How to Improve Compacted Soil


Gardeners spend January sitting by a cozy fire reading garden sales catalogues. I can’t. My New Year’s Resolutions are too URGENT. Please help me improve years and years of compacted (probably still clay-ish) soil. My garden is just SAD.

Your question is clear, simple, and not uncommon, but compacted soil is the hardest garden problem to fix, partly because you need to change your own mind about it. Improvement cannot be swift. It takes patience. And work. Address obvious causes of compaction first, of course. Do not walk anywhere on your soil — make stepping stones or a path for planting, weeding and watering. Then you must mix organic materials thoroughly with existing soil. Into the top six or seven inches of your garden, fork or dig bark, sawdust, manure, leaf mold, compost and peat moss. Slowly earthworms, insects, bacteria and fungi will transform your soil into soil nutrients and humus, with enough air that water can enter and plant roots thrive. Ultimately you will have crumbly soil that you can dig with your hands. That’s the tilth you need, and you are in it for the long haul.

What about coffee grounds? Mother used to add them to the soil of her peerless garden. I think I’ve read that they really don’t help — why not?

Used coffee grounds, which are categorized as “green” compost, add nitrogen to a compost pile, but not to your garden soil until they can be balanced by other composted “brown” (or carbon-providing) materials such as wood chips or sawdust. Confusing? Coffee grounds (used, not fresh) do attract worms, and make soil look dark and healthy. Using un-composted coffee grounds does not help much in the garden, but it does get rid of the coffee grounds.

I wonder if you know whether there exists a squirrel-proof bird feeder. I was hoping for one that doesn’t drop any seeds or seed shells on the ground, so that I won’t have squirrels and rodents coming to eat off the ground in my backyard. 

The Audubon Society in Chevy Chase (301-652-9188) sells feeders with squirrel baffles. If you use a suet-only feeder you’ll miss many of the loveliest birds. An article in Sapsucker Woods, the magazine of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY, touts safflower seeds as distasteful to squirrels, but there’s anecdotal evidence against that (squirrels seen eating these). Squirrels are a problem the Problem Lady needs help with – please!

Beatrix Potter knew how impertinent squirrels can be.

2022 meetings of the Capitol Hill Garden Club resume on Zoom on the second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. Meetings are free and open to all. The club welcomes new members. Dues are $50/year. Please visit for program information.