March 16, 2015 - If you are reading this, it’s obvious that you probably enjoyed yesterday messing around outside. Be it your yard, landscape, or vegetable garden, you couldn’t wait for the sun to shine and your ground to dry out.
Yet recent rainfall has left many of our soils far too soggy to work. The simple advice is that you work with your soil when it’s moist, but not wet.
Working soil when it is too wet can cause it to become rough. Ideally we want to till or spade the soil in the winter to prepare for spring planting. The extra time and cool temperatures help mellow soil. This is especially important if the soil is being worked for the first time.
If you have a tighter, clayey soil the foolproof addition is organic matter. At this late time, your added organic matter should already be composted.
Organic matter really is the miracle cure for bad soils. Is your soil too sandy? Add organic matter. Is it nothing but clay? Add organic matter. The benefits of organic matter to soil are too numerous to extol here. Suffice it to say, composted organic matter adds nutrients, increases water holding capacity, improves soil structure, has numerous beneficial microbes, and prevents erosion.
Compost can be from manures, lawn clippings, leaves or anything natural you can find. Many seasoned gardeners will till in leaves, pine straw, or other raw material into the soil months before it is to be used. This allows the soil to create its own compost.
If unsure that your garden site is poorly drained, there is a simple test to see how well drained it is. Well-drained soil has everything to do with how quickly water will percolate through the soil. Many homeowners think that a sloping ground area that sheds water is “well drained”. Not so. Water must be allowed to move into the soil and then move thru out below it.
A very simplified drainage (or percolation) test taught to me by a retired county agent is to dig a hole about three foot deep and about a foot wide. Post-hole diggers work very well for this.
Add water until the water level doesn’t immediately drop. After 24 hours, check to see if the soil at the bottom is visible.
Though it may be muddy, if you can see the soil at the bottom then you have very well drained soil. A deep sandy soil, by nature, is very well drained. Shallow topsoil over clay subsoil will often hold water.
If it takes 48 hours until you see the bottom, then your soil is fairly well drained. But if it takes 72 hours (three days) or more before you can see the bottom, then you know that you have poorly drained soil and measures must be taken to compensate.
The solution is a raised bed. Whether in rows down your garden or landscape beds edged with timber, stone, or other items, raising the level of the soil, in which the desired plants will grow, should aid greatly.
The question is often asked, “Can I just dig out a deep hole, fill it full of good soil and create a well-drained soil that way?” Digging a hole like that will only create a big clay bowl that will still hold water quite well.
To overcome uncertainty in selecting what fertilizer or lime and how much of each, you must take a soil test. Soil testing costs $10 per sample, plus $6-7 for postage if you mail it. SFA has a laboratory that tests soil for liming and fertilization. You can pick up a form at our office next to the courthouse in Center or print one off the internet yourself. Google “SFA soil test” and select the first pdf option on the screen.
Lane Dunn is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Shelby County. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.