Kitchen & Garden: Wet soil gives gardener a sinking feeling

Friday afternoon I wandered out to the garden and peered over the fence. The ground had begun drying out, just enough so the peaks in the tilled soil had turned the color of cardboard. All the rest of the dirt was still dark and muddy. If the skies had cleared, I might have been able to go back in by the middle of this week.

So much for that. The rains that arrived on Saturday soaked the ground again and I'm still peering over the fence. When the ground is as saturated as it is now, it takes at least five days of warm, sunny weather, preferably with a breeze, to dry the soil enough to be worked.

You don't want to be poking around in the dirt before it's dry enough. Digging and tilling are bad things to do to wet garden soil. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worst, digging is a 5 and tilling is a 10.

Even walking in the garden is a no-no because you compact the soil as you plod � that is, if you don't sink in. All gardeners probably should have the experience just once in their lives of trying to walk on tilled garden soil after a prolonged, deep-soaking rain. Suddenly, all those old black-and-white jungle movies, in which the khaki-clad safari person slips into quicksand, suddenly make sense.

The sound of the suction created by a tennis shoe submerged in ankle-deep mud is very impressive. If you happen to have an audience for this maneuver, these lucky bystanders will be doubled over in laughter and may not see you fall down, which is the inevitable next event in the sequence. This is a law of garden-mud physics.

As it happens, however, this is no jungle movie and no one is going to throw you a vine. Fortunately, most Kansas gardens have a layer of hardpack or clay underneath them, so you can only sink so far.

Tilled dirt offers no support when it's saturated with water. That nice, loose soil that ran through your fingers when it was dry turns to soup. Even when the soil is partially dried out, it can be very deceptive.

Make a note: The soil dries from the surface down, so even when it's starting to dry, it may not be able to support you, particularly if you tilled to a depth of 6 to 8 inches as a good gardener should.

What you want is for the soil to return to that loose state it was in before the recent monsoon. If you mess with the dirt too much before it's dry enough, you can alter the texture of the soil when it does dry out. Good soil will be loose and will have a certain heft to it, allowing it to retain moisture and support micro-organisms that make your garden thrive. Bad soil compacts when it's dry, which makes life difficult for the roots on your vegetable plants.

When you walk into your garden a few days after a rain, check for footprints � yours, that is. If you're leaving clear impressions, go back out and try again the next day. Even if the soil supports your body weight, you won't be able to do anything below ground.

One observation that I made when I was gazing over the fence Friday was that my garden was drying out unevenly. I was able to discern high spots and low spots in the soil, which is the result of tilling. The driest areas were along the outside edges of the garden, where the tiller stops before I back up to make another pass.

However, I also noted some high places in the center of the garden, which I can level out with a rake before I plant those areas. Leveling the surface of the garden is important because the low spots pull water toward them and allow it to pool there. This summer during periods when the only precipitation is coming from a hose, the low spots will keep the garden from being evenly moist when I water.

� When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.


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