by Mark Highland
Winter just blew another round of snow into my Pennsylvania garden. Glancing out the window, the scene is awash with snowflakes drifting and dancing their way to the ground. Even though Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) ran from his shadow this year, spring seeds are on their way to my mailbox and I cannot wait to get started in the spring garden!
Many authors and seed packets say "Sow seeds as soon as the ground can be worked." Worked with what? How? The statement refers to the condition of garden soil. Is it still frozen or crusty? If this is true, odds are you will have to wait a few more weeks. When the earth is soft and you can slide a trowel a few inches into garden soil, the ground is ready "to be worked". The "work" part of that statement refers to sowing seeds, or to what many veggie gardeners do before sowing seeds, the double dig.
Double digging consists of sliding a tool (I prefer a heavy-duty garden fork) into the soil by stepping on the hilt. Let the weight of your body push the tool into the ground. Move handle back and forth to gently loosen soil. Repeat down the length of your veggie garden. Next, go back to your starting point, slide fork back into soil, lift loosened soil up and flip over. Use tool to smooth out soil surface when done. If you need more advice on this subject, check out Patti's video on double digging!
Can't slide a digging fork to the hilt with just your weight? Add 3" of compost to your garden before starting the double dig process. This sets you up for success next year. Double digging results in improved soil infiltration of oxygen and water to thirsty plant roots. Double dig each year until you can slide a trowel to the hilt with ease. After a few years, double digging or tilling will exist only in memories of gardens past.
Here in PA, I am betting the ground will thaw in another couple of weeks, though there is always the chance of another chill in late March. A trick to get started early is laying out floating row cover to act as an insulator over the garden bed. Row cover is available from most local independent garden centers. Bamboo stakes hold the row cover off the soil surface. Rocks hold the edges down. Floating row covers create a greenhouse effect and help the ground thaw slightly earlier, so I can direct sow my first seeds around St. Patrick's Day.
Tasty beets, radish, carrot, spinach, and leeks will all be direct sown in soft earth. To sow seeds directly in the garden, make a line in the soil with a small twig. Any old twig will do. If you have a dibble stick or similar, by all means use it. Your goal is to bury the seeds three times deeper than their size. Most spring seeds should be about ¼" deep, but peas need about ¾ inch of soil cover, since they are about ¼ inch in size. Cover the line of seeds with a thin sprinkling of flour to mark their spot. This helps lay out your garden design without sowing seeds on top of each other. The flour will disappear after a good rain, but your seeds will germinate and begin to add the first swaths of color to your veggie garden landscape. I guarantee your harvests will increase from just a little early spring soil preparation. Now get out there, do some work, and get those hands dirty!
Don't forget to visit OrganicMechanicSoil.com
When Mark Highland is not out in the greenhouse or warehouse, Mark spends much of his time traveling to garden centers, trade shows and similar venues to promote, educate and inspire others to the many rewards of organic gardening. He has taught classes at Longwood Gardens, The Tyler Arboretum, Mt. Cuba Center, The Scott Arboretum, Callaway Gardens, and speaks regularly at public events like The Philadelphia Flower Show and to numerous garden clubs. Visit him at http://www.organicmechanicsoil.com
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