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Planting Time and Soil Readiness

How to know when your garden soil is ready for planting.

Planting TimeHow is planting time like opening Christmas presents? There’s a huge temptation to get started days too early. After a long winter, after planning your garden and ordering seeds, we’re all anxious — with visions of sweet corn, squash and greens dancing in our heads — to get in there and start working the soil. Let’s tear the ribbons and the paper off and get those seeds and plants in the ground! For gardeners, the days ahead of spring planting are just as difficult as the day’s before the holiday are for children… and equally filled with anticipation.

But when it comes to planting, it’s best to be patient. Is your soil ready? In other words, is it “friable”? Several factors come into play but for established gardens with previously prepared soil, there are only two: temperature and moisture content. Here’s a list of minimum, maximum and optimal soil temperatures for common vegetables.

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When it comes to knowing the perfect time to start working your soil, guidance and experience are the best teachers. Here’s a list of ten rules from the Colorado Landshare project — a collaboration between ranchers, farmers and gardeners dedicated to sustainability — that address soil conditions prior to planting. The comprehensive list includes preparations for first-time use of previously un-gardened land as well as details on friability and compaction. For even more detailed evaluation of your soil, here’s a page from Mother Earth News that allows you to evaluate every aspect of soil readiness. The seasonally-divided list helps you monitor everything from water infiltration to earthworm abundance.

Most of us just want to know if our soil is dry enough to avoid compaction and keep seeds from rotting. The grandfather-tested method is still best. Pick up a handful of dirt and squeeze. If it crumbles back to the ground without sticking, it’s ready. If you’ve made a mud ball, throw it at some inanimate target you don’t mind getting dirty and go back inside and wait. You’ll be able to open your garden soon enough. Want more tips on soil friability? Check out this page from — who else? — The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Our favorite is the fourth tip: when the weeds start to grow, your soil is ready.

Now, we want to know: is the soil ready where you live? Are you planting? What’s in the ground? Is your soil’s moisture content high, low or just right for this time of year? Tell us.

2 Responses to “Planting Time and Soil Readiness”

  1. Zain on February 27th, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    We have a large backyard at our southern Illinois home and I’m very interested in planting an ORGANIC vegetable garden. To say I don’t have a green thumb is a huge understatement. I’ll probably start off small, but I’d like to eventually have the following: Red Potatoes, Onions, Lettuce, Cabbage, Tomatoes, Green Peppers, Celery, Strawberries, Grape Vines, Apple Trees, Broccoli, Cucumbers, Green Beans, Peas, Pumpkins, Corn. These are the fruits and vegetables that my family consumes constantly and our grocery bill is OUTRAGEOUS. Plus, I’m trying to become more responsible concerning chemical pesticides so I’d like to do this as naturally as possible. We don’t have many organic products to choose from in the stores around here, so I figure if I want to do this I’ll have to grow my own. I don’t know the first thing about gardening, let alone organic gardening, so I’m feeling overwhelmed and don’t really know where to begin. Do you have some good advice or online resources that will help me get started? Also, any advice or resources on canning vegetables for the winter would also be appreciated. THANKS!!!!!!

  2. James on February 27th, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    Cabbages, beets, turnips, potatoes, carrots. Many of the best veggies are spring and fall crops – the cabbage family includes broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts. They won’t grow in the dead of winter, but they all tolerate light frost and enjoy a little snow cover. You should be able to keep them going into early winter with just a burlap row cover or a cold frame made of an old window. Watch for lead paint. In the depth of winter, you eat your root crops. Turnips aren’t the best thing in the world, but living, breathing turnips taste better than week old tomatoes shipped in from afar. The hardy root crops also warm the blood. Keep in mind that the Sun stays closer to the horizon in the fall and winter – it never moves directly overhead. A garden that gets full sun in summer might be shaded for most of the day in fall.

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