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Ask Extension: Should I turn my garden soil before planting?

Photo: Gail Hudson, UMN Extension Communications

Q: Should I turn my vegetable garden soil before planting?  My partner and I have a community garden plot. My partner argues that turning the soil will disrupt and kill the good stuff. On the other hand, I argue that it will aerate the soil and break it up to allow plants to root. 

A: There are both pros and cons to tilling your soil. The benefits of tilling soil include what you had mentioned: it aerates the soil, permits easier expansion and elongation of roots/bulbs/tubers, breaks up compaction, and warms the soil for planting.

However what your partner mentioned is also true: tilling weakens or disrupts soil aggregates (where soil stores water and nutrients), promotes crusting and increases erosion potential, and speeds loss of organic matter through decomposition. So in general, you want to maintain a balance and don’t want to till the soil too often. If the soil structure looks good, there isn’t any compacted soil, and there aren’t any weeds/competing plants, you should be fine without tilling or with minimal aeration.

Most soils will have some weeds right now, and hand pulling them is probably best. If the soil is really compact and it's difficult to pull the weeds, that's where a little bit of tilling could help.

How to till if necessary

If you do need to till, it’s better to stick with hand-tilling, using tools like hoes, shovels and rakes or better yet, use a broadfork, tilther or a metal rake if you have it (versus a mechanical tiller).   These tools will only minimally disturb soil aggregates and have a lower risk for compacting soil.

And you should not till if the soil is wet, as this will lead to compacted soil when it dries. There are simple tests a gardener can do to know whether the soil is too wet to till. Soil that is too wet will stick to a shovel or shoes, and will maintain a ball instead of crumbling when squeezed. Wait a couple of days until it has dried slightly, and try again.

If you are turning the soil, take advantage of this time to add and incorporate organic matter like compost and slow release fertilizer for vegetable gardens.

Rake the planting area after tilling or spading. A firm, fine seedbed is best, especially for small-seeded crops.

Author: Catherine B., UMN Extension Master Gardener; Natalie Hoidal, Extension Educator - Fruit & Vegetable Production Systems; Julie Weisenhorn, Extension Educator - Horticulture

Q: We got ahead of ourselves and planted vegetables and flowers in brand new raised gardens. Looking at the upcoming forecast, there could be a frost by the end of the week. Will our plants die?

A: If you've planted already...cover these newbies with leaves, straw, a sheet, plastic--anything will do.  If it doesn't freeze, your plants (the hot weather ones: tomato, peppers, squash, eggplant) won't die, but they may "sulk" for a few weeks. The cold shuts down their enzymes and it takes time for recovery.

If you've just purchased annuals for your's a good idea to wait until the cold weather passes before planting.

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