JoAnne Skelly: Careful with wet soils

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I’m ready for spring and suddenly, after multiple snow and rain events, it’s here. However, the weather forecast is for more showers through the end of March. We have had more than 6 inches of rain at our house in February and March.

With all this moisture, it might still be too wet to dig a garden soil. Soils compact if dug or tilled when wet. Excessive digging or tilling destroys soil structure, preventing the soil units called “aggregates” from developing and providing optimum pore space. This allows not only for immediate compaction, but also future recompaction, which, according to Penn State Extension, “can enforce a vicious tillage spiral...” Compacted soils have smaller and fewer pore spaces where the air and water plants need can collect. Compacted soils have poor drainage and this can increase runoff leading to erosion and nutrient loss that contaminates surface waters. When water can’t infiltrate because of a compacted soil, groundwater can’t recharge. Hard tight soils also make it difficult for roots to grow, leading to less water and nutrient absorption and poor plant health. Too much tilling or digging can create a hardpan layer below the depth of the tiller or shovel. Even walking on a wet soil can increase compaction. Tilling also negatively impacts the beneficial organisms in a soil such as worms. Compacted soils take longer to warm up in the spring, reducing plant growth at all stages. Plant stress is increased, which can lead to more disease.

Instead of digging or tilling you might try no-till methods. A no-till system reduces water runoff, slows erosion, increases water-holding capacity and may suppress weeds. It may take longer to build a healthy soil because the organic matter and amendments are placed on top of the soil and allowed to break down over time without digging them in. The addition of organic matter and compost can reduce the need for fertilizers. Heavy mulching is a standard practice in a no-till system with the mulch being moved aside to expose a narrow band of soil at seeding time.

A soil with good structure and a sufficient number and size of pore spaces will help plants thrive, so take good care of your soil.

Remember, there is a Greenhouse Project free gardening class, “Growing Superb Strawberries,” from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. April 5. It will be held outside at the Foothill Garden located behind the Carson Tahoe Hospital Cancer Resource Center. Bring a chair.

There are a few garden plots available at the Community Garden on Beverly Drive. Call 775-887-2252 for information.

JoAnne Skelly is associate professor and Extension educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at


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