Heirloom Expert: Working Your Soil

Here’s how you know whether your soil is ready to be worked, plus some tips to garden through any season.

Row covers

Coldframes, floating row covers, and plastic hoop houses will have you gardening longer than most.

Photo by Doug Oster

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I’m chomping at the bit to get started in the garden. I’ve been researching things I can plant as early as possible. In my reading, I often see the instruction to “plant as soon as the soil can be worked.” How do I determine that?

Simply take the hours of daylight and divide that number by the days left before the last full moon of the spring. I’m just kidding, but it is one of those nebulous garden phrases which has been around forever. The easy answer is to go out in the spring and turn some soil over. If it sticks to the shovel, it’s too wet to work. Timing is everything when it comes to getting started. If you find the garden is dry enough to plant in the spring, get out there and get early crops in the ground. If you wait one day, you’ll guarantee yourself three weeks of rain.

One way to get around turning the garden over is to add compost or some other organic matter right on top of the existing soil. Creating a raised bed will allow you to sow year round. The only concern is the temperature for germination. In my zone 6 garden, seeds are planted as late as October, and then again in February. I choose cold-loving crops like lettuce, mixed greens, mache, tatsoi, arugula and others. Depending on the severity of the winter, most of the plants survive and can even thrive during the coldest months.

There are lots of tools for extending the season. Coldframes, floating row covers and plastic hoop houses will have you gardening longer than most.

A great resource is The Year Round Vegetable Garden by Niki Jabbour.


Doug is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Backyard Gardener and co-host of The Organic Gardeners radio program on KDKA.