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How do you soften hard cracked soil?

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04/06/2009

Hard and cracked soil indicates a soil that is lacking natural material and a proper balance of chemicals. You must determine 'how' the soil will be utilized prior to determining proper conditioning. Will you grow a garden in this soil? Dig a ditch in this soil? I need to dig this immediately? I will need to dig this next spring? Once this determination is made, the simple answer is to incorporate natural materials (mulch/compost) into the soil. Soil particles were at one time solid rock. Millions (or billions) of years of wind, rain and temperature extremes have broken the rocks into very small particles (clay soil), very large particles (sand) and all the other sizes between. The saying, "it's like concrete" is in fact, fairly accurate. To develop soft healthy soil (in ANY soil type), you MUST add natural materials to the soil. Wood chips or bark mulch is the most common form of soil conditioners. The decomposition of these materials acts as a 'cushion' between the soil particles and allows proper moisture retention. This process requires time for decomposition; therefore, incorporation into the soil should be completed in mid to late fall to allow wintering over. Natural materials compost at an accelerated rate at higher temperatures, therefore, spring/summer incorporation of these materials will also be very beneficial. Acceleration of decomposition may also be enhanced by the addition of a high nitrogen fertilizer. Wood materials of any kind will utilize available nitrogen in the soil during the decomposition process. Don't worry; you'll get your nitrogen back at the end of this process when the fully composted material begins to release the nitrogen back into the soil. Perform a soil test (available at any garden or home center) and determine the nutrients that are lacking in the soil. The results that you obtain will be greatly hampered if the soil is depleted of one or more nutrients. Composting any type of material (coffee grounds, tea grounds, wood, banana peels, egg shells, left-over salad, etc.) will be greatly enhanced by composting these materials directly in the soil (composting with the use of a compost pile is utilized for portability and ease of application). Composting directly in the soil will utilize all available nutrients in the material and will not be subject to leaching, which occurs during the traditional composting method. Primary, secondary and trace nutrient requirements will be satisfied by utilization of composting directly into the soil (with various types of materials, both wet and dry). Obtain a sealed container (one with a lid to eliminate odors) that you may place food waste into and collect this waste until there is an adequate amount. Place these waste materials on the soil and completely dig them in with a shovel. Make a habit of doing this once a month or at least several times a year and the soil in your flowerbeds will become extremely rich and intensely fertile as time passes. Remember; feeding the microorganisms in the soil is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. Proper fertilization is a close second (use a balanced fertilizer like 10-10-10). You will notice a tremendous change in your soil texture and a deep rich color will develop as time passes. Place the cheapest wood/bark mulch that you can find in bulk (from your city or a private supplier) directly on the soil if your intent is to improve a very large area. The wood fiber will in time break down and feed the microorganisms and improve the overall health of the soil. This method requires 2 to 3 seasons (years) to fully enrich and enhance the soil. Remember; irrespective of the method that you choose, TIME will always be the most important factor when enhancing your soil. If your intent is to simply allow shoveling of the soil at the time, soak the area completely with water (add a small amount of dish soap to enhance penetration) and cover the area with a piece of plastic (a garbage bag will do) or a board, etc. and allow as much time as possible prior to excavation of the area (overnight would be most effective).