Maintaining healthy soil is an important step to having an attractive and productive yard and garden and a healthy environment. In your Jersey-Friendly Yard, you can work with nature to protect and improve the health of your soil.

1. Get Acquainted with Your Soil.

Take some time to gather information about the soil conditions in your yard. Use your own observations and the results of a soil test to guide your decisions about what to plant and how to improve your soil.

Use Your Senses.

Earthworm in healthy soil.

Earthworms are a sign of healthy soil. © Lynn Betts

The most important step towards healthy soil is getting to know it, inside and out. Scoop up a handful of soil from your garden. What color is it? Look for a rich dark brown indicating good health. Is it soft and crumbly or hard and compacted? Look for worms or other organisms that live in your soil, keeping it healthy. Determine if you have clay or sandy soil by rolling a small amount between your fingers. Does it form a soft slippery ribbon indicating clay, or does it feel gritty indicating a larger component of sand? Smell your soil. Does it smell earthy and fresh, or foul like rotten eggs? Scan your garden or yard after it rains. Do you see water pooling on the surface? Pooling water indicates poor drainage, possibly from compacted conditions or large amounts of clay.

Learn more with the NJ Soil Health Assessment Guide
USDA NRCS Web Soil Survey
USDA NRCS Unlock the Secrets in the Soil: How Healthy Soil Should Look
USDA NRCS Unlock the Secrets in the Soil: Soil Smell

Test Your Soil.

The results of a soil test will give you valuable information about the nutrient levels, pH (a measure of the soil’s acidity or alkalinity), soil texture, organic matter content, and other important characteristics of your soil. The results will tell you what, if anything, you need to add to improve your soil and how much to apply. The Rutgers Soil Testing Laboratory provides a fee-based soil testing service – you can order the soil test kit online or purchase one from your local county office of Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

The information from the soil test and your observations will help you select plants best adapted to grow in your particular soil conditions. For example, if your soil is sandy and acidic, you will want to choose plants that thrive in that type of soil.

2. Add Organic Matter.

By mixing organic matter (e.g., compost, shredded leaves, or grass clippings) into the soil, you can improve its structure and provide a steady source of slow-release nutrients to plants. Every year, millions of tons of nutrient-rich yard waste end up in landfills. By transforming your leaves, grass clippings, and other vegetative materials into compost or mulch, you can create a free source of valuable and enriching organic fertilizer for your home garden.

Create a Jersey-Friendly Yard: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

3. Keep It Covered.

Protect Bare Soil with Mulch.

Mulch is a gardener’s best friend! It controls soil erosion, shades soil to reduce water evaporation, moderates soil temperatures, and suppresses weed growth. Organic mulches (such as compost, bark chips, shredded leaves, grass clippings, or straw) add organic matter and nutrients to the soil as they decompose. Mulch depth should be no more than 2 to 4 inches. Make sure you leave a space for air circulation between mulch and the base of trees and shrubs. Avoid those “mulch volcanoes” (deep mounds of mulch) around the base of trees – they can suffocate tree roots, increase susceptibility to plant diseases, and attract burrowing rodents.

Protect Bare Soil with Vegetation.

On large areas used for annual plants, such as vegetable gardens, cover crops planted at the end of the growing season create a living mulch, protecting the soil during the winter months. In the spring, cut the stems of the cover crops and leave the vegetation on top of the soil, where it will decompose and add organic matter and nitrogen to the soil. For a more permanent plant cover, use low-maintenance perennial groundcovers – they are especially effective for erosion control on slopes.

Cornell University “Improve Your Soil with Cover Crops”
USDA NRCS Unlock the Secrets in the Soil: Discover the Cover

4. Avoid Applying Chemicals.

View your yard and garden as part of a healthy ecosystem. Avoid applying chemicals that can harm beneficial soil organisms (e.g., fungi, nematodes, and earthworms), which are essential for decomposing and recycling organic matter in the soil. Many pesticides will kill not only their intended targets, but also these vital soil organisms. Use Integrated Pest Management, the environmentally friendly alternative to conventional insect and disease control.

Create a Jersey-Friendly Yard:  Manage Pests
USDA NRCS Soil Quality Concerns: Pesticides

5. Minimize Watering.

Overwatering can erode soil, wash away nutrients, and undermine plant health. Plants need an adequate supply of water, but too much can be just as harmful to the health of plants as not enough. To determine if watering is needed, feel the soil at the base of the plant near the root zone. Water only when the soil feels dry down to 5 or 6 inches. Weekly soaking is better than daily light watering, which leads to shallow roots and weak plants.

Create a Jersey-Friendly Yard: Water Wisely

6. Keep it Loose – Avoid Compaction.

Healthy soil is typically 40-50% pore space. Compacted soil, or soil that has been pressed together from constant foot traffic, machinery, or heavy objects, can pose a problem for homeowners and gardeners. When soils are compacted, they lose pore space. Without pores, soils lose the ability to hold the water and air that plants need for healthy growth. Earthworms and other soil organisms cannot move freely Soil Healththrough compacted soil, and plant roots are unable to penetrate it.

The best way to deal with compaction is to avoid it in the first place.

Don’t work in or walk on wet soil.
Create pathways or install fences to direct foot and vehicular traffic, keeping it off areas you want to protect.
Cover bare soil with mulch or vegetation to protect it from heavy rains.
Leave plants in place – their roots keep soil porous and healthy.
Avoid over-tilling, which can do more harm than good by compacting soil and disrupting the activities of soil organisms.

Try the following practices to remedy any existing compaction in the yard.

Core Aerator graphic

Aerating your lawn areas helps encourage water seepage into the ground resulting in deeper root growth.

Aerate the soil to improve the natural movement of water and air. A core aerator removes plugs or “cores” from the soil and leaves them on the surface, creating channels through which air and water can move into the soil. The best time of the year to aerate lawns in New Jersey is in late summer/early fall, when cool season grasses are actively growing and the soil is only slightly moist. Local landscapers provide aeration services, or rent a core aerator to do it yourself.

Add organic matter (such as compost, grass clippings, and shredded leaves) to encourage earthworms and other decomposing organisms. Their activities will improve soil structure by pulling decomposing vegetation down into the soil and breaking it down. In severely compacted areas, organic matter can be tilled in up to 18 inches deep. In garden beds, try adding several inches of organic matter as a top dressing or mulch.

7. Go Native!

Native plants are well-adapted to our local soils and grow extensive root systems to find water and nutrients. Their roots create spaces in the soil to hold moisture and air, and they help prevent erosion by holding soil in place and increasing the movement of rainwater into the ground. Scientists are also finding that native plant roots release important nutrients needed by soil-building organisms.

New Jersey Native Plants

Additional Resources

New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) Soil Lab
Landscape for Life: Restore Compacted Soils
Cornell University: Dealing with Soil Compaction