When I bought each house that I have owned, five to date, the properties all had one thing in common. Their soils had been abused or at least neglected for years. Whether they had clay, sand or silty soils, they had been vehemently raked, frequently mowed and most had been systematically denuded as well. Other than one place that had a sizable garden bed planted with perennial flowers, they were fairly well compacted and devoid of life.
When I started enriching the soils and building them back up, I imported manure and leaves, integrating them into the top layers of the soil. I immediately established a compost pile so that nutrients could be returned to the soils as well. Finally I developed garden beds that could be enriched annually with organic material and well-composted materials. A good first step in building soils is to break the surface. Especially in areas that have been compressed, allowing air in to the soils is the best thing you can do for creating a living matrix that I refer to as soil. Dirt is relatively inert.
One thing that makes sense to most everyone is that we cannot revive flagging soils overnight. What has taken years to destroy will take some time to recover. Once the surface has been broken, I add organic material. Leaves, compost, manure and yard waste are usually readily collected from even a small property. Integrate these into your annual soil building regimen. One property that was especially hard clay received an innovative approach. When it dries out, large cracks form in the surface. Occasionally these cracks can be six or eight inches deep. For these cracks, I tried a wonderful way to rehabilitate the earth. I bought a few bags of sand. Over the years I have purchased about twenty dollars worth. When a crack develops, I just pour sand in to fill the hole. A better idea might be to mix in a bit of sifted compost into the sand. Then, when the rains come, the clay swells again, slowly raising the surface and integrating the sand into the soil structure.
Over the past five years or so, this sort of treatment has improved the ability of water to permeate the surface and for the soils to remain moist through doughty times. Focusing on the surface or the lower horizons of the Earth is only part of the equation. Stand back and look at the area more broadly. Tall plants and trees can help recover waste land in ways that direct treatment of the soil cannot. One well-placed tree can provide enough shade to transform a wind-swept, dry or dusty area, making it more hospitable for organisms that lead to better soil health. Beware of taking the last of the moisture out of areas that don’t have enough moisture to begin with. Some trees can “pump” water out so effectively that they water starve other plants trying to grow in the soils around them.
Plan your paths well. To guard against compaction and your efforts will be rewarded. Try to make small changes rather than moving massive amounts of dirt. Consider your actions well before making changes, and again, take your time to see what develops!