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Fall Garden Prep: Soil Compaction

By Billy Ward II

No matter how pumpkin and scarlet hued the mountains turn, it’s not until cold weather sets in and clocks revert to standard time does fall and the approaching winter seems real.
Fall 2021 has been unusually mild and beautiful. Gardens dodging light frosts were still providing peppers and beans, but after this week’s temperatures dipping into the 20s, warm-season plants are finished for the season.
It can be a sad time of year for gardeners, particularly those not raising cool-season vegetables such as kale, collards, and turnips.
If you are like me and never “got around to it” and your garden is bare, there is still time to get your hands dirty in preparation for next year. I received several calls this summer about gardens and vegetables not producing like they should.
Fertility and pH issues aside, compaction and a lack of organic matter were often the culprits.
Compaction occurs when soil particles are packed too closely together, restricting the pore space necessary for air and water movement. Roots cannot penetrate compacted soil to obtain needed nutrients, while rain and irrigation water are powerless to percolate through the soil leading to runoff and erosion.
Many things cause compaction. One of the most common is working wet soil. If your soil does not crumble, it is too wet, and tillage will negatively affect soil structure.
Clay soils have a natural tendency towards compaction. And gardens suffering through winter without a protective cover are prone to compaction, crusting, and runoff.
Does water sit or run off your garden after it rains? If so, there is a good chance your plants are struggling through compacted soil.
You cannot till your way out of a compacted garden. Improving soil quality and structure through increased organic matter and biological activity is the first order of business.
Adding 2-3 inches of mulch or compost will prevent crusting while enriching soil and improving structure.
Aged or composted manure is an old standby, as is straw and hay. It’s late, but not too late to sow a cover crop of wheat or rye at 4 oz per hundred square feet.
A 30×30 garden totals 900 square feet and needs two and a quarter pounds of seeds. Best results sprout from cover crops sown in September or October, but if you want to try this year, go out and sow today. It may not be an impressive crop, but something is better than nothing.
Even if your garden is not suffering from compaction, regular organic matter and cover crops are essential for soil health.
It all starts with the soil, and healthy soil means a healthy and productive garden.