Hard garden soil

snappybob(SaTexas Zone 8)November 29, 2007

I have a place in my garden that gets hard after I have not grown anything there for a few months. When I break it up it looks like swiss cheese from the worm holes but the worms are no longer there. I was thinking of planting some radishes and carrotts there the other day but it's just too hard to break up. What would be good to plant there this winter to help break up this soil?

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Do you have access to any organic matter you can add to it? It sounds like there is life in the soil when there is enough moisture for it, so you could probably just add it on top and not need to turn it under.

Any organic matter would help--leaves, grass clippings, chipped trees (some tree trimming companies will deliver them for free), coffee grounds, sawdust, shredded paper, etc.

    Bookmark   November 29, 2007 at 10:31PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

There's not much you can plant this time of year. Maybe annual rye. If you lived somewhere else, Dutch white clover might be an option. You could try oats. Otherwise you could mulch with any of the bags of leaves you'll find on the street.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2007 at 1:04AM
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These simple soil tests,
1) Structure. From that soil sample put enough of the rest to make a 4 inch level in a clear 1 quart jar, with a tight fitting lid. Fill that jar with water and replace the lid, tightly. Shake the jar vigorously and then let it stand for 24 hours. Your soil will settle out according to soil particle size and weight. A good loam will have about 1-3/4 inch (about 45%) of sand on the bottom. about 1 inch (about 25%) of silt next, about 1 inch (25%) of clay above that, and about 1/4 inch (about 5%) of organic matter on the top.

2) Drainage. Dig a hole 1 foot square and 1 foot deep and fill that with water. After that water drains away refill the hole with more water and time how long it takes that to drain away. Anything less than 2 hours and your soil drains too quickly and needs more organic matter to slow that drainage down. Anything over 6 hours and the soil drains too slowly and needs lots of organic matter to speed it up.

3) Tilth. Take a handful of your slightly damp soil and squeeze it tightly. When the pressure is released the soil should hold together in that clump, but when poked with a finger that clump should fall apart.

4) Smell. What does your soil smell like? A pleasant, rich earthy odor? Putrid, offensive, repugnant odor? The more organic matter in your soil the more active the soil bacteria will be and the nicer you soil will smell.

5) Life. How many earthworms per shovel full were there? 5 or more indicates a pretty healthy soil. Fewer than 5, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, indicates a soil that is not healthy.

should help you determine how much organic matter is in that soil now and what you need to do to make that soil into something easier to work, more productive, and alive. The lack of earthworms, when they should be present, is an indication of a not very healthy soil.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2007 at 6:29AM
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I have used cereal rye as a winter cover crop but I haven't tested it on particularly hard soil. If your soil has been left bare and not mulched that may be the cause of your problem.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2007 at 12:08PM
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snappybob(SaTexas Zone 8)

I don't think the problem is lack of OM. I apply compost almost to a fault. I mulch all of the time with grass clippings, leaves and anything else that I can find. My soil never goes bare. In fact I had to rake away about 3 inches of mulch before I could get to the soil to find out how hard it is. Maybe it's just lack of moisture. We hav'nt had much rain lately and being that there is nothing growing in that spot right now it doesn't get the water that the rest of the garden gets.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2007 at 2:57PM
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Sounds like a soil test is in order. You might also might want to take that plot out of production for a while and plant something there that roots deeply for a few months or more to help break it up more.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2007 at 3:35PM
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Hey, snappybob - I live just up the road from you and have had the same experience this season. I'm pretty sure that in my case the biggest problem is a very dry couple of months coupled with my laziness in ignoring my garden. Like you, I keep my beds mulched and constantly add OM. Seems like my soil would be black, fluffy, and teeming with worms by now, but somehow everything I add seems to disappear without improving the dirt. Horse manure, composted chicken manure, grass, leaves, hay, countless coffee grounds, piles of pumpkins, killer homegrown compost, and even some gulf coast seaweed have vanished over the past couple of years. I do have some of the fattest grubworms you'll ever see! Can't complain about my veggie crop, but sure would like to have some of that sweet black crumbly dirt I grew up with up north....

    Bookmark   November 30, 2007 at 3:37PM
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Is your organic matter in your soil, part of the soil structure, or laying on top. If OM does not get in the soil it cannot change the soil, make it into something good and healthy. Dig in and take a good look at your soil.

    Bookmark   December 1, 2007 at 7:03AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

kimmsr and I disagree on digging it in. I believe that if you simply leave a good cover on top of the soil, the soil will retain enough moisture to grow a good crop of beneficial fungi. If there was some alfalfa or other protein source under the mulch, it might work better.

I guess if your area is large enough, you could try several approaches and report back here in April.

    Bookmark   December 1, 2007 at 12:16PM
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I think you're seeing the end result of the process that makes caliche soil. Whatever moisture in the ground transports calcium to the surface. You might have to resort to plastic mulch covered by some other mulch to prevent the loss of moisture.

Click on the link below.

Here is a link that might be useful: Wikipedia entry for caliche soil

    Bookmark   December 2, 2007 at 5:29PM
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If the organic matter is not IN the soil it matters not how much you put ON the soil. Organic matter needs to be in the soil to do some good, although organic matter On the soil, mulches, will aid somewhat by suppressing unwanted plant growth ("weeds"), aiding in water conservation (providing there is enough OM IN the soil to hold that moisture there, too), aiding in keeping the soil cooler so there is less loss of moisture due to evaporation, and (if there is sufficient OM IN the soil) feeding the Soil Food Web that converts that OM into plant food.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2007 at 7:24AM
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kqcrna(z6 SW Oh)

Snappybob: I think you answered your own question. I think your biggest problem is lack of moisture.

As kimmsr said, it doesn't matter how much organic matter is sitting on top. To be incorporated into the soil, it has to be kept moist to rot and then it will be incorporated into the soil. This won't happen if it's sitting there dry.

I had a similar experience this summer. I add organic matter, as much compost as I can make. In autumn of '06 I mulched all of my planting beds with shredded leaves. By spring of '07 the soil was crawling with worms. For spring planting every time I put a spade or trowel into the ground I was astounded to see so many worms. Then in summer we had our worst heat and drought ever recorded. Twelve inch rain deficit with temps regularly in the 90s or even 100. Those worms disappeared. No doubt they went deep to the moisture down there in the depths. Huge networks of big worm tunnels remained, but were void of worms. I couldn't water enough to keep up.

The rain has thankfully returned and temperatures cooled as seasons changed. I spread my finished compost in the worst areas (never enough to do more than one bed at a time) and topped all beds with several inches of mulched leaves again. I fully expect to find all those worms present again by spring.

The soil is a living thing and all living things need water to survive.


    Bookmark   December 4, 2007 at 9:51AM
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My suggestion. depending on your labor and resource capabilities.

Rake away the mulch to reveal the compacted soil, and cover with an inch or so of fresh or still active compost. Using a garden fork or and aerator break up the soil without turning it over. I would just use a spade fork and pierce the soil to 6-8" and gently rock and as you remove the tines allow the holes to be back filled with the compost. a 6" spacing between penetrations should be adequate.
Water in with molasses water and recover with mulching materials.
The next thing you need is roots growing in the ground. Plant something in the spring and that will really help the soil. As the soil sits for the next couple of months with some compost in it and covered it should mellow.
The most beneficial addition next to the compost is living roots that will aerate the soil and encourage soil life. Maybe an early spring application of Daikon radish?

    Bookmark   December 4, 2007 at 1:00PM
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I bought a 6" chipper to turn all my cut cedar, mesquite and oak into usefull mulch, compost and soil conditioner rather than burning it as is usually the case. I laid down 4-6" thick layers of mulch over flower beds and orchard trees. A year later I dug up some areas around those trees and beds and found the same dry, rock hard red clay I always had. NOTHING had changed, not even the color due to stain from the decomposing chips. To be quite honest, I was shocked. I expected some soil improvement in that time.

It wasn't until I started to mix those same wood chips into the soil that I started to see change, and that change is happening fairly quickly. Like has been said, I keep the soil as moist as allowable for the plants, and the soil color is rapidly changing. The amendments must be put into the soil.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2007 at 4:50PM
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Tilling, working, organic matter into the soil may be necessary sometimes, not always but sometimes. If the soil bacteria will not, or cannot, work what is applied as a mulch into the soil then some help is needed and tilling is necessary, initially. Once done the soil bacteria should keep the process going. But you need to dig in and look at your soil to see what is happening. Never assume something is happening because you are doing the "right" thing, look to see if it is happening. The evidence is the number of earthworms in the soil.

    Bookmark   December 6, 2007 at 1:30PM
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Your question caught my eye. Along with the advice to keep digging in organic matter I suggest you also do the following. Using a hose end sprayer, fill it with baby shampoo, set the dial on 3 tablespoons per gallon and spray the difficult area once a month with this, satuarating it. What you are doing is adding a surfactant which really aids in breaking up compacted soils and you should begin to notice a difference in several months. This treatment can be applied even when plants are growing as it will not hurt them. If you are a dedicated organic gardener then I suggest that you go online to Nitron.com and order its outstanding organic surfactant, Nitron A-35 which is expensive. I have used it for years in my landscape business to get soils open and draining with great success. Whenever I post this method it causes controvery. Be brave and try using a surfactant. It will make a positive difference.

    Bookmark   December 7, 2007 at 9:13AM
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Could the cause of your hard soil be maple roots?

I have one similar area alongside my patio. I've treated it with loads of OM double dug and mulched but nothing will grow there. By summer it's rock hard and lifeless. Beneath the surface, fibrous maple tree roots suck out every bit of moisture. I've chopped them out many times but they multiply faster than I can dig. It's my neighbor's tree and looking healthy. . . :( . . . I gave up and converted it to a sitting/container display area. The tree wins.

    Bookmark   December 7, 2007 at 10:51AM
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Nandina suggested looking at Nitron so I did and found this rather interesting discourse on soils. First time i have ever seen that web site, but the information is about the same thing I have been telling people here for years.

Here is a link that might be useful: What Frank says about soil

    Bookmark   December 8, 2007 at 7:16AM
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