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Hard, compacted, dried out soil - what tools to use?

 
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I just bought a house with a completely empty back yard.  I think the prior owners used it as a dog toilet.  There’s nothing there, not even grass - just dried out, compacted soil.  It’s rock-hard.  What tools do you recommend for cultivating that soil and what should I be doing to it to prepare it for planting?  I’m a complete newbie and the only gardening I’ve ever done before was in pots.  
 
pollinator
Posts: 3113
Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even Soil:SandyLoam pH6 Flat
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This is the perfect time to tackle it. Overseed with a boatload of dutch white clove and tillage radish.
There is a reason why they call it Tillage Radish/Daikon Radish. Let nature do some of the heavy lifting for you. Also I recommend watering the soil alot Because due to the compaction, you will only be able to store water in the top 1inch of soil vs the entire soil column


 
pollinator
Posts: 170
Location: Northwest Missouri
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There are various routes you can take on different time schedules. The quicker you want this ready to plant, the more energy and cost input. The longer you can wait, the less energy and cost.

Short term would be getting the biggest tiller you can get your hands on. You'll need power to break that stuff up. Rental shops are good, or even better, a neighbor with a tractor! It would be good to amend your soil while you're at it, especially if you've done a soil test and know you have deficiencies. Finished compost would be an ideal addition if you're trying to fall plant.

Longer term would involve just piling organic matter on top and letting time, worms, and microbes do the rest of the work. Lasagna gardening is a good concept for how to properly layer so things break down well (sheet composting is another way to describe this.) Use what you can get, grass clippings, leaves, manure, etc.

If you are really patient and on a budget, get ahold of a tree trimming company and ask for a load of wood chips. They're usually happy to have a place to dump them. Spread that real thick on your area and over time it will decompose, enriching the soil and attracting worms to slowly till it all together. Keep it moist and maybe even consider adding mushroom spawn to speed things up.  
 
pollinator
Posts: 591
Location: Canadian Prairies - Zone 3b
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Good ideas above!

Does the soil look like it has any organic matter at all? Or is is just pure clay? Either way, you'll need tons of organic matter to turn it into living soil. It won't be an overnight process.

What's the objective? Sometimes it's just easier to knock together some raised beds, bring in soil, and grow in those. That way you get some positive results to encourage you. Or, focus on specific zones and give them intensive care.

How big is this area? If you want to stay small scale, you'd be surprised what you can accomplished with a sharpened long-handled shovel. Wet the area down thoroughly and cover with a tarp to soften it up. Then start in one corner and work backwards, cutting thin slices with the shovel. As you go, mix in all the organic matter you can lay your hands on.
 
pollinator
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Matt Todd wrote: just piling organic matter on top and letting time, worms, and microbes do the rest of the work. Lasagna gardening is a good concept for how to properly layer so things break down well (sheet composting is another way to describe this.) Use what you can get, grass clippings, leaves, manure, etc.

If you are really patient and on a budget, get ahold of a tree trimming company and ask for a load of wood chips. They're usually happy to have a place to dump them. Spread that real thick on your area and over time it will decompose, enriching the soil and attracting worms to slowly till it all together. Keep it moist and maybe even consider adding mushroom spawn to speed things up.  



This.  Mulch will do more for you than anything else.  You don't need to do it all at once.  Pick an area, pile it a foot deep with mulch and wait.  If you want to plant something now, break up the soil in a spot, pile a big circle of mulch, open up a hole in the mulch, fill it with compost, and plant in that hole you made.  Repeat until the whole area is done.  I would start small, maybe a 4 foot by 20 foot area, or whatever size or like, and just keep piling organic matter on until it's a foot deep.  I like wood chips best, but use whatever you have that is available.
 
pollinator
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Location: North Carolina zone 7
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A good thread to start Lara. All of the replies you’ve gotten so far are excellent and far better than what I’m about to suggest. If you have the time and resources go with the comments above mine. If you don’t go to your local box store and get a bag of winter rye grass seed. That stuff will grow on concrete! If you want to go a step further grow some Austrian winter pea along with it. Late next spring the they both will die leaving a thick layer of biomass to recharge your soil. If you decide on just the rye the job is really easy. Just broadcast on top and water.
 
gardener
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all of these options are good, and a lot will depend on your climate, your soil, and what you plan to do with it. What does the dirt look like, what kind of rain do you get, etc?

(it looks like you tried to post a photo but it didn't make it)
 
gardener
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Location: Pacific Wet Coast
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Tereza Okava wrote:all of these options are good, and a lot will depend on your climate, your soil, and what you plan to do with it. What does the dirt look like, what kind of rain do you get, etc?

This plus giving us a hint about the size of the lot and whether it's in full sun or gets some shade will all help us make informed suggestions!

I've tried using diakon but in *really* compacted soil, even it needs help. One area of my garden has about a half inch of soil on top of clay/rock mineral soil. I dug several approximately 1 foot deep compost holes which I irregularly top up with buckets of veggie scraps I pick up from a local restaurant (pre-consumer, no meat so I don't run afoul of authorities). This helps to get some moisture deeper down and gives the worms a place to hang out and spread from. Places on the web will tell you a 3 foot deep hole which is fine in theory, but anyone who wishes to volunteer to dig a 3 foot deep hole in several of my "problem" areas, might want to bring dynamite (and that would *definitely" run afoul of authorities - you need all sorts of fancy permits to do that!) I have liberally mulched with wood chips around those holes and after about 2 years, it's amazing how the immediate area is looking like living soil.

I read years ago that "soil doesn't deepen - it uppins". That's where all the mulch and chop-and-drop comes in. But since getting turned on to permaculture, there definitely are ways to get it to "deepen". How hard it is to accomplish depends on the soil and the abuse it suffered. If the experts can "green the desert", I'm sure you can choose one of the ideas suggested, or several to try in different patches to see what works best, and green your new yard!
 
gardener
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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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Hey Laura, congrats on getting new property!
I have a property where the soil was nothing but urbanite rubble.
After years of spreading seed and biomass all over,  I still had a very thin layer of top soil to show for my work.

The raised beds,  which are really compost piles work great,  as does the area where I piled a trucks worth of wood chips.
Trees start slowly  in this soil, but can eventually fend for themselves and actually add fertility.

Because of this experience ,  I recommend focusing fertility in favored spots and allowing it to "escape" to the rest of the landscape.

The exception is plants.
Plants can be cheap,  and the right kind  are self perpetuating.
The mustard seed and the Jerusalem artichokes I planted years ago keep paying off in foodand biomass.
The box elder I kidnapped from a city owned hillside gives  me shade and seeds to nibble on
I now harvest  from the "barren" areas to fill the bottom of new raised beds.

Annuals and self seeders are like compound interest.
Even the lowest rate of fertility or interest can eventually pay off big.

 
pollinator
Posts: 119
Location: Sierra Nevada Foothills, Zone 8b
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First to answer your question: I used a pick, a digging bar and the grubbing end of a pulaski to break up the ground. Hard work.

I have the same land. Ultra-compacted clay. I made some garden beds there doing the following:


I dug it up about 1 foot deep. Picked out rocks and the pure white clay chunks that might as well be rocks.

Mixed in wood pieces, horse manure and some biochar.

Planted a green manure cover crop and let it grow for 6 months.

Then I mounded it all up into beds, and covered all of it with 4 inches of wood chips. I also filled in the paths with wood chips to a depth of about 8 inches. After this the green manure crops popped out again.

I scraped off the wood chips and the green manure in the spring and mulched with some compost, then re-covered with the chips/green manure. Then I doused it with aerated compost tea and planted.


Results were pretty ok. The garden started great but ended up "self compacting" over the course of the season. Upon investigation the actual growing depth of the beds is more like 6 inches (they are almost 18" high) and under that is just nasty water-phobic clay. Tomatoes grew ok, Zucchini and Lemon Cucumber grew great. Peppers and Melons sucked. Pickling cucumbers are so bitter as to be inedible.

I will be incorporating about 400% more organic materials and biochar into as many beds as I can before next spring. I think I will be in business after that.

Anyways, food for thought I guess.
 
Posts: 40
Location: Vancouver, Washington
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Our soil is rocky hard compacted clay where we live.  I saw a great video on you tube about planting a tree in clay soil and I went out and bought the recommended tools - a pick axe and a trenching spade. It saved my life! The pick axe really breaks up the compacted clay easily and the trenching spade can actually dig into the clay, unlike any shovel.  Note that I am a 60+ woman so the tool help was really special for me! I'd recommend these tools for digging into compacted hard soil of any kind.  
 
Posts: 45
Location: Olympia, Washington
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I don’t t have any clay but I have very rocky hard soil. The idea that daikon radish can help in this is laughable. The guy in the picture holding a 2 foot radish does not have a compaction problem.

I have seen good results from very hard work thrashing the ground with a pick and mattock.

I got great results from where an excavator moved a lot of material (even the spots that were driven over after being dug up were 1000x better).

I’m thinking of making a 2-tined broad fork and giving that a try. I don’t think I can get a 4-tine or 3-tine in the ground even with my 250 lbs. on it.

I say hire someone with an ungodly huge excavator to till your soil to a depth of 3 feet. Frankly it doesn’t matter if it causes you to lose some “top soil” or disturbs the microbial life of the soil. You can’t grow food on a marble counter top.


 
gardener
Posts: 6670
Location: Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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I like many of the suggestions, you might want to browse through my soil series too.

Redhawk
 
Jen Swanson
Posts: 40
Location: Vancouver, Washington
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When I posted my previous reply, I was just focused on digging into compacted soil as your question asked.  Another alternative that I learned from Ann Lovejoy's Handbook of Northwest Gardening is not to even bother digging into the soil but instead to put good garden soil on top of it to the depth you need - 6" - 18", and then to compost over that annually.  Over time, this approach will improve even the clay beneath it.  We did this with our raised vegetable garden beds and a number of other perennial/shrub beds that we've put in.  So far the plants seem perfectly happy, and it's a much easier approach (though more expensive).  When we do dig holes for plants in the clay, we always mix in soil conditioner and some compost with the native soil at a ratio of up to 50%, depending on the plants needs.  I understand that this approach over time will improve the soil as well.  Good luck!
 
Posts: 45
Location: Noosa Hinterland QLD, Australia
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Hi Lara,

I know you asked for tools but I think following a method will be more helpful.

First of all I think there is an up side to your problem - Its a clear unworked space, so you can start with planning out with what you want to do with the yard.

Then I would start by getting in a rotary hoe and digging up the soil to about 6 - 8 inches, give it a good watering and plant a cover crop of as many mixed seeds you can get your hands on
Cover the area with a thick mulch and keep the soil moist. Also apply compost teas made up of good compost. worm castings.

If all goes to plan after three months or so you will have a wild over grown yard. Your neighbors are going to think you are mad but you have started your journey to getting the soil to be productive.
Now cut down the cover crop don't pull it out of the ground leave the roots to rot which will allow air and water to percolate down.

Next if you are really keen I would get a soil test that uses the William Albrecht methodology and a report from a soil consultant who will prescribe a mineral recipe to address
the issues discovered in the soil test.

Once done you are well on your way to bringing the soil back to life and will be well placed to growing fantastic flowers and vegetables.

Good luck with this, it will seem like a lot of work but I can assure you it will pay off well into the future.

Cheers
Anthony
 
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