to break down the soil, ready for the spring.
A methodical approach – hard work but excellent results
Start by digging out a trench. Fill the bottom with organic matter. Then dig another trench and use this soil to fill up the first trench, and so on. Add grit and peat to the top layer of each trench to make weeding and hoeing of the soil easier. You’ll only have to dig these trenches once, so it’s worth the initial effort.
It won’t change from hard to soft overnight! Microbes and earthworms need time to break down organic matter, but when they’ve done their work, you will be the proud owner of rich, soft, organic soil which will be the envy of your fellow gardeners!