How deep do I need to dig my soil in Spring?


Is there a general rule of thumb for digging compost into the soil in the spring? Is it necessary to use a rototiller or can I get away with digging by hand? My soil is always very compacted after winter and hard to work with.

Posted by: Pamela Croft (1 point) Pamela Croft
Posted: April 6, 2013


I tend to mulch on top of the soil with compost/everything/anything.

I'm also of a mind set that the goal is to establish a bed once where you might heavily alter it (rototilling) and tilling bulk amendments into the soil. From there there is very minor maintenance items that you can just apply to the top of the soil, building from the top down. That isn't to say you cant till again if you feel you have something major to correct just that major corrections should not be a yearly endeavor.

If a rake and shovel are the only tools I need to use, to me, that is a good year. I have told my wife and guests multiple times that you are not to step into the garden beds. it pretty much never fails that someone eventually does and they are always surprised by how spongy and how much they sink. That is when I get to inform them "that is why I don't want you on it you're compacting it."

So if your stuck in a yearly compaction rut trying to figure out the cause and coming up with a more long term solution may be better spent time than tilling. Also I love human powered tools, Breaking in new ground with picks mattocks and turning soil with a shovel. I don't get a lot of outdoors labor so it is a breath of fresh air to me, a chore that is not a chore.

Posted by: Wurgulf (1 point) Wurgulf
Posted: April 7, 2013

Pamela Croft commented,
I do have raised beds for most of my edible plants but there is another area of the garden which is not great, that is where the compaction occurs. I believe I can rent a rototiller for the day?
over 11 years ago.

I've read a couple books on soils recently that challenge the notion of adding lots of compost to the soil. Both of them recommend adding far less compost than most organic gardeners (me included) typically use.

For instance, for a new garden that has low organic matter, Phil Nauta, in Building Soils Naturally, uses 2-3 inches mixed into the top 8-10 inches of soil. But he says that's too much to use more than once. For established gardens, he adds 1/8 to 1/4 inches of compost to the surface and, at most, may "lightly incorporate" it -- no tilling.

If your soil is heavily compacted in the spring, that calls for either a substantial layer of mulch to protect the soil over the winter, or else (if your climate permits) a cover crop. In urban and suburban areas, mulch is available free from tree trimmers. I'd use at least a 4-6 inch layer. In rural areas, you may be able to get horse manure (test it first) -- it can be piled as high as 12 inches and will shrink to half of that by spring. One year I had access to horse manure from an organic farm and covered a couple beds at least a foot deep. In the spring it wasn't all broken down, but it was good enough for tomatoes.

If you still have a month or so before you will be planting in that compacted soil, you can make the soil more workable simply by mulching with whatever you can find. Google "lasagna gardening" for ideas.

Another longer-term strategy is to plant crops that will help loosen the soil, such as daikon.

Posted by: Tanya in the Garden (128 points) Tanya in the Garden
Posted: April 8, 2013

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