Working With Impossible Soils: How to Avoid Really Hard Labor

Updated on May 2, 2019
Paul Wallis profile image

I am experienced in landscaping and love giving advice to others for their own projects.


Roots vs. Soils: The Big Issue for Gardeners

Most gardeners don’t mind some hard work, but they don’t necessarily want to be digging the Suez Canal by hand or excavating the Rockies. “Impossible” soils are those wonderful additions to every garden which just won’t do anything. They can be soggy, rocklike, or just barren and uncooperative. The problem for the gardener is that they have to be managed and turned into something useful.

Before You Do Anything

The first step in dealing with tough soils is to check them out in detail. The soil is the local history of that area, every single part of it.

  • Highly impacted soils usually mean there’s a history of soil composition, including sand, involved. These soils are literally like rocks. The sand also affects the nature of the drainage, and if on a slope, can be cut to pieces by too much water.
  • Barren soils may involve prior usage of chemicals, herbicides, poor drainage, or too few nutrients, or a combination of these factors.
  • Old industrial land can have some truly strange chemical cocktails in it, including a lot of petrol, which is no help to plants, and may be toxic. (Important note: Do not plant food crops in this soil, unless you’re 200% sure it’s safe to do so.)
  • Old farmland can have similar properties to industrial, but may have been rendered infertile by too many fertilizers and the crops themselves, which literally leach nutrients out of the ground, which is sucked dry.
  • Clay is a very mixed blessing. If it’s on a slope, it can be a real problem, and should be checked for stability.
  • Rocky soils are more trouble than they’re worth. Unless you want to start a quarry, any soil with a lot of embedded gravel and sand is probably an exposed old river bed or post glacial deposits.

Checking the Soil for Digging

Highly impacted soils are more trouble than they’re worth for digging. If you can’t get your spade into the soil deeply, it’s likely to be hard labor, particularly if it’s flat ground. There is a way to break up this soil manually, but it involves using a crowbar and if you want to experience arthritis without actually having arthritis, that’s how.

If the soil is too hard, the “no dig” option is definitely the best. The good news is that raised beds and supports will sit securely in this soil, but you’ll need to hammer in the corners and supports for your beds. Soil stability also needs to be covered, and may require retaining walls, tree and grass planting or cutting back the soil on slopes to reduce the risk of a mudslide.

Barren soils may be improved by a combination of compost, worms and a version of the “no dig” methods, in which the soil is lightly turned, but not actually dug deeply. There’s no point in digging this sort of soil, because it provides a lot of soil volume but it’s basically filler. The real work for plantings will be done by the imported soils. The idea is to break the surface and allow the new soil to “grow” downwards, as the live chemistry in the new soil breaks up the old soil.

Clay should either be left alone or stabilized with trees and bushes. Roses like clay, because it’s acidic, but other plants really don’t. You can break up clay with lime, but it’s very hard work, particularly if there’s a lot of clay. Soil placed over base clay should be thick, fibrous, and have a layer of sand or gravel underneath. Treat the soil as bedrock, like the other “no dig” scenarios.

Old farmland soils should be thoroughly broken up, like the barren soils, to a depth of about six inches, but no more. They’re used to getting dug up, but the lower levels aren’t. A lot of compost and patient application of nutrients with the right NPK mix, and in some cases nitrogen rich crops like Lucerne will rehabilitate this soil.

Chemically compromised soil is tricky, at best. Old industrial sites are often so old there are no accurate records of its use. You may want to send soil samples for testing before planting anything. These soils can be cosmetically fixed, and you can add a good layer of soil over it, but it’s advisable to cover it with sand or some other complete cover, to create a layer of separation between it and your plantings. Leachates from these soils can include lead, heavy metals, mercury, and other undesirables.

Rocky soil, without exception, should be covered thickly with compost and soil mix. The good news about rocky soils is that their drainage is usually excellent. If you’re growing plants which don’t like getting their feet wet, these soils can be adapted like rockeries, and will be fine as long as the plants have good footings and enough nutrients.

If you’re not sure, check out the local plants growing in the area. Trees and grasses in particular, if they’re natives, can rehabilitate poor soils by breaking them up with their roots and restarting the local soil chemistry. This is the cheap, all purpose option for the impossible soils, and it’s much less hard work.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image

      James lambert 

      11 months ago

      How to break up clay soils

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      9 years ago from London, UK

      Good advice thank you.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)