Are These Soil Problems Harming Your Trees?

Have you noticed that your trees, shrubs, or landscape plants aren’t as green, healthy, or vibrant as they should be? If they seem otherwise undamaged, there could be soil problems affecting your plants. From nutrient leaching to erosion, waterlogged soils, and soil compaction, there are a host of common problems with the types of soil found in northern New Jersey.

Don’t let your trees decline because of unhealthy soil! Many soil issues have relatively simple solutions.

In This Article

  • Discover why your trees may be struggling: Northern New Jersey’s diverse soil types, from acidic Booton series to sandy Downer soils, can significantly impact plant health in unexpected ways.
  • Uncover the hidden threats to your garden: From erosion and compaction to nutrient runoff, learn about the common soil problems that could be silently sabotaging your landscape.
  • Become a soil detective: Find out how to assess your garden’s soil quality through simple observations, tests, and even the presence of certain weeds.
  • Master the art of soil compaction diagnosis: Learn to spot the telltale signs of compacted soil and perform easy DIY tests to determine if your yard is suffering from this common soil problem.
  • Unlock the secrets to thriving trees: Discover why regular soil sampling and testing are crucial investments in the long-term health and vitality of your landscape.

What types of soils do we have in Northern New Jersey?

Northern New Jersey is characterized by various soil types with different properties that can impact tree growth.

Rockaway series soil, a brown, gravely loam, is the most common soil type found in northern New Jersey (including major sections of Hunterdon, Mercer, Union, Essex, and Bergen counties).

In Bergen county, we have three dominant soils, including the acidic Booton series soil which can affect the availability of nutrients for plants, trees, and shrubs.

FUN FACT – Just like New Jersey has a state tree (the northern red oak) it also has an official state soil. Downer soils are sandy, yellowish soils found throughout much of the southern part of the state, particularly in the Pine Barrens.

Soil erosion around the roots of a tree in Clifton, NJ.

Soil erosion around tree roots, particularly for trees growing on a slope, can create a hazardous situation as the tree is no longer securely anchored. Call an arborist for a tree risk assessment to evaluate your tree and determine if it should be removed for safety reasons.

What are some common soil problems in northern New Jersey?

Some common soil health issues in northern New Jersey include:

Soil Erosion

Heavy downpours and increased precipitation in the region can lead to soil erosion, washing away nutrients and affecting soil structure. Sediment runoff into streams and lakes affects the health of our waterways and aquatic life, and removes vital soil components from the land.

Compacted Soil

Soil compaction, caused by factors like constant foot traffic, machinery, or heavy objects, can reduce pore space in the soil. Compacted soil hinders water and air infiltration necessary for plant growth, restricts root development, and limits the movement of beneficial soil organisms like earthworms.

Nutrient Runoff and Leaching

Excessive rainfall can lead to nutrient runoff from soils into water bodies, affecting water quality, contributing to environmental issues such as algal blooms, and reducing soil fertility.

Poor Drainage / Waterlogged Soil

Soil with poor drainage can lead to waterlogging, which negatively impacts plant growth by depriving roots of oxygen. Improving drainage through proper soil management practices is essential for healthy plant development.

How can I fix these soil issues?

Most of these soil health problems can be addressed through proper soil and landscape management practices.

For example, the simple steps below can help improve soil quality, support plant growth, and enhance the overall health of ecosystems in northern New Jersey.

  • Implementing erosion control measures, such as
    • planting grasses and shrubs with fibrous root systems,
    • installing retaining walls or terracing a sloped area,
    • strategically placing rip rap (rocks) on low-gradient slopes, or
    • using netting or mesh soil covers to hold soil in place.
  • Soil aeration to relieve soil compaction. This is often performed with a special piece of equipment called an air spade that uses high-pressure compressed air to gently remove soil from around tree and shrub roots without damaging them.
  • Regularly adding organic matter to the soil, such as by incorporating compost into the soil or spreading a layer of organic mulch on the soil surface
  • Measuring and adjusting the soil pH as needed to keep it in the optimal range for your plants
Woman using a soil pH tester to evaluate the soil in her garden.

Although a professional soil test performed in a laboratory will give the most accurate results, soil pH testing kits and tools will give you a quick, general idea of your soil’s pH.

How do I know if the soil in my northern NJ garden is good or bad for the health of the trees on my property?

To determine if the soil in your garden is suitable for the trees (and other plants) on your property, we recommend these steps:

  • Conduct a Soil Analysis: Send a soil sample to a testing lab for a complete soil analysis to assess the soil’s pH, nutrient levels, and other essential parameters. This will provide valuable insights into the soil’s health and guide you on necessary improvements for tree growth.
  • Observe Soil Characteristics: Take note of the soil’s color, texture, and structure. Healthy soil is typically dark brown, soft, and crumbly, indicating good health. Compacted or hard soil may hinder tree growth and nutrient uptake.
  • Check Soil pH: Soil pH is crucial for plant growth as it affects nutrient availability. Most plants prefer a pH range of 6.1 to 6.8. Understanding your soil’s pH can help you determine if it is suitable for tree health or if adjustments are needed.
  • Assess Drainage: Poor drainage can lead to waterlogging, affecting root health and nutrient uptake. Ensure that your soil has adequate drainage to support tree growth.
  • Look for Soil Organisms: Healthy soil is teeming with beneficial organisms like earthworms that contribute to soil health. The presence of these organisms indicates good soil quality.

These steps will help you evaluate whether your soil is suitable for the trees and other plants in your garden and make informed decisions to improve soil quality and promote healthy tree growth on your property.

What does “soil compaction” mean?

Soil compaction is a common problem throughout northern New Jersey.

Healthy soil typically has 40-50% pore space. When soil is compacted, such as by constant foot traffic, machinery, or heavy objects, the component parts are pressed together and the soil loses pore space.

Without pores, soil cannot hold the water, nutrients, and air that trees need for healthy growth, leading to stunted tree growth and poor overall health. Earthworms and other soil organisms cannot move freely through compacted soil, and plant roots are unable to penetrate it.

Does soil sampling help identify soil compaction?

Soil compaction can negatively affect tree growth. It can sometimes be identified visually (more on that below, but soil sampling is a far more accurate way to evaluate compaction in soil.

A man holding a handful of light brown soil as he checks for soil compaction in a Hasbrouck Heights, NJ neighborhood.

How else can I tell if the soil in my northern NJ yard is compacted?

Visual Signs of Soil Compaction

To determine if the soil in your northern New Jersey yard is compacted, look for the following visual signs:

Unusual Soil Appearance

Look for signs of compaction such as surface crust, “platy” soil structure resembling stacked plates, or large dense clods.

Poor Drainage

Compacted soil often has poor drainage due to reduced pore space, leading to water pooling on the surface rather than infiltrating into the ground. If you notice water pooling or slow absorption after rainfall, it could indicate soil compaction.

Reduced Plant Growth

Plants struggling to grow or showing signs of stress, such as stunted growth or yellowing leaves, can be a sign of compacted soil. Compacted soil restricts root development and nutrient uptake, affecting tree growth and overall health.

Presence of Specific Weeds

Some weeds thrive in compacted soil conditions. If you notice these noxious plants taking over your yard, it’s a pretty good sign that the soil isn’t conducive to growing healthy trees or shrubs.

  • Ground Ivy (Creeping Charlie)
  • Annual Sow Thistle
  • Japanese Knotweed

Observation of Soil Structure

Check the structure of the soil by digging a small hole. Compacted soil may lack visible pore spaces and will be tightly packed.

How to Test for Compacted Soil

Beyond the visual cues that indicate possible soil compaction, you can perform several simple tests to confirm your initial diagnosis.

Soil Hardness Test

Compacted soil feels hard and dense to the touch but that’s not always a reliable indicator of soil compaction. Instead, use a probe or a wire flag to assess soil hardness. Push the probe or wire into the soil and measure how deep it can penetrate.

  • If the probe goes in easily to a depth of 12 inches or more, the soil is likely not compacted.
  • If it reaches between 4 to 12 inches without bending, the soil condition is fair.
  • However, if it bends at less than 4 inches, the soil is considered compacted.

Digging Test

Use a shovel, spade, or trowel to dig into the soil in suspected compacted areas. If the soil is hard and resistant to digging, exhibits a surface crust, or has dense clods, it may be compacted.

Soil Smell Test

Smell your soil after digging. Healthy soil should have an earthy and fresh smell. Foul odors like rotten eggs can indicate poor drainage due to compacted conditions.

PRO TIP: Test for soil compaction when the soil is moist but not saturated. Moist soil that is hard and difficult to dig through or break up may indicate compaction. Avoid testing dry soil as it will always seem harder.

Call Aspen Tree to Fix Your Soil Problems!

Don’t wait until your trees show signs of stress. By addressing any problems with your soil today, you’re investing in the longevity and health of your trees and shrubs for years to come.

If you’d like to ensure your trees, shrubs, and landscape plants are set up to thrive, call the experienced, local arborists at Aspen Tree at (201) 939-8733 to schedule a property inspection, perform soil testing, provide you with a thorough soil analysis, and give you recommendations to improve your soil quality to keep your trees healthy and looking their best.

Casey Walentowicz

Casey Walentowicz founded Aspen Tree Services in 1986 in Clifton, New Jersey, and specializes in residential, Commercial, municipal, HOA, and utility-related tree service. He’s a 2nd generation arborist who’s devoted his career to furthering his knowledge of tree care, urban forestry management, and technical operations in the tree service industry. Learn more about Casey