JoAnne Skelly: Wait to work wet soil

JoAnne Skelly

JoAnne Skelly

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Earlier this month I wrote about planting cool season crops. In a normal year digging and preparing garden soil now would be appropriate. However, this year has been excessively wet with snow melt and rain and soil is still too soggy to work.

Why is digging saturated soil a bad idea? According to Purdue University horticulture specialist, Rosie Lerner, working, tilling, digging, or plowing wet soil can seriously compact it by pushing the soil particles closer together. “The negative effects will last for many years.”

These closely packed soil particles reduce space for air and water. Plant roots have trouble moving through tight, compacted soils and then don’t grow or produce well. In addition, it is hard to move equipment in wet soils or, if digging by hand, wet soils are heavy and hard to lift.

Compacted soils don’t drain well. And then, after a compacted soil finally dries out, the soil clumps “become hard as rocks upon drying and are difficult to break up” (Lerner). If you have been carefully tending your soil for years adding organic matter and possibly even growing a green manure crop to create a crumbly mix, you don’t want to undo all your diligent work by digging too soon. It takes years to get a soil just right and far too many years to repair a damaged soil.

Even though we are all feeling the itch to be out in the garden and yard, craving spring after the extremely long winter, we must wait. To tell if a soil is ready to be worked, dig a large handful of soil from four inches to six inches down and squeeze it in your hand. If it crumbles, it’s ready. A muddy ball means the soil needs more time to dry out.

Too much digging or tilling is as bad as soil health practice as digging wet soil. It harms soil structure and reduces plant productivity. Over-working a soil pulverizes the particles into a powdery layer that crusts up preventing water infiltration. This can lead to erosion, loss of nutrients and reduced water quality. Minimize tillage or digging particularly when soils are wet for the optimal soil health.

Speed up the drying process by removing any mulch, leaves or litter off the garden and flower beds. Exposing the soil to the air and sun will help it dry out more quickly.

JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Email


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