Believe it or not, your soil can become claustrophobic.
Nope, we’re not pulling your leg. As the space between particles in your soil decreases, the grasses and plants that grow in it can grow weary… if they grow at all.
This process is called soil compaction, and it can make lawn care in winter difficult. Luckily, there are several things you can do to maintain healthy soil throughout the year.
What Is Soil Compaction?
Soil compaction occurs when particles in your soil press together too tightly, leaving little space between them. These spaces in the soil, called “pores,” are where water and gasses flow to nourish roots. In compacted soil, these pores are much smaller, which results in less water, airflow, and drainage, which isn’t good news for greenery.
And, while some soil compaction can create sturdy soil that resists blowing away, too much can make it hard for roots to penetrate. Plus, soil that is too dense and wet (which can occur in winter months due to heavy, melting snow) can also increase the likelihood of root diseases and rot.
Finally, soil compaction can reduce your soil quality over time by removing essential nutrients like nitrogen and potassium.
These factors can lead to no grass growth on your lawn, plus difficulty planting and maintaining gardens, flowers, and other greenery and shrubs.
How to Avoid Soil Compaction
While prevention is considered the best way to keep soil compaction at bay, you can use many strategies to bring life back into compacted soil. Below we cover both prevention tips and tips to manage compact soil.
At first glance, it may seem like tilling your soil will add more air and space. Unfortunately, too much tilling can have the opposite effect.
While it’s true that tilling breaks up soil particles, the problem is that it breaks them up too much. Soil naturally aggregates into pea-sized clumps with gaps, or pores, between them, which allows air and water to pass through. When you over-till, these clumps are broken up into single particles. When water hits these single particles, they congeal together and become compact since there are no longer any aggregates to create small gaps to let water drain through.
Also, if you are tilling with a motorized tiller, avoid repeatedly going over areas, as this can overly break up soil particles.
Tilling or Working Wet Soil
Working or tilling soil that is too wet can also damage its clump-like structure that allows for airflow. To determine whether your soil is too wet to till, pick up a piece and squeeze it into a ball in your hand. Gently poke this ball: if it falls apart, you can work it. If it doesn’t crumble, the soil is too wet.
Adding Sand to Clay Soil
Another common practice is adding sand to clay-rich soil to loosen it. Unfortunately, sand and clay can stick together even more, creating concrete-like soil.
To loosen clay-rich soil, focus on adding organic matter like compost, rather than sand. You can also add in peat moss or leaves to create some aeration.
Vehicles, Mowers, or Heavy Foot Traffic
If you’ve ever built a sand castle or made a snowball, you’re aware that pressure hardens sand and snow into compact shapes. This same effect occurs in your soil when too much heavy machinery, or even foot traffic, moves across the surface.
To prevent soil compaction, limit frequent mowers, heavy equipment, and foot traffic. Creating a designated road or even a stone pathway can help keep vehicles and shoes from pressing down on your soil.
Soil Tests and Cover Crops
Testing your soil every three years for pH levels, nutrients, and organic matter percentage can also go a long way in compaction prevention. These markers can help you determine how your soil quality is faring before compaction occurs so you can take early measures to prevent it.
One way to help maintain soil quality, especially in vegetable gardens, is to grow a cover crop. This would be grown at the end of the season, mowed, and turned in the following Spring before planting. This is beneficial because the roots penetrate compacted soil and loosen it for the next season. Mowing and turning in this cover crop then provides additional loosening.
Some excellent cover crops include winter wheat, buckwheat, winter rye, annual ryegrass, and hairy vetch.
In addition, you can also cover your unused beds with a layer of mulch, followed by an old cloth, blanket, or landscape fabric. This will help reduce compaction by only allowing small amounts of snowfall and water into the soil.
Allow Cool-Weather Weeds to Grow
While letting weeds reign in your garden or yard may seem counterintuitive, it can be beneficial. Weeds work similarly to cover crops: their roots break up soil during winter months to help prevent compaction.
Try to let weeds grow until late winter, then cut them and add them to your compost pile.
Lawn Maintenance and Commercial Snow Removal Services
BAM´s Landscaping is your premier lawn care and landscaping provider in the Montgomery County region. Our commercial snow plowing and ice management services help keep your property pristine during the winter months, while also keeping your commercial lawn healthy with little soil compaction.
With tailored intervention strategies and a 24/7 on-call team, our goal is to help you avoid winter surprises that can put your business at risk.
Call us for a free consultation here.