April 7, 2014

Take steps to protect your soil

By JOLENE WALLACE, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — Have you seen anything green yet? Grass, trees leafing out or crocuses putting in an appearance?

As I write this I am hard pressed to find something green that isn’t leftover St. Patrick’s Day décor or something in the far reaches of my fridge. 

I have, however, noticed that when I walk on the brown stuff that may be lawn again one day soon, there is a give to the soil beneath my feet. This is a good sign that the ground is thawing and also a sign that I shouldn’t be walking there.

We are all eager to get outside and enjoy some moderate temperatures and the warmth of the sun on our faces. In our enthusiasm to rake debris and cut back perennials in preparation for their spring growth, we need to be mindful of the soil. That give beneath our feet is the soil compacting. 

Think of walking on fluffy snow. The snow is fluffy because of the shape of the individual crystals and the air between them. I’m sure you still remember what happens when you step on snow, since your last experience may have been just this morning. When you step on the snow, it compacts. The crystals are broken down and the air is pushed out. The same happens when you walk on soil that is too wet.

Soil is made up of aggregates of clay, sand and silt. These aggregates have pockets between them where air and water collect. The roots of plants count on this air and water to sustain them. When we walk on soil that is too wet, we push the aggregates together, eliminating these pockets that are vital for the roots of plants. Just as snow doesn’t “bounce back” once we compact it, neither can our soil.

Once the soil dries out and can be worked, we still need to be mindful of compaction. I have a path of compacted earth indicating the route Ollie takes to his favorite potty place. The grass will never be as healthy as the rest of the grass in the yard as long as Ollie maintains this path. The same holds true for any area that is routinely compacted; around the kids’ playground equipment, the place you park the tractor, the area around the clothesline or pool.

Compaction compromises the ability of growing plants, shrubs and trees to get the nutrients they need via their root systems. 

When we bought the lot where we live there were three nice birch trees. There is one left and it’s not so nice. The compaction of the soil around the trees by heavy equipment used during the construction of our house made it impossible for the trees to get what they needed from the soil. Two are dead and gone, the third may have a few years left but is obviously stressed and doing poorly.

Staying off the soil in your yard and flower and vegetable gardens until it dries some, and then being mindful of how and where you walk, will go a long way to giving your plants a good start to the season.


The Sarah A. Munsil Library in Ellenburg Depot is hosting a program called “Don’t Treat Your Soil Like Dirt” from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday, April 26. Good soil is crucial to a good garden and the Master Gardener volunteers will give you tips on how to make the most of your soil. This is a free program and is open to everyone. Please RSVP to 561-7450 or

On Sunday, May 4, Cornell Cooperative Extension is hosting orchardist Dillon Klepetar, who will lead a hands-on workshop on grafting fruit trees to improve fruit production and mitigate damage caused by girdling by animals or our harsh winter. This beginner’s workshop will be held at the extension office at 6064 State Route 22, Suite 5, Plattsburgh, from 10 a.m. to noon. Your registration fee of $20 includes an apple tree that you will take home. Space is limited. Call 561-7450 to register or contact Jolene Wallace at

If you have ever thought you might want to be a Master Gardener volunteer, now is the time to act. We are currently recruiting Master Gardener trainees for Clinton and Essex counties. Contact Jolene at 561-7450 or for more information or an application. 

Jolene Wallace is the horticulture educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. Contact her at 561-7450 or