Many trees in our yards battle an unseen danger: compacted soil.

That’s when the particles of the soil are packed together so tightly that air and water can’t find a way between them to get to the roots.

Soil often gets packed down in back yards and in parks and parkways, where children play and where there is a lot of foot traffic. Compaction also can result from heavy loads on the soil, such as parked cars, construction equipment, or piles of building materials like bricks or concrete.

Compacted soil makes it hard for a tree to absorb the water and nutrients it needs, and it’s a poor environment for the microorganisms that work with a tree’s roots. Over time, a tree in compacted soil may decline in health or even die.

Once soil is compacted around tree roots, the condition is extremely difficult to reverse. It’s better to do everything you can to keep the soil from getting packed down in the first place.

To prevent compacted soil:

Mulch around trees. A wide layer of mulch over a tree’s root zone will discourage people from walking or playing there.

Let soil dry out. When it’s wet, soil is easily compacted, so let it dry out thoroughly before you walk on it.

Place steppingstones or make paths. If you know you will need to cross a tree’s root zone often, place a few steppingstones to distribute your weight. In high-traffic areas, make a path (using pavers so water can seep through).

Plan construction projects carefully. Before the project starts, fence off the root zone of a tree at least as far as the branches extend. Store materials and equipment on a paved surface such as the driveway. Avoid driving or carrying heavy loads across the soil if you can. If it’s unavoidable, lay sheets of thick plywood over the soil to help distribute the weight. After the project, watch a tree carefully for signs of decline. It may take several years for damage from compacted soil to show up.

Trees are generally hearty and built to withstand extreme elements offered by Mother Nature.  Often the biggest threats they face are those from simple child’s play or too much activity near their roots.  Simple precautions to protect the soil around them will go along way toward ensuring their fundamental growing conditions.