To Till or Not To Till

04/04/2011 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Soil structure illustration from OSU Extension publication Improving Garden Soils with Organic Matter, EC 1561

It barely rained over the weekend, and while the soil is still too wet to work, the potential for gardening is on the horizon. The April garden calendar recommends preparing the soil for spring planting using  “generous amounts of organic materials and other amendments.” The type and amount of amendment can be determined from the results of a soils analysis.

I have two questions.

  1. How do I test my soil? And,
  2. My garden site is huge, roughly 800 sq. feet, huge. It’s weedy, rocky, filled with clay, and decomposing leaves. Once the soil dries out, I foresee difficulty in driving a spade. I’ve been offered a dump truck filled with organic compost made three miles from the cabin, and I plan on accepting. What’s the best way to apply/use this compost? I’d like to incorporate it into the soil, but I’m afraid that rototilling will destroy any soil structure that I may have. On the other hand, incorporation 6 cubic yards of compost into my space sounds painful.

The OSU Small Farms website has a section dedicated to soils that includes direction on how to take a soil sample from a home garden or small acreage and on bow to improve soil quality with compost and cover crops. I feel confident that I can test my soil and interpret the lab results (I’ll try to do this this week, and will follow-up with the results), but I don’t feel like I have a good handle on my tilling question.

This Extension publication, says that my soil structure is delicate and easily damaged. It goes on to say, “Compacted soils hinder penetration of air and water and growth of roots. Compacted soils are a poor environment not only for plants, but also for earthworms and other soil organisms.”

Here’s the really relevant part, “Tilling the soil, particularly when it is wet, damages soil structure and increases the rate of soil organic matter loss through decomposition.”

Later in the publication I read, “There are several ways to mix organic matter into garden soil. The most common methods involve digging or rototilling…For incorporating amendments over a relatively large area, rototillers are probably the best option.”

Then the caveat, “Excessive rototilling, however, has very detrimental effects on soil structure, particularly if done when the soil is wet…to minimize the impact of digging on soil structure, consider using a spading fork.”

I’m at a standstill. My soil is definitely too wet to dig around in, let alone till, but I feel like I’m already falling behind on getting this garden going. Since I’m depending on the fruits and vegetables I grow to carry me through the year, the waiting has me worried. Tomorrow I’ll call on the human resources of Extension to see if I can get some help in moving forward.

Entry filed under: Gardening, Soils. Tags: , , , , .

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