When temperatures start to warm, gardeners can’t wait to get their gardening itches scratched. We imagine our tools in their sheds eager, too: shovels twitching to start digging; rototillers giddy at the thought of spinning their tines through the soil; and garden gloves dancing with joy to dig in the dirt again.
One of the biggest mistakes gardeners make is working in clay-filled garden soil too soon. We destroy the soil structure, ending up with compacted soil filled with concrete-like clumps under a hard crusty surface once the soil dries.
Soil is a mixture of inorganic matter, organic matter, water and air. Healthy soil has enough of each of these to support plants. Generally, inorganic matter – particles of sand, silt and clay – is 45%; organic matter – dead and living microorganisms, dead animals and decaying plants – is 5%; water is 25%; and air is 25% of soil volume.
Yup, you read that correctly. Fifty percent of soil volume is water and air space – the precious space where roots spread and grow.
Soil compaction happens when soil particles are packed down, squeezing out air space. Footsteps and digging in muddy soil decrease valuable water and air space. Poor drainage, reduced permeation of rainfall, and poor root growth are typical problems of compacted soil.
Clay-filled soils swell with water as snow melts and early spring rains fall. Water bullies air out of its space and saturates clay particles, resulting in wet and sticky soil.
But the weather is warm, the sun is shining, and our green thumbs are twiddling anxiously. How do we know when it’s safe to go back in the garden? It’s simple. Just grab that trowel that’s begging you to put it to work and dig a small amount of soil from the garden. Squeeze it in your hand and then release your fingers. If you look down at a solid ball of wet goo, it’s way too early to dig. Wait several days and try again.
If your hand holds a loose ball that can be crumbled apart or it breaks apart when you drop it in the garden, you are good to grow.
Keep in mind the top couple inches of soil dry faster with the warmth of the sun. If the soil is still too wet to work deeper but the top inch or so is giving the green light and your case of spring fever has reached desperate proportions, plant some seeds like sweet peas or lettuce.
Once we are well into the growing season, add organic matter to the garden at every opportunity. Use it as compost and add some to the soil whenever planting. Soils rich with organic matter drain faster, warm up quicker in the spring, and increase beneficial microorganisms that continue to improve the soil.
Don’t practice premature cultivation! Stay calm and when the time is right, garden with me!