So many gardeners that I visit with are not only tired of the wet weather and wet soil but are getting anxious that the wet ground is keeping them from getting their spring gardens into shape.
I’ve been joking with folks around here that we should start growing rice. I also wonder if we could use a flat bottom jon boat with an outboard Evinrude to till up the muddy ground without getting stuck.
All humor aside, this wet ground is going to slow gardens down and getting that tiller into your wet, soggy soil sets up a garden for long term problems.
Soil is supposed to have “structure”. Have you ever taken a shovel full of good soil and noticed how it crumbles? Good soil has that structure. Without getting to technical, optimum soil structure allows water to percolate thru, roots to thrive, and earthworms to tunnel in.
We turn under the soil, or “till” it, for a number of good reasons. Tilling controls weeds and prepares a seed bed. That beautiful, freshly tilled ground is made ready for planting and has eliminated competition.
Tilling also manages crop residues and can help reduce insect and disease pressure. Residues from previous growth can be incorporated into the soil, adding organic matter. Burying the older vegetation that can harbor insect and disease will help the new plants get a head start and stay healthy.
But tilling your soil only works when it is at the correct amount of moisture. If the ground is worked while wet, we will most certainly increase soil compaction and decrease its ability to absorb moisture.
You may have heard or read about “plow pans”. In large scale food production, the heavy machinery and overworked soil can create a compacted layer of soil just below the disked or plowed zone. That pan can create a barrier to water movement, root development, and nutrient distribution. The professional farmers are keenly aware of this and take great pains to avoid or remedy this condition.
Following the lead of commercial growers, home gardeners need to understand the soils they are relying upon. Tilling the ground too often, even when the soil is at the proper moisture, can interfere with macro-organisms, such as earthworms that need time to do their good work.
If you’ve been saying, “But what about no-till? You can’t forget about that option!” Indeed, it is another very good option. No-till implies that you disturb as little of the ground as possible when you plant. And if you have a site that you can do this, you’ll avoid the potential problems I’ve listed above.
One way to use no-till in a home garden is to use a very thick layer of mulch and plant in open (un-mulched) areas to ensure a good crop. I do this all the time in my beds. I only dig up the area needed for planting and heavily much all around the seeds or plants.
I know of several raised bed gardeners that simply cannot till their beds but rely upon excellent compost to top-dress their garden beds and plant within. At the local elementary schools where we teach gardening to kids, we use a landscaper mix (available by the yard from local nurseries).
This mix is a blend of compost, sand and finely ground pine bark. It is an excellent soil medium. If you use it, you’ll find you don’t need any gardening tools to work the soil.
Best of luck with your garden. Work the soil when it dries out. We’ll look at these days differently during our next drought!