Montgomery County residents are fortunate to have a fair amount of natural resources right in their own backyard. Great soil, however, is not always one of them.
Heavy clay content in the region’s soil can make it difficult for plants to thrive. This is particularly true when the soil compacts, squeezing out vital spaces where seeds take root, or where nutrients can filter down to the roots of existing plants.
“We have a lot of clay soil in this area and it compacts to the same level as concrete,” said Sharon Bradley, a landscape architect and principal with Bradley Site Design, based in Washington. “Roots need air and water, and when soil is compacted it eliminates air voids between the soil particles where air and water can trickle in. So if the soil is compacted it takes all that away.”
Growing plants in this soil is certainly still possible, but loosening or decompacting that soil is an important way to improve growing conditions for plants. It’s especially important for rain gardens and other special plantings that rely on soil to help absorb stormwater before it carries pollution to local waterways.
Adding compost can be a good way to create new, higher-quality soil. Taking advantage of these two processes is just a matter of knowing the right tool for each job, doing it the right way, and knowing when and where to go for help.
Even when plants do establish themselves, stunted growth means the soil is compacted. Not sure if your soil is compacted? There’s an easy way to test.
“Can you get a shovel in the ground? If not, it’s compacted,” Bradley said. “If you need a pick to plant, that’s not a good sign.”
Here are some rules of thumb from Bradley on how to effectively decompact soil:
Composting is a huge help in creating fresh layers of fertile soil. You can create your own compost, but according to Bradley, “You can’t just throw rotting vegetables on the ground.” For the unseasoned composter, buying mature compost may be the way to go.
To start, mix the compost into your soil at a rate of 1” depth compost to 9” depth soil. It takes 8 cubic feet of compost to cover a 100 square foot garden to a depth of one inch. There are 2 cubic feet of compost per bag at the store, so that would be 4 bags of compost.
“This actually saves on maintenance, because you’ll have healthier soil and healthier plants,” Bradley said. “You won’t have to worry as much about how your plants are doing because they’ll be strong.”
By Scott Harris. Scott is a freelance writer who lives in Montgomery County and covers the environment and other topics. Scott may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The RainScapes program offers technical guidance and financial rebates to Montgomery County residents and businesses who install rain gardens and other special projects to help prevent stormwater runoff in our local environment. For more information, visit the RainScapes website.