Avoid temptation – don’t work soil while it's wet
Working the soil
Gardeners must be the some of the most fickle people. Only a month ago we were complaining about the lack of moisture and how it was going to affect this year’s crops. Now, only a few weeks later, and after 2 feet of snow, we are asking the question, when am I going to be able to plant the garden?
The traditional kickoff to vegetable gardening season has to be St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, as that’s when gardening folklore tells us we should be planting our potatoes for a good harvest. Now people are concerned that it will be too wet to plant, meaning our gardening chores will fall behind.
The key to getting into the garden is more than just a date on a calendar, but is also dictated by weather conditions. As we know, our weather patterns swing wildly — just look at the difference between this year and last. In 2012, we had daffodils in bloom in early March. This year the ground is buried deeply by mounds of snow.
Gardeners in a few weeks will be champing at the bit to get into the garden. That urge to till the soil and feel it between their fingers will be hard to resist. But let me tell you that one of the worst mistakes a gardener can make is jumping too early into tending the soil when it is wet.
It is best to resist the temptation to work any soil when wet. Doing so destroys the structure of the soil, resulting in clods that may not break down all summer. Structure is important. It dictates how air and water move through the soil. Once the structure is destroyed it will take work and more effort to build it back into a good form. This will require additional organic matter, proper tillage, and winter freezing and thawing to help restore the structure as the soil particles break apart naturally.
Here is a handy tip to determine if soil is too wet to work; grab a handful and squeeze. If water comes out, it is much too wet. Even if no water drips out, it still may not be dry enough to work.
Push a finger into the soil you squeezed. If it crumbles, it is dry enough. But if your finger just leaves an indentation, more time is needed. Be sure to take your handful of soil from the depth you plan to work the soil. The deeper you go into the soil the more moisture it will have compared, to the surface.
Tilling the soil in the fall helps with spring prep issues. When the soil is prepared in the fall all that is needed is a light raking and the upper surface dries most rapidly so that you can plant easier, reducing the wet soils issues. This also reduces over tillage which will destroy the structure.
Yes, gardening time is just around the corner, but don’t rush the temptation to work the soil when its wet, as the ill effects can linger all season long.