Gardening Tips for Seedy Characters: Week 20

What to do this week

Soon we will be getting very itchy to plant, but how do you tell for sure that your soil is ready?

One of the most common questions I get this time of year is if it is time to plant yet, and I always say, well, it may not be time for me to plant, but it may be time for you to plant. Here’s how you tell.

By SuSanA Secretariat [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo by SuSanA Secretariat, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Head out to your garden and grab a big fistful of soil and give it a good squeeze, as tight as you can. If you open your fist and it just sits there like a big, solid lump, the soil is too wet still, and likely too cold, to plant. If it falls away to a coarse powder, the soil is too dry, and you waited too long and are going to have to hustle. But if it falls apart nicely, it is perfect.

The reason I recommend you test your soil like this is that if you go by the temperature, or the amount of rainfall, you will not be taking into consideration the reality that different soil types are ready at different times.

Clay soil holds water, so it takes a long time to warm up after winter. If you squeeze it tightly every once in a while, you will find that it is well into Spring before it crumbles nicely in your hand. We tend toward clay soils here in Cape Breton, but there are variations, so get to know your site. Since a clay soil will take longer to be ready, you can start to test now, and track it until it is ready.

Sandy soil is the opposite. It dries out and warms up fast in the Spring. Even after a heavy rain it will dry up nicely. Obviously, you don’t want a soil that is too clay or too sandy, and you can also discover these conditions with this test. The solution to both extremes is compost, and that would be the long term plan to treat either soil. But in the meantime, if you were wondering when to plant, you now know how to check. It isn’t about a particular date, it is about your site. The squeeze test is perfect because it is site specific.

Some plants, like onions, peas, lettuces, spinach, even the brassicas, are cold tolerant. They don’t even mind a bit of light frost, so many people plant them long before this test would give you a go. But even they may not do well if you plant them when the soil is too damp, and the seed rots. So for these really early plantings, they don’t mind the temperature as we feel it so much, but they do mind damp soil. This is yet another reason why I recommend this test — it is a combined assessment of both the temperature and moisture condition of your soil.


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Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.



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