Gardeners have a natural tendency to try to rush the season. Many garden guides will tell you to plant as soon as the soil can be worked, but few explain how to gauge this.
Long-time gardeners know by the feel of it. Soil that is worked too early is too wet, and it makes clumps, which makes it harder for young seedlings to grow. Gardens with good drainage, and those enriched with lots of organic matter seem to reach the working stage earlier than those which are low-lying or heavy clay.
You gauge when the soil is ready by squeezing some of it between your hands. If it makes a ball that's tight, hard and wet, it's too early to work. If it makes a loose ball, or just crumbles back into your hands, you can begin. If it's somewhere in between, you can work small areas with a spade and your hands, and save the power tools, which can really clump up wet soil, for later.
The time differs according to the lay of the land, the type of soil, and the season, but, in most of the country, soil is ready to be worked sometime between the Ides of March and the middle of April.
And that's when it's time to start planting hardy crops, like potatoes and peas, cabbages, broccoli, lettuce, turnips, radishes, beets, onions and all kinds of hardy greens. These can withstand the unpredictable changes of spring.
Cool weather crops, in fact, thrive on spring weather. They make their best growth when the days are cool and washed by spring rains, and in the time of lengthening days before the summer solstice. They'll bolt to seed in summer sun.
Early planting provides early eating. Hardy crops will have you eating fresh vegetables in May and June, and they'll yield their garden spots for mid-season plantings.
To stretch the cool weather crops into summer, though, try planting New Zealand spinach instead of the regular types, which seem to bolt faster than any other plants. New Zealand spinach is not true spinach, but a sprawling green, of which only the tips are harvested. It will grow through most of the summer, and, cooked, it's really hard to guess it's not spinach.
If you're going to plant peas, don't neglect the revolutionary Sugar Snap variety, which will change your ideas about peas. Before Sugar Snap, I found ordinary peas hardly worth the effort of growing them. Shelling is tedious, and it takes so many pods to yield a bowl of peas. Chinese peas were easier, but they produced pods, and never peas, because, by the time the peas grew to an edible size, the pods were too tough to eat.
Then, a miracle of breeding produced Sugar Snap. These produce both edible pods and peas, because the pods never get tough, so they can be allowed to fill out. All you have to do is string them, like old-fashioned string beans, and you get a double harvest of really sweet peas, and pods.
These produce well into the summer, too, but they grow to extraordinary heights, so a gardener must provide strings or trellises. From what I've seen, these trellises can't be too tall, either. I've watched these peas climb six-foot trellises and then double back upon themselves. Give them plenty of vertical space, and they'll repy you in peas.
Don't forget greens, either. They're rich in iron, and full of spring, and they grow so fast in cool weather that you'll be eating them sooner than you can believe. Mustard and turnip greens are both worth growing, and there is a wide variety of Oriental greens to add spice to your life. One of my favorites is a green called Shungiki. It's a member of the chrysanthemum family, and the greens are hot-flavored and unusual. Unharvested plants bloom into a pretty display of yellow flowers.
So, go out and squeeze your soil. See if it's ready to work, and get started. Early crops will prove to you that the early bird gets a lot more than just worms.