Itching to work your soil soon? Wait!

My seedlings want to go outside, but it’s too cold and snowy!

I don’t think any of us here in Maryland are interested in working in our gardens today – when I am it’s snowing quite hard – but soon enough it really will be spring and we’ll want to be out there planting, transplanting, and digging in soil amendments. I mean, we’ll really really want to be doing this. And… we have to wait.

Why? Because, in all likelihood, the soil won’t be ready for us. After all the snow melts, the soil underneath will be damp, wet, or even soggy; if we get typical March rains, it might be flooded in spots. You may be tough enough to go out and dig in the chilly rain, but you won’t do your garden any good. Working wet soil can ruin the potential for good plant growth all spring and even into summer. Wet soil is easily compacted when you step on it, till it, or turn it over with a shovel, and compacted soil loses the necessary air spaces between soil particles that plant roots need to thrive. And the thick clumps of soil that form when it’s worked wet are really hard to break up when they dry into rock-like masses.

How do you tell when the soil’s ready for you? Grab a handful of it, and form it into a ball. Can you squeeze water out of that ball? Then it’s definitely not ready. Can you break the ball up easily with your fingers, and does it fall apart into crumbly particles when you drop it? Then you are good to go. If not, wait another week and try again.

Raised bed gardeners and container gardeners, you may get a jump on the season over your in-ground friends, but watch cold soil temperatures and drainage issues. I’ve got some pots out there (that did have surviving cilantro in them until recently) with two inches of water on top despite plenty of holes in the bottom – the potting soil in between is frozen and won’t let water through, and is going to need a whole lot of fluffing up before I can plant anything in it (or I’ll just dump it and start over).

Those seedlings up above? My calendar says they should go out in the cold frames next week. That is, if I can find my cold frames under the snow…

One Comment on “Itching to work your soil soon? Wait!

  1. Well Erica, I love the comment about March rains, when we just received 8 inches of the white stuff. And yes, I have lots of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and onions ready for the cold frames which are stored in my shed.

    On the topic soil in the spring, Erica is absolutely correct about not working the soil when it is to wet. In fact, I do most of my soil improvement in the late fall or early winter. On beds that I am planting seeds in, I put around an inch of finished compost on top of the soil. This stops most of the winter annual weeds from sprouting. On beds that I am placing transplants in, I use either partially finished compost or chopped up leaves that I collect from my neighbors in the fall. This again stops the sprouting of winter weeds, but may cause the soil to warn up more slowly. On beds planted with kale, spinach and other winter hearty vegetables, I will just harvest crop and then spread compost on top, planting the follow-up crop into the compost.

    Another reason I do my soil prep in the early winter is that the freezing and thawing of the soil during the winter improves the tilth of the soil and makes the germination of small seeds more reliable since the soil won't form a crust. So I guess my suggestion is that rather than working the soil this spring, try the no-till method of spreading compost on at least one of your beds and planting through the compost. You'll be pleasantly surprised at the results.


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