Wet Soil

I’ve complained a lot about wet soil this spring, realizing that many folks may not understand why that would be such a problem.  In this post, I’ll try to explain.

We try to keep our gardens covered with growth at all times.  This improves soil life and organic matter in the soil and helps retain moisture (normally a good thing).  To prepare the soil for planting we have to till it.  We prefer to harrow it and follow with a PTO-driven rotary tiller, but at a minimum we have to till it to create a seedbed.

If the soil is tilled or harrowed when too wet, it will just break into clods that the sun will dry into rock-hard bricks.  Nothing will grow in it.  If wet soil is pulverized sufficiently to avoid clods, the sun will dry it into a rock-hard sheet or crust.  Nothing will grow in it that way either.  It takes about a year to recover from that kind of mistreatment.  Over the winter the freezing and thawing of the soil will break it up again, but mistreating soil in the spring renders it useless until the following spring.

But soil doesn’t have to be bone dry to be tilled.  In fact some moisture is necessary or the soil will blow away like dust as it’s tilled.  So how to know when it’s dry enough?

One simple test is to take a handful of the soil then make a fist.

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If the soil stays in a ball when you open your hand, then it is too wet to till.

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If it does not, then it’s OK to till.

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During years like this it’s often hard to be patient, especially as I think of our CSA members counting on us to grow them food.

The results of impatience can be ruinous to the soil.  This lunar landscape is the result of me tilling too soon.   It is a cloddy rock-hard crust covering soupy wet mud.

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This garden was intended for beets, chards and onions and I knew that if we didn’t plant soon we would  have none of them in our spring crops.  So I took a chance.  Fail.

This year has been very unusual.  Normally any delay is only a couple of weeks, rather than a couple of months.  Still, it has put me to thinking more about ways to avoid this kind of situation.

Any method that doesn’t rely on tilling won’t have these problems; permanent no-till raised beds for example, or permaculture.  Growing inside a hoop house also limits how much nature can interfere with gardening plans.

I’ve added more raised beds and will continue to do so, but the blessing becomes a curse in times of dry weather (more common here) as raised beds require much more irrigation.  In the long term humanity will need to adopt permaculture as an alternative to tradtional agriculture and we’ll continue to study it, but for now that option isn’t really on the table for us.

Soil that’s too wet for deep tillage can be tilled lightly (a few inches at a time over a week or so) to gradually dry it out.  I’ve done that before but never considered it as a practice I’d try to do regularly.  Yesterday I started tilling our squash and sunflower gardens that way, hopeful that it will work out.

And I’m guessing it’s just a matter of time before I’ll be hoping for rain and wishing the soil wasn’t so dry.

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5 comments on “Wet Soil

  1. shoreacres says:

    It occurs to me that you’re talking here about the art of farming, rather than the science. The corrollary in my own life is varnishing, of course. I use only three ingredients: varnish, an accelerant that speeds drying, and a brushing liquid that slows it.

    In cold or humid conditions, the accelerant is called for. In hot or windy weather, it’s time for brushing liquid. But what if it’s cold and windy, or hot and humid ahead of a front? It’s time to play Mr. Wizard, and start mixing accelerants and retardants – but not too much, or you lose the gloss of the varnish!

    So, people come along and ask, “How do you know how much of each to add?” The only possible answer is, “Varnish every day of the week for about five years, and you’ll start to figure it out.”

    I still think now and then of the highlight of my career. I put a final coat on a beautiful Grand Banks trawler in December, in blowing sea fog so thick it sometimes obscured everything in the bay that was its source. If the wind had died it would have been a disaster.

    The human touch – testing the dirt or feeling the brush – is more important than most people realize.

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    • Bill says:

      You’re right. I’m sure there’s an instrument that will read soil moisture, but learning to feel when it’s right makes sense to me. You also have to know the soil. Some soil drains better than others and can be tilled wetter than others. Your story also reminds me of cooks like my mother, who never uses recipes. She just knows how to do it from a lifetime of experience.

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  2. Shoreacres, what say you to the advantages of oiling teak decks as an alternative to varnish?

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  3. El Guapo says:

    How about raised boxes with slats for bases that can be lowered into pits in the ground when conditions are right?

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  4. Bill says:

    That’s an interesting idea. We do use raised beds on our farm. We have 12 of them now, growing green beans, lettuce, onions and plant starts. They’re a great way to grow food and require no mechanical cultivation. For one family they are the way to go, in my opinion. But we grow so much food that we can’t rely entirely on raised beds (or at least I haven’t figured out yet how to do it).

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