Understanding Soil Compaction

Soil compaction is the hardening of soil due to continuous wheel or foot traffic which squeezes the air from between the soil particles. Compacted soil has its density increased and its pore spaces reduced. This has the result of decreasing the ability of water to infiltrate through the soil into the ground. This creates surface runoff that can carry pollution, creates standing water for mosquitoes, and increases flooding.


Compaction is a major problem that inhibits the growth of plant roots which affects the health of crops, pastures, and landscape vegetation.



Plant roots are unable to penetrate the soil as it becomes denser and little root growth occurs, except if there are cracks in the soil that can be followed by plant roots. The plant roots are unable to develop enough force as they grow to penetrate the compacted soil.


The organisms that live in soil can also find that compaction affects their environment. Compaction makes it more difficult to dig through the soil to create burrows and homes. Animals, like earthworms, can’t dig to find food to survive. This has the affect of impacting other organisms higher up the food chain.



Possible Signs of Soil Compaction

What to Look For:
There are some outward signs that you can observe to identify where soil compaction may be occurring in your yard or property:

Look for areas that have obvious signs of heavy foot traffic. Areas with exposed soil in continuous pathways, and a lack of vegetation may indicate soil compaction.


Look for areas where shallow or surface roots are found, because the roots can’t grow downward through the compacted soils. Also look for areas where vegetation is lacking that are not associated with footpaths.


Areas where water ponds on the ground can indicate where water can’t infiltrate due to compaction. These could also indicate areas where clay soils are creating a barrier to water.


These signs may also be related to other issues with your soil, so make sure you look into what types of soils are present or conduct a soil test.




Dealing with Soil Compaction

What to Do:

Reducing or eliminating compaction can be accomplished in many ways at home. Use any or all of the following methods to manage compaction in your yards:

  • Limit or ban the use of heavy machinery on wet soils as soils can become more compacted when they are wet. Wait for soils to dry before driving or walking over them.
  • Restrict or redirect foot traffic in specific areas of your landscape. Lining paths with stone, mulch, or pavers can help prevent people from walking over large areas of your yard.
  • Aerate the soil to help improve the ability of plants to take up necessary nutrients.
  • Mechanically break up compacted soils by either hand digging and turning over the soil or use a tiller to fracture soils.
  • Remove and replace topsoil with uncompacted soil.
  • Add compost or another amendment to the soil to reduce compaction. Blend in the compost with a tiller.
  • Create raised beds for garden plantings.




For more information, contact Steve Yergeau, County Agent III, at yergeau@njaes.rutgers.edu or 732-505-3671.

Cooperative Extension of Ocean County