We're in the midst of a typically unpredictable Kansas winter. The soil hasn't frozen hard as a rock yet and the warmer weather is giving us an urge to get an early start on our spring chores. But there is an advantage to waiting.
The soil isn't frozen, but it's wet, and we need to wait until it dries more -- or spring chores such as tilling could ruin the soil for a year or more.
When wet soil is tilled, the tilling action breaks up the natural soil structure -- forming clods that may be difficult to break up. This is especially true when you are using a tiller.
The tiller tines will create a hard, compacted layer of soil at the bottom of the tilled zone. This compacted layer of soil forms a hard impervious surface that is almost impossible for roots to penetrate.
Tilling soil when it is too wet makes it difficult to prepare a fine seedbed for spring planting and it may take almost a full year for the soil structure to return to its natural condition.
To determine if the soil is ready to be tilled, gather a handful of garden soil and form it into a ball in your hand. Then try to break the ball apart with your fingers. If the ball remains compacted and/or separates with difficulty (or even worse, water squirts out of the ball as you are forming it in your hands) then the soil is too wet and you need to wait a few days for additional drying to occur. However, if the ball easily crumbles when you work it with your fingers, the soil can be safely tilled.
Using a spading fork or shovel is less destructive to soil structure than a tiller but it is still best to wait and let natural drying occur.
The warm windy days of spring help dry the soil more rapidly than this month's weather. And if the urge is strong to get started now remember an old saying before you crank-up the tiller or spading fork: "First do no harm."
-- The Garden Calendar is sponsored by K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County office and written this week by Master Gardener Bill Padgett. For more information call the extension office, 843-7058, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.