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Working Wet Gardens Means Lots Of Trouble
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- If the ground is so muddy gardeners don't want to put their hands in it, they shouldn't put their shovels in it either.
Dr. David Nagel, horticulturist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said wet ground is seriously damaged when it is worked.
"Anytime you can squeeze water out of the soil, it is too wet to work with," Nagel said. "If you step on soil and water comes around your shoes or you can rub soil between your thumb and forefinger and make a ribbon that holds together, you probably need to wait before you start gardening.
"If you work soil while it is wet, it breaks up the soil aggregates, and then water, air and roots can't move through the soil," Nagel said. "You have destroyed the soil's structure."
The structure of soil is improved by organic matter, which serves as glue to the soil particles. The clay particles themselves bond together weakly by a slight electrostatic charge.
The amount of water a soil can hold depends on how much clay is in the soil. Many areas of the state have a high clay content and gardeners should wait five to seven days after a rain to work this soil. Sandy loam soils contain a lot of sand and can be worked about two days after a rain. Silt soils need three to four days to dry sufficiently before being worked.
"Don't farm by the calendar, farm by your soil conditions," Nagel said.
If the ground is currently wet, the weatherman calls for extended rain and the calendar says plant, the best thing to do is burn the weeds down with a herbicide, Nagel said. Plant among the dead weeds, and work the soil around the new plants once the ground has dried.
If soil is already damaged by having been worked wet, add at least a half inch of composted material to the soil.
"Organic matter is good, even if you haven't damaged your soil, because it helps the aggregates form and allows water to run through the soil," Nagel said.
Soil takes years to bond together again once it has been physically forced apart, Nagel said. Once damaged, the ground dries more slowly, gets harder when it is dry and doesn't accept water as well. Some weeds thrive on this soil, but desirable plants never do.