With parts of Rhode Island still under water from this week’s disastrous flooding, it might be a bit premature to start thinking about preparing our vegetable gardens. Even those lucky people among us who stayed high and dry have some serious moisture to contend with in their soil. It’s tempting to get out there and start digging, but if you’ve had a lot of rain, you should give the soil time to dry out before you work it.
Tilling or digging very wet soil can destroy its structure, and compact it to the point where it will not allow roots to penetrate. This damage can take years to repair, so please be patient and check your soil BEFORE messing with it. Testing is easy. Grab a handful of soil and squeeze it. If it stays clumped in a ball or sticks to your shovel, it is too wet to work. If it’s powdery, it’s too dry. If it crumbles nicely, you can be thankful that your soil is suitable for planting.
Unless you have permanent raised beds, you will have to till or otherwise prepare your garden for spring planting in order to break up clods and offer a hospitable, fine surface for your tender vegetable seedlings. Many gardeners do their major soil work in the fall. This has several advantages, not the least of which is allowing time for any modifications to be well incorporated into the soil by spring planting time.
Regardless of the season in which you do your tilling, it’s important not to go overboard and smash the soil to oblivion. You’ll end up with a crusty mess. The objective here is to mix the upper soil layers, not to bury all the organic matter and kill the beneficial organisms living there. Also, make sure you are not creating a layer of compacted soil just below the reach of the tiller.
Your choice of equipment depends on how strong you are, and the size of your beds. You can just grab a spading fork or a shovel and work up a sweat, or you can use a rototiller or a garden tractor.
Many gardeners have started experimenting with the no-till method. Proponents of no-till gardening maintain that any disturbance of the soil damages its structure and its resident microorganisms and worms. One no-till method involves covering the soil with layers of newspapers, which in turn are covered with mulch such as straw.
For more information on soil and soil amendments, check out the University of Rhode Island Master Gardener Learning Center.
Whether you do it by hand, or use a machine, make sure your soil is not too wet to be worked, and please don’t over-till your garden!