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Chicago Urban Gardening

The day to day experiences of a University of Illinois Extension Urban Horticulture Educator in Chicago, Illinois

Spring is Good Time to Modify Garden Soils

Posted by Ron Wolford -

As gardening season begins, many homeowners are again faced with soil conditions that are difficult to work in and may cause problems for plant growth. Some of the most common garden soil problems in northern Illinois relate to compaction. Especially soils in newer subdivisions can often be more compacted and in a less desirable condition since many such areas have been mass graded with much of the topsoil being scraped away or realigned in the soil profile as well as being compacted by heavy machinery. "There are some options to help improve such soil conditions, but there are no miracle cures", says John Church, University of Illinois Extension Educator, Natural Resources.

The "tilth" of the soil, or it's workability in terms of ease of tillage, conditions for plant growth, etc. should ideally be somewhat like the consistency of used coffee grounds. That type of "crumbly or granular" soil structure makes it easier to work in and provides for better air, water and nutrient movement. Organic matter is a key element to providing such conditions. Unfortunately, in many cases the soil in many gardens and yards is hard and platy instead of crumbly. The organic matter may have been substantially removed when the topsoil is removed during construction. Organic matter can be identified by the darkness of the color of the soil with darker soils have more organic matter, such as much of Illinois' soils formed under native prairie vegetation.

There are several ways to improve the tilth of the soil, most of which are based on adding organic matter into the soil. That can be done by adding materials such as well-finished compost to the soil before tillage, growing cover crops and tilling them into the soil, or using raised beds with a newly created mix of soil and organic matter. All of these techniques can still take years to improve existing soil conditions. However, by creating raised beds the conditions may be able to be improved more quickly. Fall can be an ideal time to add organic matter before tilling the garden, but it can be done in the spring if the soil is allowed to dry out properly before tillage. Do not till garden soil when it is too wet or the problems may become worse.

Organic matter can be added also by mulching around existing plants in the garden during the growing season with organic material. It can be added to shrub planting beds by similar mulching or backfilling with a new soil mix when adding plants.

Once soil conditions have improved, it is best to try to keep foot traffic confined to areas of the garden that will not be planted to reduce compaction buildup. Create planting areas that can be reached for weeding and harvesting from given pathways. Some gardeners are also eliminating tillage to reduce compaction from the equipment.

Deep rooted, native plants can be planted to add organic matter to the soil, too, but such areas would not normally be returned to an area for an annual garden bed.

For further information on garden soils, compost and related topics gardeners can contact their local U. of I. Extension office.

Source: John Church, Extension Educator, Natural Resources Management,

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