It's barely a month before our last estimated frost date.
Some years we have gone from now until then without a nightly frost and other years, just when we think it is safe to lay seed to soil, we are blasted with one last-ditch effort from winter. But time is fleeting for those who like to get a head start on the season. If you haven't yet started seeds indoors for your vegetable garden, now is the time. Now is the time for planting indoors that is. It is still a bit early to venture into the vegetable garden.
On a recent visit to a few garden centers in search of seeds, because I would rather buy locally (unless, of course, I was looking for an exotic variety that couldn't be found anywhere else), I was just a little surprised to see vegetable plants already looking leggy in their six-pack containers. Who would buy them now and where would they put them? I suppose one could buy oversized plants and transplant them into larger containers. But now we have the added expense of buying more and larger containers, not to mention the space needed to store these larger plants.
Patience is still needed, even when the temperatures in late April are high enough to warrant wearing a bathing suit to do our yardwork. Patience to not only wait to plant, but patience to stop and take a good look at our soil. After a long, cold winter of freezing and thawing (but mostly freezing), we need to find out what's going on down there. There is life, after all, deep in the earth, even if we can't see it.
This time of year in my garden, at least, the soil is wet. First it was the melting snow and then the spring rain that keeps my garden from drying out enough to work. Disturbing wet soil can affect the garden for the rest of the season.
Soil that is worked when too wet changes texture. Although I read this in many gardening books and magazines over the years, I never really knew that it meant until one spring that's exactly what we did. We tilled the garden before the soil had a chance to dry out adequately. Once it did dry out, we were left with a hard-caked mess that gave the impression it was full of small pebbles until we realized it wasn't pebbles at all but small dirt balls that wouldn't break up no matter what we did. The only thing left to do was wait out the season and do it right the next year.
When is the right time? It's an easy test and I've mentioned it many times. Simply pick up a handful of garden soil and squeeze. Does water drip out of it? When you open your hand, does the soil form a nice solid ball? If it does, leave it alone for a few days.
But if your soil falls apart in your hand then you can do what you need to do to start your garden preparations. By falling apart, I don't mean it has to be so dry that a good wind will blow it away. Every article on soil that you read will tell you it should be the consistency of moist cake.
Once your soil is dry enough to work, it needs to be fed. The adage among gardeners is ''feed the soil and let the soil feed the plants.''
Remember that soil is alive. It is filled with more micro-organisms than you can imagine, all doing a specific job to maintain texture and build nutrients. There are insects in there, some you can see, like earthworms, but many you can't see. They work to aerate the soil so that it can take in oxygen and ease the flow of water. Insects eat dead roots under the ground and what they expel acts as a natural fertilizer for new plants.
Another way to feed the soil is to add organic matter. Organic matter is nothing more than decaying plant material. Whether it's composted kitchen scraps or manure, that black, rich material was once a growing plant of one kind or another. The plant material is broken down by living organisms that feed on decaying matter and leave behind exactly what we need to make our soil manageable and nutritious.
Organic matter comes in many forms. It comes from the grass clippings you rake up after you mow your lawn and from the leaves you gathered last fall. It is your vegetable peels that are too often discarded in plastic bags and tossed into land fills instead of going back to the earth where they should be. It is even in your newspaper. Newsprint is a recyclable material, originating from plants and the ink is soy based and biodegradable. Shredded newspaper makes good mulch between planting rows as long as it isn't from the shiny, advertising section.
Building healthy soil is an ongoing process. It isn't something you do one season and forget about for 10 years. As our plants grow and use up the organic nutrients, amendments need to be replaced.
Add all the organic matter you can once the soil is dry enough to be worked. Keep tilling to a minimum for a couple of reasons. Over tilling can harm beneficial organisms in the soil and tilling will turn over weed seeds exposing them to the light and encouraging them grow. Just like mixing muffin or pancake batter, only turn the mixture enough to slightly mix.
But don't plant just yet. It's still just a bit early, so next week we'll talk about soil structure and PH. Tune in.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.