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by Mort Mather

Snow and rain Saturday night and yet I am still out in the garden Sunday, April 13. Will the ground be ready to be worked so I can plant the peas by April 15 as is usually the case? To test the soil to see if it is ready to be worked take a handful and squeeze it into a ball. Then hold the ball of soil between a finger and thumb and squeeze. If the ball falls apart, the soil is ready to work. My soil just barely passed the test this morning. I made two passes on a 25 foot row with the spading fork and will go back an do some more this afternoon. The soil is sticking to the fork a little but not enough to make the job difficult. When I turn a forkful and hit it it breaks apart nicely. I would not use a tiller on soil this moist, however. The tiller with its less gentle action would leave clots of soil and it has a compacting effect.

You might wonder how I can work my soil so soon after rain and snow. There are two factors that make it possible. Being able to work the soil in the spring depends on when the soil "opens". In the winter it freezes which makes it impervious to water. The frost can go as deep as four feet under my garden in an uncovered winter. "Uncovered" means there is no snow. Snow acts as an insulation and keeps the cold from getting so deep. Last winter we had snow cover most of the cold season and my garden opened up earliest in twenty five years of gardening the same spot.

When the frost is deep it takes longer to thaw and while it is waiting to thaw all the snow melt and rain water have to either run off or evaporate. There is almost always a lot of water held in the surface soil in the spring until the frost finally thaws. I think of it as a bathtub full of water. When the frost goes the water can drain through the soil and the garden dries rapidly after that.

Even though the frost is out of most of my garden soil, it is still solid right on the surface under the places I mulched. At this time of year the mulch is insulating the wrong way so I have to pull it back so the sun and warm air can thaw the soil. This frost under the mulch does not affect the overall drainage of the garden. Just like in a bathtub it only takes a small hole for the water to drain.

The other reason I can work my soil is it's tilth. I have a lot of organic matter in my soil. The organic matter holds the moisture but not like a sponge. It can't be wrung out. The water seems to become more a part of the soil than a separate element held in pockets.

A sandy soil will dry sooner than a clay soil because the soil particles are larger creating larger spaces between them. Clay soil has very small particles and practically no spaces. A clay soil will always be late soil to work in the spring because it doesn't let the winter's precipitation pass through it. Clay soil can be made earlier by the addition of organic matter.

There is only one thing that will keep me from planting my peas by the 15th—the vagaries of life.

ŠApril 14, 1997

Mort is a husband and father. He authored a book, Gardening For Independence and was named Environmentalist of the Year by Down East Magazine in 1987. He is a consultant for organizations. You can eat his organic produce at his son's southern Maine restaurant. His address is 802 Bald Hill Road, Wells, ME 04090.

Mort retains all rights to his columns. Anyone interested in using them can get the rights at a very reasonable rate.



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