View Full Version : Hardpan gardening.

07-07-2009, 11:28 AM
So, I have a large lot, and I love to garden.

I tried planting dwarf trees. We had dwarf trees when I was a boy. We were always canning our extra peaches. Ummm good!

Anyway, on my lot it is all hard pan. All my trees died. The cherries, the apples, the pears. Even the oak shade tree.. Dead. The pine tree did well but fell over in a windstorm because the roots were on the surface and couldn't get through the hardpan. I dig nice big holes and fill them with topsoil, but I bet they can't drain.

And a vegetable garden? Utter disaster. Heck, if it wasn't for pasture grass, I wouldn't even have a lawn.

Any ideas? Other than the obvious move and don't buy a place that is hard pan. Maybe start a brick factory or something, and buy fruit and vegies with that?

07-07-2009, 11:32 AM
Build yourself some raised beds, and fill them with mulch, you will have a garden then...


07-07-2009, 11:34 AM
Build yourself some raised beds, and fill them with mulch, you will have a garden then...


Does that work for trees?

07-07-2009, 11:59 AM
Steve, I too bought a piece of property that was hardpan clay. It wouldn't support anything but blackberries and trash pines (one of which fell over through the roof of the house and was why we got the property so cheaply).

The first thing I did was go to a local horse farm and clean out their stables. I brought it all home, and deep-plowed it into every inch of the property. Then I let it lay fallow for a year, hoeing the weeds and watering it to permit and encourage decomposition. Then I plowed it again and started planting.

You have to start the process of change within the soil. Waiting is hard, I know (drove me crazy not planting that first year!) but you have to break it up and mix in compostable, decomposing material to start the microbial chain reactions. We had worms! We had bugs! We had - soil. Soil that was not red and formed a hard ball in your hand, but black and fertile and that kept up the microbial action for the 20 years we lived there.

You can do raised-bed gardening to start and if you are impatient, but the only way to cure hardpan is to get it working in symbiosis with everything else.

07-07-2009, 12:01 PM
Try getting someone with a good sized tractor (50 hp or more) and a category II or III sub-soiler to break up the hard pan. You need to get the sub-soiler as deep as it will go. (you need to get down at least 18 inches or more) Then you can go over it with a 2 or 3 bottom plow to break it up more, but to get the soil suitable to garden you will need to till it with a pto rotor tiller.

07-07-2009, 12:25 PM
Agree with WRTN about using the sub-soiler first. That's what folks do around here, as we have heavy clay soils, too. As you do the initial tilling, also agree to work in as much organic material as possible. Even buying bales of peat moss to work in will help. Just keep in mind that you may have to add lime due to the acidity of the peat moss.

After your breakup that hard pan keep heavy equipment off the land. As a general rule, hardpan is the result of tilling to a limited depth on farm land, over the years, and from heavy equipment and traffic around new homes. One other factor is working the land when it's too wet. It's best of stay off potential garden, tree, crop areas completely after a rain and when the soil has winter moisture.

IMHO, you're right about the trees. I made the mistake of planting fruit trees in "bowls" that held water, when we move here. Lost every one of them within a year or two. Now, when I plant a tree or perennial shrub I use a tiller to loosen the soil over an area much larger than the "normal" recommendation for the planting hole. Then shovel out the loosened soil. The tiller breaks up that bowl wall so it's not just like a slick bowl. The wider tilled area gives more space for the young roots to more easily penetrate, especially with trees that don't have a long tap root. For many mature trees, the majority of the roots are in the first foot of soil, with the feeder roots much closer to the surface.

I'd also like to recommend that you check with your county extension service forestry service, and state university. Often they have the best advice for soil conditions in your area. Your soil may need an amendment that wouldn't apply in my area, for example. And, be sure to get a soil test. Depending on your area, it's likely that you'll need to add lime.

Hope some of this helps. Good luck with dealing with that hardpan.


07-07-2009, 03:05 PM
The reason I strongly suggest the subsoiler is that the year before last, I planted about 20,000 tree on a CRP conservation project. We had one field with soil that may concrete seem like Velveta cheese. :O) We just could not pull the tree planter through the soil. The water would puddle up and run off the top. Pulling the subsoiler took a good bit of power but it broke up the soil hard pan and allowed the water to drain better through the broken soil track of the sub-soiler. Once the sub-soiler cut lines across this field we were able to pull the tree planter MUCH easier. The pto rotor tiller is the best means although slow and expensive of tilling and loosening the soil once you have broken it with the sub-soiler. It is not very practicla for large areas though. For a few acres, it is just the ticket.

07-07-2009, 07:21 PM
As many of you here know, i do custom rotovateing, and i have been doing it many years... Here's one of the tractor/rotavators i use for these jobs...


Last spring an amish guy called me and said he had some pasture he wanted worked up. A couple days later, i loaded my tractor up and went over there. The pasture had never been worked in the 11 years he had owned it, and the horses he had on it, really had it compacted.

I couldn't get my rotavator to go more than a few inched deep, and he then told me he had a guy over with a big tractor and mouldboard plow, and they couldn't get it to go in either, even with weight on it. He asked me what he could do about it, and i told him to deep rip it, and then work it up.

About a week later he called and said he got it "ripped", and they tried to disk it too, but the disk just wasn't doing the job. I again loaded up and went over, and dang!, that field was full of huge clay clods and holes where they came out of!! I did get the field worked up, and he did get it planted...

My point being, the others "posting" about deep ripping and finishing the field with a rotovator (field tiller) IS the quickest way to start turning your hard pan field into something productive...

For your tree's, i'd add all the mulch around them i could, or even adding sandy top soil will help with heavy clay. Dig your holes deep, through the hard pan, and back fill with good soil...


07-07-2009, 10:17 PM

I'm beginning to think it may be easier just to grow blackberries. :-)

I just want a small garden, so I'll try raised beds first.

07-08-2009, 07:44 AM
Steve, there's nothing wrong with going with raised beds. Some folks use them by choice, and others because they don't have another choice.

That said, do spend some time checking out the cost effectiveness of this approach. (I don't have any idea how it will work out for you in your area.) When you consider the cost of materials to build and fill good sized raised beds, it can get expensive if you have to buy everything.

Before you take that step, check with landscapers in your area. It may be more cost effective for one of them to breakup that hardpan and get your garden space ready for you. Depending on what equipment you have and/or borrow, they may not need to do all of the prep for you.

Two reasons for mentioning this.

(1) Chances are your raised beds will do better if you've broken up that hardpan. It'll aid in good drainage. And some deep rooted plants may still have to contend with the hardpan. Carrots and asparagus are 2 that come to mind.

(2) The issue of your fruit trees probably won't be addressed with raised beds. Unless you have very deep raised beds (cost prohibitive?) trees planted in them may end up being so shallow rooted that watering can be a problem as well as them being more subject to being uprooted in strong winds.

So, don't give up on using your garden space until you've checked out your local resources. A local farmer or landscaper may be able to prep a small garden space for less than the cost and work of setting up raised beds.

Good luck in what you decide to do. There's nothing much better than a homegrown tomato!


07-08-2009, 12:22 PM
IMHO, you're right about the trees. I made the mistake of planting fruit trees in "bowls" that held water, when we move here. Lost every one of them within a year or two.


boy, you hit the nail on the head with that one - my neighbor put in nearly a hundred assorted fruit trees that grew like crazy for about six months and then ALL quit over a month or so - turns out he used a large auger to make holes for planting - filled the auger holes with well-supplemented soil and kept moisture levels adequate -

problem is, here with our red clay soil, an auger leaves a hole with sides and bottom as hard and smooth and shiny as expensive porcelain - the guy might just as well have planted his trees in buried plastic barrels -

07-08-2009, 02:02 PM

I'm beginning to think it may be easier just to grow blackberries. :-)

I just want a small garden, so I'll try raised beds first.


Another option that will to a limited degree improve the soil and reduce its compaction over time is to go over the area with a core aerator. A core aerator with core pluggers as long as possible will make small round core holes in the soil. This allows air, water and surface nutrients to get down deeper into the soil and over time the soil will loosen as it spread out to fill in the core holes.

This is NOT an idea solution and only addresses the issue of soil compaction to a limited degree. Short of doing nothing it would likely make a big improvement especially if you core aertated on regular and frequent basis.

Here is an example of a core aerator:


you can shop around and find cheaper versions that you can pull with small lawn tractors and weigh on top of the aerator.

Here is a much cheaper version:


This type does OK but is limited to residential type application:


07-08-2009, 05:35 PM
wrtn - i've been told that deep compaction can also be addressed using a "rotary plow" - do you know about these things, how they work, and, are they at all effective ?

07-08-2009, 08:35 PM
I have made quite a few raised beds in the last few years with bricks other people had discarded. I like using those. And I like the raised beds alot.

I also recommend reading Ruth Stout's No Work Gardening Handbook. She was the queen of mulch and you will learn alot.

Hope it works out good.