Is my soil bad?? How can I fix this?

Norman, OK

For anyone who can help.. A lot of my yard looks like this, and ita making it difficult to plant! The cracks go about a foot deep, and when you try to break it up, it all breaks in pieces like rocks, but dirt. I have experimented with it and after you add water to it, it dries up again and gets suction-y. Can I fix this?

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Charlotte, NC(Zone 7b)

First: If the grass you have grows by underground runners (rhizomes) you will need to dig out every piece of white root, otherwise they will regrow.

Then, I suggest, you invest in raised beds. They should be a minimum of six inches deep - preferably twelve inches deep. Fill them with as much organic soil as you can afford.

I started out with soil like yours. This photo was taken in May of this year.

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Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

It looks like clay to me, but there might be other things wrong with it. I don't recognize the deep cracks.

Start by never working it (tilling or digging or turning or forking) when it is wet. Wait until it is NOT soggy, but not yet dry enoguh to be hard.

HoneybeeNC is probably right about starting with raised beds. That gives you a limited area to concentrate your effor5ts and money (or scrounging abilities). It would be frustrating to try to improve hundreds of square feet (or 1/4 acre) since that would take a lot of effort, time and money.

If you first improve a smaller area that is mounded up above grade, perhaps surrounded with walls of wood or concretge paving stones, rocks, railroad ties, or anything, your "good soil" will be all in one place. Mulching, fertilizing and gorwing roots in that space will improve the soil below it just by good things and roots and worms perking down out of the good soiil, down into the bad soil.

And when you know what works best, with the least efort and cost, in a small areea, then you can improve a large area without breaking your back, going borke, or getting disapointed.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Have you asked a LOCAL master gardener or fgarmer or a LOCAL university's ag extension service? Or a feed store or farm coop?

If everyone around you has the same cross to bear, at least they will have a name for it, as well as a list of things that do or don't work well.

But, almost no matter what is worng with your soil, I have several speciifc suggestions.

Add a lot of compost or organic matter, and turn it under.
Add more compost on top.
Add mulch on top of that.
For a few years, turn the soil every Fall (when NOT WET) and mix in yet MORE compost.
For a few years, turn the soil every Spring (when NOT WET) and mix in yet MORE compost.

Never walk on the raised bed when wet.
Never walk on the raised bed at all (make it narrow, 24-36 inches so you can plant & harvest all the way accross from just one side.

Did I mention "more compost"? I can't say that enough. The compost (or any organic matter with the possible exception of wood products) will feed the soil life that will improve your soil.

Maybe you can get fancy and add grit, bark nuggets and bark mulch, very coarse sand and expensiv e expanded shale products. You can add a little gypsum every year for a while because that may help some kiinds of clay in the long run (I don;t know about your nasty-lookin' stuff).

If you have a large area and years of patience, plant some very hardy cover crop that can stand your nasty soil. Just by growing it will enrich and loosen your soil. Ask a local feed store clerk what cover crops grow well in the local conditions, for "reclaiming damaged soil". You can harvest to top growth from a cover crop, and use it to mulch a few raised beds, or add toi your compost as "greens" to make it cook faster and produce richer compost.

But compost cures all ills.

If you are patient, you can skip the composting step, and just mix lots of organic stuff under and on top of your beds, then wiat for them to compost in place. Or make compost heaps, and just use them when you get impatient instead of wiating for them to "cook down".

Collect anything organic and pile it in a heap, on top of soil so worms can come too it. Leaves, grass clipping, manure, coffee grounds, shredded paper, sawdust, fine wood shaving, yard watse, and kitchen scraps (garbage).

- add as much "green" stuff as possible, it has the N that speeds decomposition
- keep it somewhat moist, not drenched.
- add a shovefull of the best soil you can find to innoculate it with "good microbes"
- from someone with an active heap, beg a shovefull of compost to innoculate Yours. But many are jealous of their black gold.
- maybe stir it every few weeks or months. Or take first from the center, where it decomposes fastest.
- if it gets slimy or sitnky, add less green and turn it so it gets more air.
- avoid adding things drenched in herbicides
- avoid things with lots of weed seeds or seriosuly diseased part parts
- be careful about adding meat scraps, fatty thin gs and dairy. They may attract pests.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Another refinment:

If your soil drains very poorly, you may see puddles during ehavy rainstorms. In that case, your new raised beds or mounds of improved soil should be located on a slight grade or near the top of a slight rise, so that excess water can drain away. Once you have some roots and worms willing to grow in your beds, don't let them drown each time you get some rain!

Or you can go crazy like a Garden Corps of Engineers, digging sunken trenchs around tall raised beds, and running sunken pipes down from those trenchs to a low spot or your neighbor's yard!

I lean heavily towards the "crazy" direction, myself.

P.S. If you add woody things or hard stiff stems to a compost heap, mow them or chop them first. They will decompose muc h fatser, and let you use them more easily before they fully decompose.

Thumbnail by RickCorey_WA Thumbnail by RickCorey_WA Thumbnail by RickCorey_WA
Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

What they said.

Which is- add organic matter.
If you can at the least wedge your plants in there and mulch with shredded wood, its a start.

Look up some info from OK university extension service.' Your' soil will be somewhat different from 'mine' so you need some localized advice. But organic matter is always good.

Norman, OK

Thank you! For all your replys! I believe I would like to get into composting, as my soil probably does really really need it! As for the local nurserys, they are all closed from what I know of, until spring! I will ask around tho! (as I'm from Florida and used to quite different soil/sand) I love the idea of raised beds, i think that may be one of my quicker solutions..It seems like I'm going to need a lot of time, which I am renting right now. I have no qualms about making a "fixer upper" nice, but we're all attached to our plants:,( haha, as of late I've been potting everything up, since I'm not quite sure if anything will live yet. I planted a aster just to see... I mixed a lot of gardening dirt from the store, and then a little of my dirt. They seem to be doing fine, although it looks as if it isn't getting water? An new cracks formed LOL .. :/

But even if I don't plan staying long term, id like to get a compost bin going. Any good suggestions for a cheap around the house bin?

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

"What kind of compost bin do we like?"
Boy if thats not opening a can o worms...

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Worms are good for compost! But I dunno about a CAN of worms ... maybe a bucket or trash can ...

My favorite bin is "none". A pile or heap sits right on the the ground so worms etc can come and go as they please. Also, a bin allows heat to escape, and it is small. A pile will "cook" faster if it isbig and can warm up in the center.

I think the bestway to get started composting is to "aim low". Don't do anything special at all.

Just collect as much organic "stuff" as you can get your hands on. Save kitchen and yard waste, newspapers, coffee gorunds, shredded paper, leaves, you-name-it. Pile it somewhere.

You are already 90% of the way to being an accomplished composter!

The other 10% is "water it if it dries out". Maybe turn it every few weeks or months if you feel energetic. Chop the bigger bits and woody bits before adding them to the ;pile. Add anything nirtogen rich you can: kitchen scraps and coffee gorunds, green leaves and grass clippings.

But most of that just makes it go faster and is not really needed.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

I guess if you are renting, "fast" counts for a lot. Aggressive, fast, hot composting does take a little more work and even then it does take a few months.

So maybe instead of composting in a separate heap, you would get more benefit sooner from sheet composting and spot composting.

If it looks good enough or is hidden well enough that neighbors won't complain, chop it or mow it and spread it on top of the soil. Let it decompose right there and leach into the soil as it breaks down. Don't use any meat scraps, fatty stuff, dairy or eggs. They tend to smell and attract animals. When you are ready to plant, either turn the "partially finished sheet compost" under the soil, or leave it on top and call it "mulch" and plant right through it and under it.

An extension of that policy, if you have lots of sources of compodtable mateial but not lots of time, is called "lasagna composting" or maybe "lasagna gardening". If you search for those terms, you'll find lots of advice. Baiscally, lay down some carboard first, or several layers of newspapers. Lay down LOTS of uncomposted organic stuff, in layers, and plant right in the organic stuff. The plants can grow right away despite how bad the soil is under the cardbiard. As it all breaks down over time, the soil improves.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Another method is spot or trench composting.

Dig a hole or scrape out a trench.
Drop in a layer of oranic stuff.
Cover with soil.
Plant on top.

I think the soil you put on top might need to be improved somewhat over your whatever-it-is that-looks-worse-than-clay. For example, bury bigger chunks and smelly things. Mix fine stuff like coffee grounds and shredded leaves or grass with the top layer of soil.

Please, if you find out some names for your kind of soil, let us know! I'm curious about any soil that is worse than mine started out being. I've heard of things like "caliche" and "hardpan" and salinized soil.

From Florida to OK!
From semi-tropical to cold!
From sand to ???

What a shock!

Madras, OR

I think when it is slightly moist, it could be turned and compost turned into it, lots of compost. then it could be raked into raised beds. I would continue to work in compost, every chance you get I started with hard packed volcanic soil, referred to hard pan, with a few inches of sand on top. If i put much water on it, turned to muck. Could not even walk in it. So I just started raking what I could loosen up together, then working compost into it, then making raised beds out of it., I am in my 8th year, and will post some pics below,. Don't lose heart, it will take work, but it can be done.

The other idea someone already mentioned was to build raised beds, at least 10 inches of soil, brought in (good top soil plus compost). and start from there.

Thumbnail by nancynursez637 Thumbnail by nancynursez637 Thumbnail by nancynursez637 Thumbnail by nancynursez637
Enterprise, AL(Zone 8b)

I think what you have is expansive clay soil.
This link will give you some idea of how big a problem it is for some people.
This link mentions a lime treatment to help fix the problem, lots to read here.

How big of an area are you planning on working?

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Almost any poor soil, anywhere, would benefit from adding compost. And if there is such a thing as too much compost, it will have digested and leached itself back into balance within a year.

>> "What kind of compost bin do we like?"
>> Boy if thats not opening a can o worms...

Excellent advice! Vermi-composting in large cans or beds. You could even sell your excess worm population.
:-) .

"Reeeeeeeeed Wiiiiiiiiiiglers! The Cadillac of worms!"

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