When adding organic matter, make sure soil is dry first

Backyard Q&A

In the Garden

March 07, 2004|By Dennis Bishop | Dennis Bishop,Special to the Sun

During the last week's warm spell, I began preparing a flowerbed, but the soil was still very wet. Should I till it now or wait for the soil to dry out?

Aside from the weather, the one factor that limits gardeners more than all others is poor soil. To improve poor soil, you have to work with it and that typically requires digging or tilling in lots of organic matter. When organic matter is worked into dry soil, it can be thoroughly mixed in and breaks up the clay. This improves the overall soil structure.

However, when wet soil is tilled, the organic matter never mixes properly and tilling has the opposite effect. It causes the soil to compact and clump into balls that become very hard as they dry. This damages soil structure and can be very hard to undo. For this reason, you will need to be patient and wait for the soil to dry. If this were a small area, I would consider covering it with plastic during wet weather and uncovering it during dry weather until the soil dries.

Once the soil dries, you can add your organic matter and till it in. In the future, I would suggest that you till and prepare beds in the fall when the weather is drier.

I have a saucer magnolia in my front yard that is beautiful when it flowers, but it seems that the flowers are destroyed by frosts every two to three years. Are there hardy varieties of saucer magnolia?

Saucer magnolia is a very hardy plant that is listed as being hardy from zone 4 to zone 9. That means the plants will tolerate wintertime low temperatures of 20 to 30 degrees below zero without significant damage. They can be easily grown throughout the Northeast and Midwest. The problem with saucer magnolia and other spring-flowering magnolias is that the flowers will not tolerate frost. If there is a hard frost after the flowers open, it severely damages the flowers and causes them to turn brown. They look awful. This problem has nothing to do with hardiness zones. Gardeners in New York and Chicago have the same problem. In those areas, the magnolias bloom later in the year, but the late hard frosts also come later in the year and destroy theblooms. I am not aware of any saucer magnolias whose flowers are not susceptible to this damage.

Dennis Bishop is an urban horticulture educator for the Baltimore office of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Services. If you have a gardening or pest problem, you can call the Home and Garden Information Center hot line (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.) at 800-342-2507. You can also e-mail questions, order publications and diagnose plant problems by visiting the Web site www.hgic.umd.edu.


1. It is time to plant early spring vegetable crops, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, onions, peas, spinach, turnips.

2. The native redbud tree is an excellent choice for the home landscape. If you want one, look now and buy early. The best selection is in the spring.

3. Planting season is here. By planting trees and shrubs now, you can help ensure they are established before the stress of summer weather.

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