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May 24th, 2011

What's Good for the Garden

dougIt’s raining today, following rain yesterday and the day before. When will it end?

Here in Emmaus we’re having a rainier-than-usual spring. The mud is slowing down my gardening projects at home. At the Organic Gardening test garden, we’re still waiting to till some new beds for squash, cucumbers, and melons. Turning wet soil is never a good idea; it damages the structure and porosity of the soil. Clods result.

As eager as I am to get on with the task of soil preparation, I have to remind myself that all this rain does wonders for plants. I can’t remember a spring when the tulips lasted so long, or the grass grew so lushly. It would be petty of me to grumble at the rain while surrounded by the beauty generated by all that moisture.

Gray skies and high humidity also facilitate transplanting. Two weeks ago I moved a foxglove that had already sent its flowering stalks 18 inches out of the ground, and it didn’t even notice. I couldn’t have attempted such an untimely transplant if the weather had been hot or sunny. Weeding is easier, too, when the soil is wet. Even weeds with long taproots slip right out of the oozy soil.

So bring on the rain. The tilling can wait.  —Doug Hall

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April 19th, 2011

Planting Vegetables in the Season of Mud

dougHow can I get the vegetable garden ready for planting when it won’t stop raining? This is a yearly dilemma for gardeners who live in climates where spring brings drenching rains. It’s best to stay out of the garden entirely when the soil is sodden; every footstep compresses the wet soil, squeezing shut the essential pore spaces. Digging in wet soil is worse yet—a guaranteed way to damage soil structure. I limit my early-spring planting to the raised beds, which I can reach while standing in the wood-chipped path.

Because my garden spot has been devoted to vegetables for more than a decade, the soil is rich and porous; no deep tilling is necessary. But this weekend, as I prepared to seed rows of leaf lettuce and spinach and plug in onions and broccoli transplants, I faced raised beds that were carpeted with a bright green ryegrass cover crop, planted last fall. Cover crops are usually turned under and left to decompose in place, but in this case I skimmed off strips of the ryegrass to make room for the transplants and seeds. I shook the loose soil off the roots and put the tops in the compost pile.

I did nothing more to the soil in the raised beds except to scratch shallow drills for my seeds into the surface. When soil is soggy, the less you work with it the better.

Mud season will pass. By the time I plant tomatoes and peppers in May, the soil will likely have dried enough for me to till under what remains of the cover crop. And I’ll bring out the hose to water in my transplants—something I definitely didn’t need to do on this rainy weekend.  —Doug Hall

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