In a few days, give a handful of dirt the squeeze test


March 28, 1992|By LINDA LOWE MORRIS

Here we are with another weekend that's starting off wet and rainy.

When spring brings us a succession of wet weekends, it takes some real planning to get the garden started. If you, like many of us, were planning to till up your vegetable garden today, you'll have to wait a few days until the soil dries out. Use your gardening time this weekend for preparation instead.

Here are a few ideas:

* We've said it before, but it's worth repeating: Don't work in the garden when the soil is wet. What you gain in time will be lost in productivity later because of the damage you'd be causing to the soil. Wait until the soil passes the cake-crumb test. Grab a handful of soil and squeeze it; it should fall apart into cake-like crumbs when you open your hand. If it stays in a ball, it's too wet to work in.

* April is a month for planting ornamental trees and shrubs, but once again it's best to wait until the soil is dry -- just as you would when digging up the vegetable or flower beds. But when you're planting trees and shrubs, there is some leeway. If you absolutely have no other choice, you can dig in soil that's somewhat wet -- or at least as damp as it would be maybe a day or two after a hard rain. Professional landscapers have to do it all the time.

When you dig the hole for your plant, lay down a tarp on the grass beside the hole and place the soil on it. That way you won't damage the lawn as much.

Dig a hole that's at least twice as wide and twice as deep as the plant's root ball. The larger the hole, the more room the plant has to grow. Make some cuts into the root ball to loosen the roots a bit before you plant the tree or shrub. Add organic matter to the hole -- the more clay you have in your soil, the more organic matter you should add. Then fill the hole.

If you're planting in wet soil, it's very important that you cover the bare soil around the plant with mulch. If you don't, the sun will bake it into something that looks akin to cement. Use compost, commercial bark mulch or hay.

* The best ways to use this weekend are to finish cleaning up the yard, sharpen tools, make sure you've got all your seeds and supplies -- and do some designing. Decide what trees, shrubs and flowering perennials you want to add to your yard this year. Then decide where you want to plant them. Take into consideration the requirements of the plant before you design. Some plants that do best in semi-shade, like rhododendrons, shouldn't be planted in the sunniest spots in the yard. They might survive there, but they won't be as lush and healthy as they would be if you cater to their needs.

* You can also use this weekend to catch up on your reading, or to go out in search of some books on gardening. There are two new ones worth looking for: "The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener: The Complete Guide to Growing Vegetables at Any Time of Year" (Summit; $30 in hardcover; $16, cloth) by Anne Halpin and "52 Weekend Garden Projects" (Rodale Press, hardcover, $22.95). These are written by two of the top garden writers in the country.

Ms. Halpin's book covers all the basics with plenty of charts and schedules. Even if you're an experienced gardener, you'll find new information (how to use the new floating row covers, for instance) that will improve your skills. Ms. Bubel tells how to create a butterfly garden, how to get a head start on tomatoes, how to root cuttings and how to choose the right wildflowers for your yard.

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