Dear Modern Farmer,
I feel like a soil criminal. This year, the timing and weather meant we had to get our broccoli crop in the ground quickly. The soil in the beds was way too wet, but we planted anyway. How can we undo any damage to the soil structure we might have done by digging when the soil wasn’t ready?
-Marc in Barcelona
Manjula and Orin Martin.
Photo By Stephanie Martin
Orin: First, give yourself a break. With cultivation – unlike with an actual felony – there are some gray areas under the law. One mishap isn’t gonna destroy everything forever. That’s just the way this business works – sometimes you have to go ahead and plant even if your soil isn’t quite ready. With a broccoli crop, what you can do is just slip in there with a quick cover crop of buckwheat before you come in with your next crop in the summer to make amends.
Manjula: How do they know the soil was too wet in the first place?
Orin: Easy. Any time you’re using any kind of tool, if soil sticks to the implement, if there’s a sheeny shine to it, and it glistens? That’s too wet. Wait a few days. Generally if you’re going to err, I’d say err on the side of working soil that’s too dry over soil that’s too wet. And it’s true that if a soil isn’t at the right moisture, you can destroy the structure.
Manjula: Also, digging should be fun. Well, okay, not always, but wet soil is much heavier than a soil that’s at the right moisture. If you’re breaking your back or you find you can’t really finesse the dirt or get it to do what you want, it’s probably too wet. That, or you need to reconfigure your ergonomics.
So, Marc doesn’t have to go to soil jail? He’s good to go for this crop? No behavior modification needed?
Orin: Well, a gardener can’t always be perfectly behaved, but since you asked … It doesn’t hurt to take a big step back and make sure you have a broader awareness of cultivation in the first place. Pretty much any way you slice it, you’ll have to work the soil in some way to grow crops. What are you trying to achieve by working the soil? Cultivation prepares the soil for crops, but cultivate has another meaning, to seek the acquaintance of. The Latin root of the word means to till or to worship – and all those meanings apply here. You can say that we as gardeners are an extended cult devoted to digging.
Manjula: Ah! I always knew I was secretly raised in a cult!
Orin: Yeah, I guess your choice to live in the city is some sort of deprogramming for that, huh?
Anyway, some basics: Your main objective in soil cultivation is to create and maintain good tilth. “Tilth” is actually a composite term for a whole bunch of soil science terms, but in short, tilth equals the ease and workability of the soil in relationship to its ability to grow plants well. The act of digging can aid in that process. Digging or plowing helps to open up the soil to create good structure and aggregates.
Cultivation does a bunch of additional stuff depending on your needs – it can help dry and warm the soil, promote good aeration and drainage for air and water, get organic matter back into the soil, and create a fine particulate surface for a seed or seedling bed. Cultivation can be used as weed control – just knock ’em down – and to break up compaction or “hard pans.” But it’s basically all about the soil structure.
A soil with good tilth is open – it’s loose, permeable on the surface, and you have a continuous network of pores, from surface to subsoil. As organic growers, we want plants to be able to push through the soil easier and further, and get better yields. And we want our friends the microbes comfortable in there so they can break down organic matter and create plant food. By stirring soil or adding air, you also stimulate microbes and basically cause nutrient release. That’s good, but in moderation. Too much of it will burn the soil out.
Manjula: Is there such a thing as too much digging?
Orin: Yes! Generally, you need to dig. However, I do think there’s this perception in organic (or biological, as they say in Europe) gardening that you have to be double-digging everything, over and over, forever and ever. Digging and plowing are radical acts. People don’t understand that ”“ you’re really disrupting the soil ecosystem every time you dig or plow. The act of digging into the dirt with a spade is a two-edged sword.
Digging and plowing are radical acts. People don’t understand that ”“ you’re really disrupting the soil ecosystem every time you dig or plow.
Manjula: Uh, you lost me with that last metaphor…
Orin: Okay, I’ll say it fancier: Cultivation is powerful tool for improving the fertility of the soil, but done poorly it can destroy a soil.
Remember, with organic gardening, you’re not really growing the plants as much as setting up a situation where the plants will grow for you. With any cultivation you do – and you should do some – the main idea is to provide a well-drained, well-aerated, fertile soil structure that enables plants to penetrate it and grow in it with ease, especially in a downward direction. The thing with roots is, roots don’t actually grow in soil. They grow in the interstitial spaces between the soil particles. It’s like that old Dave Matthews song: “The Space Between…”
Manjula: Ew, no. No Dave Matthews allowed in our column, Dad!
Orin: Yeah, I know. I hate him, too, but I used to use that reference on my apprentices in the 90s. How about Miles Davis instead? Miles said, “Music is the space between the notes.” In an analogous sense, the solid particles of soil are important, but so much happens in the spaces between the soil particles. The “music” – the fertility, as it were – is all about having adequate space.
Manjula: So, I recently looked up that quote for unrelated musical purposes, and according to the highly unreliable sources on my search engine results page, it may actually have been Claude Debussy who said that. Miles said something like “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” But your musical point stands: Space is important. How can a person get better at cultivating the space between the soil – namely, at digging? Other than reading about it on this here Internet, I mean?
Orin: The old-fashioned way: Go and learn these skills from someone who knows how to do ’em. Find someone and get ’em to talk with you and work side-by-side. Or in some areas there are great gardening education programs, public workshops at local farms, etc. Make some new friends.
Manjula: Smart friends are really important. Possibly your best gardening tool ever.
Orin: So there’s your takeaway, budding soil criminals: Friends don’t let friends dig a soil when it’s too wet.
Manjula: Or listen to Dave Matthews.
Want more growing advice? Check out all of Orin and Manjula’s columns here.