Let’s talk dirt! That’s soil to gardners.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

When I was in college many years ago, in my first agronomy class, my professor would quickly correct anyone who said dirt. Dirt is what is under your fingernails or your bed.

Soil – the part of our earth in which we grow our plants – is what we call it. So, let’s talk about soil!

Gardeners are gearing up for spring and planting has already started in many places. I planted lettuce, spinach, onions, cabbage, broccoli, and a few other greens. How about you?

All gardeners must follow the mantra: DON’T PLANT WHEN THE SOIL IS WET. I am using all caps because that means I am screaming it! Don’t do it.

It’s very tempting to plant when the soil is wet, particularly if you need to get something in the ground quickly. However, you are making it tougher for the plant roots to grow in the soil afterward.

We work very hard to create a good growing environment. Why ruin it by planting in wet soil?

Soil is made up of percentages of sand, silt and clay, with sand being the largest and clay being the smallest. Silt particle size is in between these two.

Much of our soil in this part of the Miami Valley is usually compact clay soil. Let me clarify that – we have outstanding soil in many locations. However, when houses are built, there is little topsoil left and a lot of compacted clay soil for the homeowner to manage.

To improve compact clay soil, add organic matter. To improve sandy soil, add organic matter. Never, never, NEVER add sand to primarily clay soil, unless you can add enough by volume to make a difference (which is a lot by the way).

Adding organic matter to soil builds structure and creates aggregates. Aggregates consist of solids (sand, silt, clay, organic matter, microbes, etc.) that come together to create pore space. This pore space is important for root growth while allowing for good drainage and oxygen for the roots.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Working in wet soil destroys aggregates and packs the soil particles together forming dirt clods. Yes, I said dirt, because it’s not worth much at this point, except for throwing at your brother.

When I was a kid, we made forts in the back of our property, and we would have dirt clod fights. They were brutal but fun.

I am guessing that at some point, like me, you were desperate to get the garden planted and did it in wet soil. These dirt clods are difficult to break down.

No-till gardening is a great way to preserve the aggregates that you build in your soil. However, at times you may need to till. If you do, don’t over till. Tilling also breaks down aggregates and over tilling can destroy the soil.

I till my garden once in the fall and again in the spring. I am a firm believer in using a cover crop. I plant in the fall and till under in the spring.

This organic matter helps create and gives me much more friable (workable) soil. I planted a cover crop one year and will do it from now on.

Pamela Corle-Bennett is the state master gardener volunteer coordinator and horticulture educator for Ohio State University Extension. Contact her by email at bennett.27@osu.edu.

About the Author