Dig up dirt. Treat like dirt. Dirt poor. Replace the word “dirt” with “soil” and you get phrases that make no sense. This is a roundabout way of explaining that “dirt” and “soil” are not the same things, either in idioms or in the garden. Yet many of us effectively turn our soils into dirt through poor garden practices.
For the purposes of this post, we’re going to use a single criterion to distinguish between soil and dirt: one is a living ecosystem and the other is not. A thriving soil ecosystem contains sufficient water, oxygen, and nutrients to support bacterial, fungal, plant, and animal life. Regardless of soil type, about half of the volume in a living soil should be pore space and the other half soil particles. Half of the pore space should be filled with water and the other half with air. When we make choices about activities that affect garden and landscape soils, we need to be proactive in preserving both the particle-pore balance as well as connectivity between the soil and the atmosphere.
The only way pore space can be reduced is through soil compaction. So don’t do it.
- No driving. If equipment must be brought in, put down a thick layer of wood chips to protect the soil, or at least plywood.
- No naked soil. Bare soils are compacted soils. Mulch!
- No rototilling. It grinds your living soil into dirt. Disrupt the soil as little as possible when you plant.
- No stomping, pressing, or otherwise compacting the soil during planting. Let water and gravity do that work for you.
The only way soil and atmosphere connectivity can be disrupted is by covering the soil with low permeability materials. So don’t do it.
- No soil layering. Don’t create abrupt layers of soils with different textures. It interferes with water and gas exchange.
- No sheet mulches. I’m sure you’re tired of hearing me say that and I am tired of saying it. Sheet mulches have less permeability than chunky mulches. That means oxygen and water have more difficulty getting through. Period.
Do use lots of groundcovers, chunky mulches, and hardscape in areas where there’s considerable foot traffic. They all protect the soil and are important parts of a well-designed, sustainable landscape.
If you just can’t get enough about soil science for gardens and landscapes, do check out this new publication by Dr. Jim Downer and myself.