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Compact soil - is it?

 
author
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Location: Southwest U.K, near the Atlantic Ocean zone 8/9
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Understanding whether soil is truly "compact", is made made more difficult because tillage, to break up soil, is so general.
Gardeners and farmers have been led to believe that soil needs to be loose for seeds and plants to establish. Yet this is untrue. Roots love firm soil.

Steph and I are asked a lot about "compact soil" and the answer depends on whether your soil is really and truly compact, or firm.
Compact soil is dense, smelly (sulphur!), sometimes grey and rusty orange in colour. Fortunately this is a relatively rare occurrence, usually caused by heavy machines, in wet conditions. Or by excessive cultivation which knocks out all natural soil structure, and kills soil life.

Firm soil is normal and good. Soil is hard in dry weather, but there is a matrix of structure from not being cultivated. I am currently planting into hard soil, but with a soft surface of compost.
Incidentally you can walk on no dig beds! The structure created by soil life is firm and stable.

Maintaining a surface mulch of organic matter is the pathway to open, aerated yet firm soil. Don't worry if you soil feels hard. As long as you feed the soil life, from above in nature's way, your plants will grow.
 
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Great post Charles! The only places I've ever found Compacted soil was foot paths and road ways most soils are simply firm and that is not truly compacted soil.
Great points you made on  how to tell the difference.

Redhawk
 
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A week ago I planted 4 'Tiny Tim' tomato plants around a large rock in my yard where it's never been cultivated. (Had portulaca in wood chips there last year.) I could tell the soil was quite clayey, so I balled some up in my hand, rolled it into a ball and set it aside. I went to the edge of one of my brush piles and got a few scoops of dark composted yard scraps to mix into the planting holes. Added more wood chips around the plants. I checked the clay ball today and I can't break it with my hands. Would be great for making pottery.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Yes Karen, clay is dense and the small particles make it sticky and allow those particles to cling to each other, but that is not the same as compacted soil.
 
Karen Donnachaidh
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I have lots to learn yet. I thought if my soil could be this hard from squeezing it in my hand, then I should never walk on my beds. With my weight "compacting" it I would think the roots would have a hard time penetrating it.
 
Charles Dowding
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Thanks Redhawk and hey Karen, dense soil is good, as long as there are tiny crevices and passageways for roots.
Roots don't need motorways.
Also roots team up symbiotically with mycorrhizal fungi, so small we cannot see them. Although those fungi are broken by tillage.
If your clay grows strong weeds, it's fine.
 
Karen Donnachaidh
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My weeds are ecstatic 😊
 
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