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Planting in compacted soil could cause lackluster growing season

April 19, 2013
  • Corn planted in compacted soil shows poor root development, the same thing can happen to the plants in gardens.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bratthauar

Jennifer Bratthauar, Penn State Extension educator for agronomy and nutrient management for Franklin County, warns about the impact of planting in compacted soils.

It is that time of year again when homeowners and farmers are getting ready to plant their gardens or numerous acres of cropland.

Even though planting is still a couple of weeks away, it is important to keep in mind that what you do to the soil now could affect your entire growing season. This is why it is important to maintain your soil’s fertility and its structure, to maintain its health and quality.

Many people might think that a soil’s health can be maintained by merely having a recent soil test done and making sure that that the pH and major nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, are well-balanced. While this is an important part of maintaining soil fertility, if you ignore all the other factors that contribute to soil health, you could be setting your crops, home gardens and landscapes up for a lackluster growing season.

One of the factors of soil health that gets overlooked is soil compaction, especially if there has been wet weather in the spring and people are trying to get everything planted on time. Soil compaction can reduce your soil’s productivity by affecting nutrient uptake, soil organisms —especially earthworms — and infiltration rates, whether it is in a home garden or a large farm field.

It is fairly obvious if there is standing water on the soil or if the soil is extremely muddy that you should not be planting or working it in any way. However, even though that is the easiest time to put ruts in the soil with any type of equipment, you might not realize that compaction is most likely to occur when the soil begins to dry out a little bit — approximately 24 hours after a soaking rain — and enters into its “plastic limit (state).”

As stated in the Penn State Agronomy Guide, the plastic state occurs when the soil is at a moisture-content level that makes it possible for you to form a “wire” of soil, approximately one-quarter inch in diameter, by rolling it between your hands. In order to help you determine whether your soil is in the plastic state without taking time to form a “wire,” the guide explains how to do a simple test called the ball test.

To complete the test, you take a handful of soil and shape it into a ball. If the soil molds together, it is still in the plastic state, which means it is probably too wet for planting, tilling and field, or even foot traffic. When you poke the ball with another finger and it breaks apart easily, you’re safe to proceed.

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