Can I Dig in the Garden?



With the first warmish days finally appearing, I’ve had several customers text or email to ask if they can begin working in the garden. We are all so anxious for spring, and the emergence of snowdrops (pictured) is the first sign that the soil is warming up.

But it is too early right now because the ground is too wet. Working in the garden under current conditions will damage the soil structure that is so important to plants at all times (but especially in spring as they break dormancy). While you are waiting, think about the soil, or take some time to find out more about soil, which is the critical foundation to your entire garden.

We all know that soil differs from one region to another, depending on its content of clay, sand and silt. Because you are a gardener, you are already well acquainted with the clay-like consistence of Chicago area soils! But that’s not all. Soil that is good for gardening also contains organic matter (bacteria, fungi, and millions of small one-celled creatures, insects and earthworms that relate to each other in what we call the soil food web). Healthy soil must have space between particles for these organisms — especially the earthworms — to move around. Space between soil particles also allows for the movement of water and air within the soil. Think of the soil not just as the mass that you can see if you grab a handful, but a collection of organisms and chemicals that move around in a dark universe where the roots of plants extend tiny hairs into open spaces to absorb nutrients and water. It’ the best way to imagine what might happen when you step on a patch of wet soil in the spring. Your shoes get muddy, yes. But more important, the spaces within the soil get squished. This is not good news for the delicate plants that are trying to emerge.

This is my first blog to help you imagine the soil and what is really going on there. It explains why you cannot work in the garden just yet, why your should always spread your weight by walking on a board when you CAN get in the garden, and why we no longer recommend rototiling the soil — all these practices cause soil compaction — the breakdown the soil spaces. Foot traffic is the #1 culprit.

Soil compaction starves your plants of oxygen, water and organic nutrients. Why does this matter? Here are some of the results of soil compaction:

  • A decreases in soil organisms that over time decreases the organic matter in the soil. Your soil gasps for life and eventually becomes dead. Nothing good is going on in there.

  • Earthworms die or leave your yard for better digs. You no longer have the very best of natural soil tillers at work in your garden!

  • Plants gasp for air. Even the newly planted ones that you just got at the local garden center don’t grow, turn yellow, and die.

  • When it rains, the water sits on top of your garden beds. you have puddles. Water meant for the plants to drink cannot get to their roots.

  • Underground, the shrubs you plant this season are resting on hardpan dirt (not soil). Water collects under them and cannot drain away. Their roots are drowning, but you cannot see that. You see them wilt and die and you don’t know why.

When CAN you work in the garden? A simple “ball test” will help you know when it’s safe. Scoop as small amount of soil into your palm and roll it into a ball. If the ball stays together, the soil is still too wet to work. If it falls apart, you’re good to go.

More on soil to come. For now, enjoy the emerging snowdrops, crocus, and — soon to be featured — spring ephemeral wildflowers.