Before I jump right into it, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Erin and I have a blog called The Impatient Gardener. It’s part gardening, part home decor and part learning-as-I-go DIY stuff.
I’m a master gardener in southeastern Wisconsin where I have an ever-expanding zone 5 garden. I love almost all kinds of gardening, from perennial and mixed borders, to containers overflowing with colorful annuals to vegetable and herb gardening. But enough with the introductions. Let’s get on with it.
And getting on with it is exactly what most of us who dream of gardening are anxious to do right about now. Who doesn’t want to get out there and start digging? And this is when the hardest part of gardening comes in. You have to resist the urge. When you are most eager to garden is probably exactly the wrong time to be in your garden.
Here’s why: The worst thing you can do to your garden is trudge around in your beds when the soil is saturated with winter’s leftovers and spring’s rain. It’s all about soil structure. Since soil structure falls under the category of “Possibly the most boring part of gardening to discuss” I’m not going to get into a lot of detail here, but think of soil structure as the texture of your soil. It might be very fine (sandy) or clumpy (clay) or, probably, something in between. The enemy of soil structure is compaction. That’s one reason why worms are so great to have in your garden: they are little aerators. It’s why gardeners love to add compost to their beds, not only for the nutritive benefits, but primarily for the wonderful benefits to your soil’s structure.
This beautiful soil is pretty close to perfect. If a handful of your soil forms a clump when you squeeze it and doesn't break apart into something that looks a little bit like this when you rap it with your fist, then it's too wet to work in.
So imagine you have a mix of wet clay and dirt and you pick up a handful, squeeze it, then set it down to dry out for a few days. When you come back, that handful of clay and dirt will have turned into an almost solid wad of unbreakable material (think about a paperweight you probably made in second grade). Now pretend you are a little plant root, maybe a little thicker than a hair on your head. Would you like to make your way through a would-be paperweight? Walking in your garden when the ground is saturated has the same effect. Any clay molecules (and most of us have at least some clay soil) will bind together, create hard-as-rock clumps and further compact your soil. Plants have a tough job ahead of them to thrive anywhere, don’t make it even harder by compacting their home.
I know you’re feeling disappointed right now, but fear not, you can still garden. Of course exactly what you can do, and when, depends on your climate, but most everyone should have already or can now do their late winter/early spring pruning (it really is the best time to do it). You can also do some light raking (standing outside your beds) and pretty much anything you can accomplish without stepping in a bed.
So when is it safe to really get in the garden? Some of us, of course, still have frozen ground, so feel free to tromp around if that’s the case (but do be a little cautious of spring bulbs popping up). Otherwise, you want to wait until the ground is sufficiently dry. You can check this by taking a handful of dirt and checking it out: When you squeeze it does it form a solid clump? Too wet. Does it crumble when you tap it with your fist? Then you’re probably safe. But a complete ban on bed-stepping is pretty hard to carry out, so if you absolutely MUST walk in your beds, consider using a board to step on to spread the load a little. In the meantime, to satisfy the gardening itch, spend some time making a plan of attack for spring, making mental notes of what needs moving, dividing and replacing so you’re ready to roll as soon as your soil is. Good luck and good gardening (or waiting, as the case may be).