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Planting in sodden soil

One of the cardinal rules of gardening is that you never work on wet soil. (Mona Makela/istockphoto)

We call it the Swamp Field because it was once quite wet, before we graded, drained and reclaimed it for agriculture. And on a recent rainy day, following a string of rainy days, it seemed to live up to its name. In fact, I started calling it the Sump Field as I carried my seedling flats down the paths between the beds. My boots made great sucking sounds as I labored forward.

One of the cardinal rules of gardening is that you never work on wet soil. You wait for mud season — or a stormy week — to pass. There’s a good reason for that: Working wet soil compacts it and turns it into dense clods that are hard to break up later, not only by you but also by all the ants, grubs and other soil organisms that normally till it by tiny degrees, tunneling it and keeping it loose, fluffy and easy for air to penetrate.

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.” View Archive

But the question is, how far can you push the rule? Can you dart in and correct a mislabeled row? Can you drop in a few seeds?

My beds were all formed, amended and ready to be planted. And I was not going to wield a shovel, spade, rake or even a hoe. I was just going to nudge the earth open enough to drop in small cubes of soil mix, each carrying a seedling that was getting impatient and root-bound. Planting them was long overdue. And besides, I was about to leave on a trip. They had to go into the sodden ground.

The ideal soil, the one we try hard to create and then preserve, has what’s called a “crumb” structure, like crumbs from cookies or crackers. But this soil, as I poked in my trowel, looked more like giant croutons, weighed down with a too-heavy dressing of vinegar and oil. Not only that, but recent tilling, just before the beds were formed, had left thousands of tiny weeds to shrivel in the sun — the sun that did not appear. I could only imagine the carpet of green they would become before my return.

Still, I kept on planting as gently as I could, not pressing the soil, not patting it, just fingering it lightly to cover any exposed roots. After lunch the sun did not exactly come out, but the rain stopped and I could walk down a path without lurching. By dinner time, the plants were all in, green broccoli leaves fluttering like small flags, marigolds boldly upright like tiny trees. It was perfect transplanting weather, I rationalized, the air full of moisture and no desiccating wind. Another day I will cultivate the beds with a light hoe, just skimming the surface. With any luck there will be sun when I do that, a bit of a breeze to dry out the weeds that lie on the surface after I’m done. A good day for a job like that.

Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

Tip of the week

Give tomato plants the elbow room they need to flourish. Even with stakes or cages to hold them up, indeterminate varieties should have 24 inches of room on each side to avoid crowding. Removing the “suckers” that emerge in leaf crotches will limit the sideways sprawl of the vine.

— Adrian Higgins



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