The first rule of the springtime garden is: don’t work wet soil.
By wet, I mean saturated, squishy-squashy or squelchy (very technical terms).
If you find your soil in any of the aforementioned states, don’t let the robins, who are out hopping about on the garden beds, fool you into thinking you might just get started now. You are much heavier than a robin, and the soil will sink and bruise beneath your footsteps.
Working wet soil will damage its structure and decrease its resiliency in both wet and dry times. Seedlings will likewise suffer if transplanted into waterlogged soil; roots need oxygen, and the air flow in saturated soil is limited at best.
The fields at Good Heart range in their soil structure, from sandy and gravelly to heavy and wet, with the majority of our growing space somewhere happily in between. Perhaps you find yourself in the same position: ready to plant in some areas while waiting on others to dry out.
Before you take out your garden fork, test the moisture level of the soil.
Grab a handful and squeeze it between your hands. How does it feel? Is it heavy? Does water dribble out when you squeeze it? Does it make a sucking noise when you scoop it up? If the answer is yes, let it be.
If the answer is no, investigate further. Step a digging fork down into the soil and gently pull back, lifting the layers without inverting them. If the layers stick together in large chunks or leave thick ribbons of damp soil, let it be.
Don’t rush the soil. You might try to put an alarm clock on, but if the rain comes and hits the snooze button, let it rest.
If, on the other hand, the soil lightly falls as you fork it, if it’s damp but still airy, if it quietly holds its form in your palm (no squelching or squashing), then it’s time!
The soil is ready, you’re ready, and it’s time to prepare the beds for planting.
Aerate the soil. Using a broad fork or a digging fork, loosen the soil without inverting the layers. That means don’t flip it over. The aim here is to add loft without losing the natural soil structure. This extra loft will make it easier for you to transplant, and help your crops root into the soil.
Weed. This is especially important if perennial weeds such as grasses, plantains, and dandelions are present. (If you’re a fellow weed-lover, don’t worry, I love plantains and dandelions, too! Just in their own place, and not competing with our annual crops.) Getting the perennial weeds out early will ease your weed issues later in the season.
Compost. The amount of compost you add will depend on your soil’s fertility. It’s a good idea to do a soil test in either the spring or the fall (your state’s cooperative extension office can help you with this). Once you’ve added compost, rake it out to form a smooth surface.
Plant! Shoot for cloudy days for transplanting so your seedlings don’t get instantly baked in the sun. Cloudy, cool conditions help limit transplant shock. If you’re all sun, covering the the transplanted beds with row cover can also help. Either way, be sure your seedlings are properly hardened off and ready for life outside the greenhouse.