Q. I want to go out and till my soil, is it too early?
A. Never till or work the soil when it is too wet. We've all tried this and regret it later. If wet soil is tilled, its structure is destroyed. The result will be clods of dirt which are difficult to break up.
To determine if the soil is too wet, squeeze a handful of soil then bounce it in your hand. The soil should fall apart. If it remains in a tight ball, then it is too wet. If something must be planted, don't work the soil, use potting soil or compost to cover the seeds.
There is a debate whether we should pursue till or no-tilled gardens. Tilling helps to introduce oxygen and organic matter into the soil profile plus aids in breaking up heavy clay soil or spaces that suffer from compaction. Tilling also can destroy the soils structure. An easily crumbled soil is recommended, but tilling the soil exposes it to air and sunlight which will largely reduce your soil moisture. Over-tilled or pulverized soil has smaller soil particles which dry out quicker and can easily develop a crust on the soil surface. Additionally, by tilling the soil you are exposing dormant weed seeds that will now germinate. If you add the labor needed to till, the increased watering and weeding throughout the summer, you've created quite a bit of extra work for yourself.
No-till maintains or improves the soil by preserving soil structure and moisture, increasing soil organic matter and providing habitat microbes. Soil microbes are the workhorses of the soil. They break down crop residue and release nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients back into the soil. We want the healthiest, diverse microbial community so those processes can improve our soils and grow the strongest plants.
The first rule of no-till gardening is not to walk where you want to plant. Repeated foot traffic leads to compacted soil. Turn over only the soil needed to plant your garden. Mulch is the second crucial ingredient to no-till gardening. Compost or shredded leaves are the best options as these biodegrade quickly and will penetrate easily into the soil profile, which will reduce your need to till.
By adopting a no-till gardening strategy, you can save water, labor, and have more time to enjoy the summer.
-- Terri Passolt
• Provided by Master Gardeners through the Master Gardener Answer Desk, Friendship Park Conservatory, Des Plaines, and University of Illinois Extension, North Cook Branch Office, Arlington Heights. Call (847) 298-3502 on Wednesdays or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit web.extension.illinois.edu/mg.