Soil Improvement for the Mildly Motivated

Soil Improvement for the Mildly Motivated
Wood chip pathway

Understanding and improving your soil is beneficial to having a successful garden.

You may encounter any number of varieties on your own land: sandy, clay-based, loamy (nice!) hardpan (that’s when your shovel bounces off and winds up in your neighbor’s yard) or silty (near creek and river beds.) These types may not be consistent throughout your property as well.

If you’d like assistance assessing your soil, your local Soil Conservation District or Extension service ought to be able to help you. But if you’re inclined towards the DIY approach, here’s what I did:

When we bought our land, it was pretty obvious that most of the yard had been used as a place to park cars. The yard was compacted throughout and any place I tried to dig I encountered dense clay with rock. The shovel wouldn’t penetrate more than a couple of inches.

My first garden performed poorly. Even though I spread some topsoil in the spot I chose, the plants were stunted. Their roots just couldn’t penetrate the dense ground beneath. Then I tried tilling which only lead to greater compaction and increased weed pressure. And frankly, running a tiller is torture.

For the next few years I mainly grew in containers that held a mix of potting soil, finished compost and soil conditioner that I’d bought in bulk. During that time, we applied several cubic yards of wood chip, placing the thickest layers in the lowest parts of the yard where water would pool and in thinner layers closer to the house. As the wood chips decomposed, they broke down into a nice, rich and well draining top soil. We now have abundant earthworms and improved drainage across the property as a whole.

Regular application of wood chips has been my preferred method of soil improvement. Sheet mulching directly where you want to grow is also an option, especially if your yard is well drained and you just need to cultivate in particular areas where you want to grow.

Chips can also be used as accents to create paths. Directing foot and garden cart traffic only on certain areas also indirectly improves soil. During really wet times of year it’s best to tread as lightly as possible or only on dedicated paths since wet slogging is what leads to greater compaction.

We received free wood chips through the Chip Drop Service and we have found that if you pay a $20 courtesy fee, you’ll get a delivery much sooner. You can also contact tree companies in your area to see if they are able to drop off their loads on your property. Some of them may have large logs as part of the load. If you’re able to move them (and I’ve moved 100 lb logs with a sturdy hand cart) you have now free material to build raised bed borders.
For many companies, this saves them from having to pay disposal fees. The crews also appreciate a tip or an offer of drinks or snacks. They’ll remember you and may be more willing to work with you in the future. Make sure they have room to back and raise a dump bed or trailer. They’re going to be wary of any property damage or liability.

Wood chip application is best done in the late fall or if it’s not too wet, winter and early spring.
You can do it in the summer, but carting one load of chips after another during a Tennessee August is not my idea of a good time. But hey, whatever rocks your world.

Contact if you have questions or comments or would like an in person evaluation of your land and its production potential.