How to Tell That the Soil is Ready for Planting
Gardening Fever often strikes on a warm, sunny day. We feel like getting our hands in the dirt, and planting a bunch of seeds and plants… but the ground might not be ready for them!
If the soil is too cold, too wet, or too compacted, what we plant will likely not thrive.
There are 3 ways to tell that the soil is ready for planting:
Tilth / Level of Compaction
1. Temperature: The soil should feel warm to the touch. Or, in the case of seedlings that can handle cool weather in the early spring, the soil can be cool, but not cold.
For crops that love the heat (such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, melons, corn, beans), it is worth waiting until the soil is warm before planting them.
You don’t need to do anything fancy to find out… just stick your hand a couple inches into the soil and pay attention to how it feels. These heat-loving plants like warm roots as well as warm air temperatures. They can be planted before the soil is warm - but they will hardly grow, and will be more susceptible to disease because of being stressed by cool temperatures.
Plants that are set out when the soil is warm will catch up (and often overtake) those that were planted earlier.
Obviously, we want to have moisture in the soil for our crops. However, too much moisture at planting time will weaken the soil structure and will make it hard for plants to thrive.
There’s a difference between planting in rain-soaked soil versus planting into moist soil and then soaking the roots afterwards. The latter situation is the most preferable by far: it pays to wait until the soil begins to dry out after a rain, before trying to plant anything.
To determine if the soil is dry enough for planting:
Look at it. You know how dark your soil looks right after a rain? Watch over the next couple days as the moisture levels drop, and you’ll see that the ground becomes a lighter colour as it dries. After paying attention for a while, you’ll observe the patterns that are specific to your garden soil. Lighter soil = drier soil.
Feel it. Use a trowel to lift a scoop of dirt out of the garden. Does the dirt stay all together in one clump? Does the clump feel wet? Or, does the scoop of dirt crumble when it’s lifted?
Ideally, the soil should be “crumbly”. If it all sticks together in a clump, it’s too wet. Wait a couple days, and re-assess if your soil has dried enough to work with.
A note on wet soil:
When the soil is wet, avoid walking on it. This is one reason raised beds are so great - you never need to set foot on the growing area. Walking on wet soil can really compact it, and it can take a very long time to undo the detrimental effect.
3. Tilth: the structure of a soil has a lot to do with the moisture level of the soil, as well as the degree of biological activity (aka, microbes doing their work), and roots of living plants in the soil.
Over time, with good management practices, the tilth of the soil will improve. It will get to the point where you never need to till or turn over your soil!
Until then, your soil may be somewhat “hard”.
An easy way to measure tilth: point your hand straight down at the ground; wiggle your fingers, and work them down into the soil. How far down can you get?
This represents how easy it is for plant roots to move through the soil. If your fingers can’t get more than a couple inches through the soil, you’ll need to loosen the soil (such as with a fork or broadfork). The soil doesn’t need to be turned over - it just needs to be loosened… and this is essential to do before planting.
(For reference, I’ve heard of soils - after years of excellent management - where it’s possible to stick your hand in, wiggle your fingers, and insert your arm almost to elbow-depth. Goals!!)