Working wet soil can damage it for years

Q. I want to get outside and start gardening. However, my neighbor says the soil is too wet and I should wait. Why should I wait, and how can I tell when the soil is ready?

A. Many gardeners are getting an itch to get out into the garden and start planting now that the weather is finally warming. However, they should resist the urge while the soil is still wet. Most gardeners will find that many of their garden areas are still soggy from snow melt and rain, making soil too wet to work.

Your garden will thank you for resisting the urge to plow ahead. If wet soil is "worked" (plowed, tilled, spaded) it can become badly compacted, and the negative effects can last for many years. Once compacted, it will take a long time to rebuild a healthy soil structure. This will require annual applications of organic matter such as composted plant and animal wastes.

If you do work wet soil, the result will be that soil particles will compact tightly, leaving less room for water and air to penetrate. This makes it more difficult for plant roots to absorb water, nutrients and air. Compressed soil forms clumps, which become very hard once they dry out and which are hard to break up. This creates an environment that leads to slower drainage.

The best thing you can do for your garden is to prevent compaction in the first place. To test your soil for planting readiness, first dig a trowel full of soil. Squeeze the soil tightly in your hand, then poke the clump of soil with your finger. If the clump falls apart, the soil is workable. If it stays together, the soil is too wet. Wait a day or two and repeat the process. When your soil crumbles, this is the time to start your spring gardening activities.

• Provided by Mary Boldan. Master Gardener Answer Desk, Friendship Park Conservatory, Des Plaines, open 9 a.m. to noon on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Call (847) 298-3502 or email

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