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Soil Hard to Dig? The Causes and Solutions Explained

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It can be very frustrating when trying to work with soil that is really hard to dig. However, there are reasons behind this and easy fixes that you can employ to fix hard soils.

Soil can become hard to dig when it becomes too dry. Soil that has a high clay content will be the hardest to dig into. Hard soil can be dug easily with the aid of machinery such as a rototiller; however, planting cover crops and using soil amendments can prevent soil from getting hard to dig into.

Additionally, compacted soil causes plants to grow slowly and often die out because there isn’t enough air space for roots to expand and reach water and nutrients.

This article will explain why soils are hard to dig as well as what you can do to help make easy work of even the most stubborn soil.

How to Break Up Compacted Soil

Soil Hard to Dig

Try using a rototiller instead of a hand tool.

To loosen soil using a rototiller, first prepare the area where you plan to work by removing weeds and debris.

If needed, add some water to help the soil become more pliable.

A rototiller utilizes two or three rotating blades to break up compacted soil. The blades cut through the topsoil layer, loosening it so that it’s easier to remove.

Tilt the tiller from side to side to loosen compacted dirt, working back and forth until the soil is broken into small workable pieces.

Use a garden fork

A garden fork can make easy work of hard soil because of the sharp spike that penetrates into the soil when force is applied.

The best way to use a garden fork is to push it down into the ground at an angle so that the spikes penetrate deeply. This will allow you to loosen the soil without lifting or dragging it out of place.

Gently pull the fork back up as you continue to push it down. Repeat this process several times to loosen the soil.

Rain Makes Soil soft

You can take the opportunity to remove hardened topsoil after it rains because it is looser and easier to work.

The rain adds moisture to the soil, causing the soil particles to swell and loosen. This makes the soil easier to break apart when you dig, which means you can dig faster and more profound than normal.

This is especially true when you dig in clay soil. Clay soil is very sticky and hard to work with because it binds together easily.

When rain falls on clay soil it makes it easier to break apart, making an easy job when digging into it.

Impacts Of Hard Soil

Hard soil is a common problem; if you don’t know what type of soil you have, you could make costly mistakes.

Prevent Proper Plant Growth

In fact, hard soil can prevent plants from thriving, even if they do manage to survive. Water pools around the root zone, causing rot and disease.

Plants struggle to absorb nutrients and water. And because there isn’t enough space for roots to spread out, plants tend to wilt and die.


Another more devastating effect is flooding, which can wreak havoc on crops during times of heavy rainfall.

The reasoning behind flooding is that the water will sit and pool on top of soil because the surface tension of the soil is greater than that of the water that is being applied to it.

Other causal factors include soil composition, compaction, dryness, and drainage ability.

The difference in bonding forces causes the water to pool at the surface for some time before fully absorbing into the soil.

How to Soften Hard Soil

Compost on soil

Soften the soil with water

If you live in a drought-stricken area, chances are you’re already familiar with this concept. But did you know that you can use water to help improve soil quality?

There are many ways to soften the soil. One of the easiest methods involves sprinkling water over your garden beds and then waiting until the ground becomes soft enough to dig.

This method works well for small gardens where you won’t need to move heavy loads of dirt.

Add Ground Cover to Hold in Moisture

A ground cover such as vines that run along the ground and mulches can shield the soil’s surface against harsh sunny weather, which can cause soil to become rock hard.

Apart from shielding the ground, when used correctly, mulches can lock in moisture from escaping the soil through evaporation as it acts as an insulative seeing over the soil.

Mulching doesn’t have to be expensive as any organic matter, such as leaves, wood chips, hay or dead grass clipping, can be used to cover soil that is known to go hard over time.

When you are ready to dig into the soil, you can easily remove the mulched layer or ground cover crop and start digging.

Plants To Grow In Hard Soil

Roots and the way they grow can penetrate into the soil making it easier to work with. However, not all plants have such a rigorous root system.

Plants which such root systems are:

  • Impatiens.
  • Lantana.
  • Marigold.
  • Coneflower.
  • Joe Pye weed.
  • Virginia bluebells.
  • Bee balm.
  • Penstemon.

What Causes Soil to Become Hard to Dig

When soil becomes too dry, it gets really hard to dig. This is true for soils with a high clay content its workability significantly decreases when it becomes too dry.

The Soil is allowed to get too dry.

When the soil is allowed to dry for some time the surface tension increases, preventing water from being absorbed.

Whenever potted plants are exposed to certain environments, the soil can dry out pretty quickly.

Such conditions are

  • Too much sunlight –

    The plant is subjected to too much direct sunlight which heats up the surface of the soil and dries up the moisture in that region.
  • High air flow –

    Whenever the wind is high the evaporation rate will increase, causing the surface of the soil to dry out quickly.
  • High Humidity –

    As the humidity of the air around the potted plant increases so does the rate of evaporation.

    This directly affects the soil as water is evaporated from it, causing it to become dry.

How to Prevent Soil from Getting Hard

The easiest way to fix compacted soil is to spread some organic matter over the area. This helps loosen the soil and allows oxygen to penetrate the soil.

You can use compost, shredded leaves, wood chips, straw, or sand. Mixing the organic matter into the soil is another option. However, mixing too much organic matter into the soil can cause the soil to go in the other direction and cause it to become loose.

If you don’t want to dig up and replace the soil, you can try breaking up the compacted soil manually.

Simply mix the organic matter into a pile about 3 to 6 inches high and then push it down into the soil.

Repeat this process every few months to keep the soil loose.

Prevent Unnecessary work when Digging into hard Soil

If you are digging deep into the ground or digging too many rows at once, you may be working harder than you need to. If you want to make sure you don’t go too deep, try this:

1. Measure how far below the surface you wish to plant seeds or seedlings.

2. Calculate how much space you need between each row.

3. Divide the distance between the bottom of the hole and the depth you measured above by the number of rows you want to plant.

4. Multiply the result by two to get the total amount of space you need between rows.

In conclusion, hard soil makes it difficult to dig down, so be patient and work slowly.

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