Dealing with compacted soil without digging by working with nature

Dealing with Compacted Soil without Digging

In this episode, we’re going to tackle a common challenge—how to deal with compacted soil without digging. If you’ve ever tried to plant in an area with compacted soil then you know how hard this can be. It really can be back-breaking. But there are simple ways to deal with compacted soil by working with nature—instead of doing it all on your own.

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Nature really can help you loosen up compacted soil—but you’ve got to slow down and work on nature’s schedule.

Grabbing the shovel or tiller may be faster but it’s also a lot more work. And you won’t get all the benefits that working with nature can bring.

So how do you work with nature to deal with compacted soil without digging?

Here are 2 core steps: 

  1. Cover the soil with mulch and promote soil life.
  2. Plant perennial plants.

Show Notes:

You're reading the show notes for an episode of the Growing with Nature podcast. You can listen to this episode by using the player at the bottom of this section right before the resources list. If you enjoy the episode don't forget to subscribe so you never miss out on future episodes.

But you can’t rush this.

It takes time for earthworms and other soil life to loosen up the soil enough for you to plant. And then it will take additional time for your perennial plants to get their roots established and start breaking up the soil.

But if you work with nature on nature’s schedule the results are amazing.

I know this may sound too good to be true but I’ve used this simple process to turn an old gravel parking lot into a lush food forest.

Let’s look at how this all works and what you need to do to be successful with these 2 steps.

And if you like what you hear today, then please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever else you listen. Your review will help more people find us.

People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.

Okay, let’s get started.



Transforming a Gravel Parking Lot into a Food Forest—without Digging

Dealing with compacted soil by mulching and planting perennial plants

Starting with mulching and then planting perennial plants we've transformed a gravel parking lot into a food forest.

When we bought our property in 2016 there was this one area that had been used as a gravel parking lot.

I remember trying to put in some live stakes in that area. I just wanted to get a few plants going to start improving the soil.

But I couldn’t hammer them in—the ground was just too hard.

This happens sometimes with live stakes so I wasn’t too worried. So I grabbed a metal pole—I still couldn’t hammer it in.

Next, I grabbed a t-post and a t-post pounder.

Finally, I was able to make some holes in the ground and the live stakes planted. But seriously how was I going to dig in this area?

I wanted to turn it into a food forest.

Picture a tree-covered area filled with fruit trees, berries, and other food plants along with a bunch of native plants.

A forest filled with food.

But all I had was a compacted gravel parking lot.

And to make it even worse—most of the live stakes failed except for a few that were on the edge of the old parking area that had softer soil.

I wanted to make this area thrive but I didn’t want to have to use equipment to dig it out or bring in tons of soil.

We live along a busy road and this area was the furthest away from it. I wanted this spot to be a little getaway from the noise of the road for my family and I.

So it was time to figure it out.

I knew that healthy soil is kept from being compacted by the actions of soil life—earthworms and other critters that burrow through it—and from the roots of plants growing through it.

So the first thing I did was get a bunch of cardboard and a ton of fall leaves. Plus some branches.

Then I got busy sheet-mulching the whole area.

First, the cardboard went down.

And then I added the fall leaves with the branches on top of it all to hold the leaves in place.

I added a ton of leaves—a good foot of fresh leaves over the whole area.

And then I waited.

I started in the fall and I didn’t do anything else for an entire year. I just waited and trusted that the soil life was busy doing what it does best—building healthy soil.

A year later and a lot of the leaves had broken down. And all the cardboard was gone.

And the soil was transformed.

I started to do some simple plantings from seed—focused on native lupines. Lupines also fix nitrogen in the soil through a partnership with soil microbes.

But I also planted several fruit trees, hazelnuts, native buffalo berries, and goumi berries. Those berries are also nitrogen fixers.

A year earlier I could barely get a t-post in the ground to make a simple hole. Now I could easily dig holes using just a shovel.

And since then the fruit and nut trees and the berries have grown. So have the lupines and other plants.

But I’ve also lost some of them and I’m still adding more plants.

I’ve also added more mulch to replace the fall leaves once they broke down.

The soil still has a ton of gravel in it—but I can dig in it. And the plants are doing well.

It takes time—you can’t take a heavily degraded landscape and expect it to be transformed overnight. But you can still achieve amazing results.

You’ve got to promote soil life by covering the soil with mulch and then plant perennial plants.

And the key to this working is being patient—if you want to deal with compacted soil without digging then you’ve got to slow down and work with nature.

And don’t forget to check out the show notes so you can see for yourself what’s possible when you work with nature.

Steps to Deal with Compacted Soil

Grow lupines for their flowers

Lupines are some of the best plants for dealing with compacted soils.

The hardest thing about working with nature is learning to slow down and be patient.

Whether you’re trying to deal with compacted soil without digging or dealing with pests by promoting the predators that eat them.

You’ve got to be patient.

The first step to dealing with compacted soil is to create conditions that will let your soil life thrive. Critters like earthworms will work 24/7 in the right conditions to loosen up your soil for you.

All that sheet-mulching—the cardboard and fall leaves—created a nice cool moist environment that earthworms and other soil life just love. The soil in my food forest never dried out—even in the hottest part of the summer.

And in the winter under all the mulch the soil stayed relatively warm and frost-free.

This lets the soil life stay active throughout the year.

And all that cardboard and fall leaves provided food for the worms and other soil life. Plus, over time they worked it all down into the soil.

But this wouldn’t work if you only covered a few spots—you’ve got to cover as much as possible so the soil can stay moist and cool in the summer and relatively warm in the winter.

Then once the soil has loosened up a bit—1 or 2 years later—you should start planting perennial plants. Native lupines are one of the best options.

They can be direct seeded, they get large taproots and they fix nitrogen.

Lupines are one of the best plants to use to deal with compacted soil.

But as soon as the soil can be dug start adding trees and shrubs. These plants will spread their roots far and wide.

This will loosen up the soil and further support soil life.

And make sure to keep the soil covered with mulch or ideally perennial plants. Start with mulch but then get perennial plants in the ground.

Time to Transform Your Compacted Soil without Digging

Moderate climate extremes by building soil and planting perennials

While this food forest is still getting established it's still an amazing transformation from a gravel parking lot.

So how do you deal with compacted soil without digging? 

  1. Cover the soil with mulch (fall leaves, wood chips, etc.)
  2. Plant perennial plants

And slow down so you can work on nature’s timeframe.

It is that simple—but the hard part is slowing down and being patient. But if you slow down and work with nature you will not only loosen the soil you will also promote soil life and build healthy soil that will let your plants thrive once you do plant them.

You really will be cultivating abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.

And stay tuned for our next episode where we will look at what you can do to attract birds to your property.

Let’s work together to heal our living world.


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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.

  • Rhazes says:

    Hi,

    Wonderful, wonderful post!

    Just like to add to the discussion.

    I read Gabe Brown’s great book, ‘Dirt to Soil’ many times. At first I was shocked he said he made the MISTAKE of planting PERENNIALS before ANNUALS.

    In permaculture you always hear that we need to plant perennials as much as possible.

    In Gabe’s story, his soil was degraded like so many agricultural lands. For large scale farming (his was 5000 acres) mulching with woodchips or autumn leaves is just impossible.

    So he planted a diverse mix of annuals to break and improve his soil before planting perennials. Among that stood out in my mind were sunflower, legumes and Buckwheat.

    When I thought about it that make senses. God created annuals not without reasons and it seems to be to help heal soil before long-term plants can take over.

    They do their job fast, they die and let perennials take over.

    Of course mulching also does the job like you shared here.

    But in cases where it’s logistically impractical or where mulch is not abundant, I think annual is one great solution.

    I now am trying to use annuals and mulch in our small area and see how it goes. Woodchips are not common in my country (South East Asia, Malaysia) and we don’t have autumn, so no seasonal leaves.

    Thanks for your post! Really helpful!

    • Daron says:

      Hello,

      Thank you! And thank you for your comment–I’m familiar with Gabe Brown and his story. Lot’s to learn from it! Annuals do have a place and they can help–especially ones that fix nitrogen or get large deep taproots. And they can be chopped and dropped too. Lots of good uses with them. Thanks for sharing!

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