Why is my garden’s ground so hard?

Submitted Photo A good way to get organic matter is to compost your own. Any plant material from the kitchen such as corn cobs and husks, green pea pods and stale bread can be composted. Enclosed composting bins are available for sale or you can build your own composting bunker.

From time to time I am asked what caused a person’s garden/flower bed, to get so hard. In most cases, it previously was more workable and easier to dig and plant in. But over time it has gotten so hard that working it either with a trowel, shovel or rototiller is very difficult.

The answer is that there is very little organic matter in the soil. Organic matter is what comes from something that was once living after it has decayed by nature. To gardeners, this means anything that comes from a plant. It could be something from an animal, but I doubt that having a couple of road kills in ones flower bed would be very appealing! Organic matter helps to loosen the soil so it is easier to work in and also helps the soil to retain water. With these two improving traits, plants can grow roots easier and have water available easier and longer as well. Good organic matter content can decrease the amount of watering needed to grow plants.

The first question is, where can a home owner get organic matter? One of the easiest to obtain is through tree leaves. Rather than discarding them in the fall, they can be picked up with a mower having a bagging attachment on it. The action of the mower blades will help the soil organisms work to break the leaves down into soil organic matter. Other sources of organic matter include clean, weed-free straw and hay, peat moss as well as composted livestock manure. A down side to most livestock manure is that it doesn’t heat enough during composting to destroy the weed seeds in it. Poultry manure is better in this respect in that the bird gizzards grind small seeds to a fine state destroying germination. Only fruit pits and tree and vine seeds are not ground well.

Another good way to get organic matter is to compost your own. Any plant material from the kitchen such as corn cobs and husks, green pea pods and stale bread can be composted. There are many plans available for building composting bunkers. There are also a large number of enclosed composting bins sold by many sources. The main advantage to the purchased bins is that most are easily turned so the compost can be mixed easily during decomposition. The bunker-style bins need to be turned with a spade or potato fork to get the heating and decomposition desire. But both can be very effective and quite fast in accomplishing your goal of good compost.

Earthworms are excellent at converting raw organic matter into soil organic matter. Spreading the shredded leaves from mowing or other organic matter on a flower bed will allow them to feed on it at the surface. When they go down into the soil the organic matter is digested and their waste is left down deeper in the soil. The organic matter in their waste will be where it needs to be, and their tunnels will aid in water infiltration. A 4- to 6-inch layer of shredded leaves can be eaten in less than a growing season. It will a couple of years before a big difference in soil density will be easy to notice. But it will come. And it will be very noticeable.

In a vegetable garden which is tilled, the leaves, straw or other organic matter can be dug in with a shovel or a rototiller. Once in the ground, the earthworms will do their part in converting it to the organic matter when is needed. By the homeowner digging in the plant material, more can be dug in yearly with a bit faster results in loosening the soil.

A footnote to add is that adding sand is not going to give you loose dirt. It will make harder dirt. When we mix the fine particles of cement with sand and water, we get concrete. When we mix the fine particles of soil with sand and water, we get really hard soil. As a former teacher of mine used to say, “A word to the wise is sufficient.”