5 Easy DIY Soil Care Tips to Extend Your Tree’s Life


Tree roots in soil

Turn your backyard dirt into gold, or at least into rich soil that your trees and landscape will thrive in. You’ll be on your way if you just follow our five simple tips for DIY soil care.

1. Know your soil type.

The first rule of DIY soil care is knowing your soil type. Soil pH and soil texture affect how well your trees and other plants absorb nutrients and water. Most plants prefer soil with a neutral pH (pH 6 – 7), but some prefer more alkaline or acidic soil.

A simple soil pH test: Collect 1 cup of soil from various parts of your landscape and put 2 spoonfuls into separate containers. Add 1/2 cup of vinegar to the soil. If it fizzes, you have alkaline soil (pH 7 – 8). If it doesn’t fizz after doing the vinegar test, then add distilled water to the other container until 2 teaspoons of soil are muddy. Mix in 1/2 cup baking soda. If it fizzes, you’ve got acidic soil (pH 5 – 6). If it does not react to either, you have the rare, enviable “neutral” soil. Congratulations!

Soil texture matters, too. Sandy soil feels gritty, loamy, silty soil feels smooth like flour, and clay-rich soil feels sticky and forms a ribbon if you knead it between your thumb and index finger.

Not sure of your soil texture? Here are some qualities of the two extremes, sand and clay:

Soil QualitiesSandClay
How does it hold water? PoorlyWell
How does it hold nutrients?PoorlyWell
How fast does water drain off?FastSlow
How easy is it for roots to grow?EasyDifficult

2. Improve the soils structure with organic matter.

No matter what kind of soil you have, you can improve its structure (make clay more porous, sand more water retentive, etc) by adding amendments. The best amendment for soil of any texture is organic matter – the decaying remains of plants and animals. As it decomposes, organic matter releases nutrients that are soaked up by soil-dwelling microorganisms. The combination of these creatures’ waste products and their remains (humus) binds with soil particles. In clay-rich soil, it forces tightly packed particles apart and improves drainage. This makes the soil more penetrable. In sandy soil, it lodges in the large pore spaces and acts as a sponge, slowing drainage to help the soil stay moist longer.

Adding amendments benefits the soil structure around trees and other permanent plantings, too. Simply spread the amendment over the soil surface, like a mulch. Worms, bugs, and rain will carry it downward over time and gradually improve the soil’s top layer. If your plant has deeper roots, hasten the improvement process by using a three-pronged cultivator to mix the amendment into the top inch of soil.

3. Loosen compacted soil.

If your soil is too compact, roots will have a harder time growing, and water will percolate more slowly into the ground. This translates to poor plant growth. Ideally, you can avoid soil compaction altogether. Create paths and walkways to minimize foot traffic on the lawn. Aerate the soil every fall to improve air flow and drainage. For smaller areas, amend the soil by working in organic matter (see above), which will gradually enhance the quality of the soil.

4. Improve yard drainage.

If your yard turns into a swamp after a rainstorm, you need to improve the soil’s drainage. Poor drainage can be a serious health hazard. But before you start digging a trench, step back and figure out where the excess water is coming from. The problem could be as simple as a downspout that needs to be redirected, or a sump pump discharge pipe that needs to move. In areas with persistently poor drainage, consider installing drainage tiles. They do involve a lot of digging, but the effort pays off. Trenches, French drains, rain gardens, and sump pumps are other options for more serious drainage problems. Such issues can be serious and may be easier solved by a full-service company. The professionals at Elite Tree Care have a great deal of experience solving soil problems. Call them at 610-935-2279 for a free consultation.

5. Work with what you’ve got.

This might seem like common sense, but consider the kind of soil you have before buying new trees and plants for your property. Certain trees are more tolerant of clay-rich soil, for example. Amend very dry or clay-rich soil with better quality soil or organic matter before putting a new tree or shrub in the ground to help it take root and thrive.

6. Combine DIY soil care with help from Elite professionals.

If you’ve tried our DIY soil care tips but want more ways to improve your soil and landscape, contact Elite at 610-935-2279. Our team of expert arborists offer a range of soil management services to help extend the life of your shrubs and trees.