If you have compacted soil, then you probably feel like the guy in this picture.
Don’t worry though, because this one is easy. There’s nothing you need to do other than keep the soil covered with at least 3-4 inches of wood chips.
You see, hard, compacted soil happens when the soil is left exposed. Go to any natural forest, and you’ll notice that the soil always has a covering, and despite the canopy trees above hogging so much sunlight, nothing has any problem growing. That’s because the soil is so soft and nutrient-dense.
The forest floor is the key. If you can emulate a forest floor as closely as possible, you’ll be able to transform your vegetable garden into a true food forest.
As Paul Gautschi intelligently pointed out in the Back to Eden Film, everything in nature has a covering. We have skin, deer have fur, fish have scales, and birds have feathers. The thing we forget is that in nature, soil always has a covering too. We call it ground cover or mulch, and it can be a variety of things, but without a doubt the best mulch for a food forest is having at least 3-4 inches of wood chips.
Now, “wood chips” aren’t just chipped up heartwood. The name is an abbreviation of ramial chipped wood, which is also known as arborist wood chips. The right stuff is more like 20% brown to 80%, while chipped up heartwood, also known as ornamental wood chips, is pretty much 100% brown.
Anyway, you can also supplement your ground cover with areas of low-lying plants like strawberries. How neat is that? Being able to squeeze out production out of your ground cover, all while fixing your compacted soil over time. If you’re homesteading in an urban area then you’ll definitely want to look into saving space by combining functions together like this. I wrote a whole post about it if you’re interested in learning more about that idea.
Anyway, a food forest is classed as regenerative agriculture because unlike traditional farming methods it actually builds soil over time, uncompacts it until you’re left with that soft and airy texture you’re looking for, and absolutely fills it with more and more nutrients each year.
As for how fast each inch of topsoil takes to regenerate and how to speed the process up a bit, you can check out this post here for details.
Why Compacted Soil Sucks
You see, the reason why compacted soil is so undesirable is that it stops oxygen from getting to your plants’ roots.
Yes, plant roots need oxygen, even though they’re underground. That thought doesn’t quite make sense to us because we’re so used to seeing ruined, compacted soil rather than the beautifully soft stuff you find in natural forests.
It’s for this very same reason that it’s possible to “drown” plants if you water them too much. I talk all about why watering is unnecessary or even damaging to your plants here.
As you might imagine, compacted soil not only blocks off oxygen to the roots by itself, but it also causes water to pool up, which further adds to the suffocation of your poor veggies.
Fortunately, you can make do with planting in a layer of compost below your 3-4 inches of wood chips, with a layer of brown contractor’s paper below all that to act as a no-dig sheet mulch to kick start your food forest off. Your soil below will regenerate, and you won’t have to deal with waiting out compacted soil until you’re able to start growing. You can start literally over one weekend. I wrote how to do that here.