In the Garden:
New England
March, 2001
Regional Report

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Making a ribbon from a handful of garden soil helps you determine whether you can till.

State of the Soil

After a long winter, as soon as the snow melts, the temptation is to go outside and plant something. But even though the sun is shining, the air temperatures warming, and your passion to grow plants burning, don't let spring go to your head. Careful consideration needs to be made about the state of your soil before plunging into it with shovels, tillers, or even bare hands (It has been a long winter, hasn't it!).

Assessing the Soil

Your soil took awhile to cool down in fall, and it will take awhile to warm up this spring. And equally important is the moisture content. Cool soils and lots of snowmelt means that your soil will stay wet longer into the spring. This is especially true if you have clay soils, the heavy soils that easily form clods. To find out if you have clay soil, grab a handful of earth and rub it between your fingers. If it feels slippery and slick, it's mostly clay. Lighter soils will drain water faster in spring and be ready to work sooner. Sandy soils feel gritty in your hands when rubbed.

To Till or Not to Till

Tilling or working soil while still it's saturated will force out the air in the soil, changing the structure and creating a hard-to-work soil when it does dry out. Here's a simple test to help you know whether to till your soil or not.

Squeeze a handful of soil tightly in your hand, forming a ball. If it oozes water or you can't easily break it apart by poking it with your finger, then wait to till. If the soil easily breaks apart, till away.

Soil Additives

While you're waiting for the soil to dry, you can be performing other tasks. Most soils in our region tend to stay acidic (have a low pH) because of our frequent rains. Gardens and lawns need a maintenance liming every 3 to 4 years to keep the pH near neutral, where most plants grow best. The exceptions are acid-loving plants such as blueberries and rhododendrons, which shouldn't be limed. Do a soil pH test to determine the pH and apply lime to correct it if necessary. In general, 40 pounds of lime spread on 1,000 square feet of garden will keep a near neutral pH in that range.

Spread It Thick

Even though I spread all my manures and compost in the fall (I have been accused of being a bit anal about this), you can add finished compost or composted manure in the spring as well. Buying bags of compost or going to a local composting facility will ensure that you use well-decomposed products. Avoid fresh manures or partly decomposed compost, as they may rob nitrogen from the soil as they finish breaking down.

The Perc Test

Another test you can conduct is that of the water drainage capacity of a site in your yard. The percolation test is helpful for deciding where to plant any tree or shrub. Dig a hole 2 feet wide and 1 foot deep and cover it with plastic to let it dry out. Then fill the hole with water and let it drain. If it takes more than a few hours to drain, avoid planting trees and shrubs that need well-drained soil in that spot. If you have to plant in that spot, first raise the soil level with compost and then plant.

Even though all this testing and checking may seem like a lot of work, it's essential to know when to start the planting process in earnest without harming the long-term health of your soil.



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