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Wheeler: Soil compaction a root cause of distress

POSTED: January 3, 2014 1:30 a.m.

If you call the office to talk over a problem that is in your landscape, one of the first things I am going to bring up is soil testing. For the $8 it costs for the test, you get a wealth of information that tells you pretty much all you need to know about the "chemical" side of the problem.

But that is just half of the clues to get a diagnosis. The other half deals with the "physical" side of the problem. Many times soils are either too wet, too dry or in dealing with the issue at hand, too compacted.

Compacted soil can create many problems for plant growth, and whether you are a farmer, gardener, or a landscaper putting in turf it is something that needs to be monitored and addressed when needed.

Soil is the foundation for all plant growth, and lots of times it is one of our limiting factors to healthy growth. When soils are hard and compact roots cannot develop, water does not pass through and overall soil health is reduced. I see so many failures with new plantings because the soil was not properly prepared and compaction was not reduced.

Plants are somewhat lazy. If they can find water and nutrients without spending a lot of energy, then that is what they will do. Creating a loose soil so they can root down deeply is one of the best things you can do in order to get them established. A loose soil also means that any water given to the plant will go straight down into the root zone and not run off the surface of the soil as it would if the soil were compacted. Nutrients are more available and easily gotten to by the plant because of an extensive root system.

If you have a large area like turf that has compacted soils, then one of the easiest ways to fix that is to core aerate. A core aerator pulls out a plug of soil and creates pinky sized holes throughout the turf. Core aerate only when the turf is actively growing and not while it is dormant or even in transition in the spring.

If you have a small area like a raised bed or an annual bed then it is easy to battle compaction by changing the physical characteristics of the soil entirely by adding compost. Compost is the "black gold" that every gardener wants and it is easy to do. Compost happens; no matter if you just pile up leaves and let them sit for a year or if you create a bin and actively manage the pile by turning and monitoring the progress. Compost can be created in as little as three or four months or as long as a year.

If you have a flower bed or a vegetable garden bed add three inches of compost to the soil and mix in well. The compost will change the way the soil feels in your hands. It will make it nice and crumbly and easily worked.

In other words, plants will love it and thrive.

Michael Wheeler is county extension coordinator for the UGA Cooperative Extension office in Hall County. You can contact him at 770-535-8293, www.hallcounty.org/extension. His column appears weekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.


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