Carolyn Singer: Spring fever but wet soil
April 13, 2018
The urge to work in the soil is strong in April. Beginning and experienced gardeners alike are drawn to dig. Garden gloves cast aside, we want to connect with the precious Earth.
But this month has also brought heavy rains, saturating the soil with the gift of water. Field capacity reached 100 percent weeks ago, a relief after many dry weeks scared us all.
A few weeks ago I stopped digging in my front border, where I had been renovating and addressing the neglect of many gardening seasons. Even with the compost added years ago and the leaves blowing into the border each autumn, the soil is still heavy clay. Once rains came consistently and heavily, the soil was too wet to work.
When clay soil is wet, considerable damage may be done even with the simplest act of digging a small hole for a transplant. Better to wait. A simple test is to squeeze a handful of soil.
If it holds its form, and even shows the imprint of your fingers, it's too wet to work. The soil must crumble in your hand to signal its readiness.
Damage done to clay soil with a shovel, rototiller, tractor, or even a good garden fork, often takes years to undo. Large amounts of compost and cover crops incorporated each year in the years following the damage will eventually return the clay soil to a good tilth in which plant roots are able to develop.
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If you are planning to order compost to improve the tilth and enrich the soil, know the content of the compost your local supplier is selling, and how long it has been in the yard.
Compost can burn plant roots and even foliage when it is spread as a top dressing. This may be true of your own compost, or a commercial blend, even from a package.
Some gardeners turn their compost. By adding air frequently, the compost heats up and the components decompose more readily.
With bulk compost, air is added when the product is loaded in the yard, and again when it is dumped near your garden. You may see steam rising for a few days although you have been reassured that the product is ready to use in your garden.
I use a hand test, inserting my hand several inches into the pile. If the compost feels warm but not hot, I go ahead and use it.
If an April shower graces us, that welcome moisture also cools the compost. When the storm passes, bring out the wheelbarrow.
While you may not be able to dig in the flower bed or edible garden yet, at least you can move the compost closer for when the time comes.
I have often heard gardeners complain that commercial compost contains weed seeds. Not from reputable dealers. Know your vendor and their product.
The more likely scenario is that the addition of compost into soil, especially if you are incorporating it with a shovel, rototiller or tractor, brings existing seed to the surface where spring warmth and moisture germinates every seed that has hidden in your soil for years. Plus, you are adding nutrients to help those weeds grow.
Getting the right mix
In my no-till vegetable garden, I spread two to three inches of "Carolyn's Mix Plus" from Rare Earth on permanent beds that were first created many years ago.
I began with the same heavy clay and often rocky soil that gardeners breaking ground for the first time face in the foothills. I'm glad that I was not tempted to build raised beds.
The mix I am using in the edible garden is a blend of mushroom compost, rice hulls, natural phosphorus and oyster shell, plus poultry manure. Preferably, I add it in the fall then sow a winter cover crop to protect the soil surface from the compaction of heavy rains, and to add "green manure."
In the edible garden and flower beds, the perfect blend has been one part compost to two parts native clay soil. In the rock garden, the soil is not as fertile. One part compost to three parts native soil has worked well. Preparing planting holes for natives, I use a ratio similar to that used in the rock garden.
Don't be discouraged by the clay soil of the foothills. It is rich in nutrients and may be made even more vital with compost and cover crops.
Perhaps its best attribute is that it holds more water than sandy soil. While you may not appreciate that right now when you have the strong urge to dig, the summer heat not far ahead will have you watering much less than with raised beds or sandy soil.
Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning "The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom," and two volumes of "Deer in My Garden" (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to email@example.com. Check out her website at carolynsingergardens.com.