Mud season

tiller michael r flickr.jpg
Soggy, muddy mess.                                                        Tom Scott/Flickr                           

Soggy, muddy mess.                                                        Tom Scott/Flickr                        


Between the pristine white of winter and the tender green of spring lies the treacherous, oozy brown of mud season.

We don’t suffer nearly so much here in New Jersey as in the New England states, where mud season is a ruefully acknowledged and inescapable fact of life. It’s a dirty, miserable interlude that sends many into deep despair or straight to the airport, mud still clinging to their boots. Winter you can take — at least there’s skiing and crisp, snowy vistas. It’s mud, totally lacking in redeeming social value, that makes you crazy.

New England suffers more comprehensively from mud season because it suffers more comprehensively from clay soils that turn sticky when wet. When snow melts and spring rains fall but subsurface soil remains frozen, the water has no place to go. That’s when you get mud, epic mud, that makes any unpaved road all but impassable.

Here in New Jersey, the southern half of the state has a sandy soil, known technically as “Downer,” which drains quickly and doesn’t retain moisture all that well. Hence, no mud.

It’s northern locations, especially the northwestern Highlands, where we have clay-like aggregates dropped by retreating glaciers. It would be more problematic for the public at large if we had more dirt roads, but this section of the state is pretty well served by giant interstate highways, county arteries and humble town roads, all blacktopped. Getting around generally isn’t a problem requiring jacked-up 4x4s and heavy-duty farm tractors.

While mud isn’t a pressing problem for every living soul, it’s still an issue for gardeners.

There’s nothing quite so discouraging as hiking out to the garden in early spring, only to find that your soil is wet, cold and imperfectly thawed — especially on the north side of fences, or at the bottom of slopes where excess surface water gathers, but doesn’t drain away. If your soil is high in clay-like components, it will stick to your shoes and make you feel very much like a frustrated New Englander.

Our serial March nor’easters have dropped lots of rain and snow this year, and where subsoil isn’t frozen, it’s likely saturated. I’ve got standing water in the yard and nearby farm fields and orchards are sporting expansive (if temporary) vernal ponds. Everything is squelchy underfoot.   

Don't till before soil has dried.                                     Michael R/Flickr

Don't till before soil has dried.                                     Michael R/Flickr

Before you think it’s time to get a jump on spring gardening by dragging out the tiller, stop, look and feel. If you grab a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball, and it holds its form like a good old-fashioned mud pie, it should not be tilled up, dug in or even stepped on.

Work the soil when it is too wet and you will squash the life out of it — literally. You will destroy the soil’s structure, leaving behind rock-hard clods requiring a sledge hammer to shatter. You’ll also compact the soil by squeezing out the air between soil particles that plant roots require every bit as much as water and nutrients.

Soil isn’t ready to be fussed with until that handful you’ve compressed crumbles at a touch or, if dropped from waist height, shatters into bits. That point will come when the sun gets warm enough to wick excess moisture from the soil — probably in another month or so, weather gods willing.

Yes, I know, it’s hard to wait when the daffodils are poking up, the perennials leafing out and the garden centers filling up with plants that get your fingers itching for a trowel. But you will lose more than you gain if you jump the gun. Don’t do it.

Tilling isn’t the be-all and end-all that some backyard gardeners may imagine, anyhow. Every time you turn the soil, you fold in oxygen that gooses microbial action and accelerates the depletion of organic matter meant to feed your plants. Tilling without adding fresh organic material can starve those micro-organisms to death, leaving you with a lifeless soil.

Besides disturbing soil critters, you pulverize the soil into a fine powder. Eventually, you can wind up with a layer of powdery soil sitting on top of a hardpan layer just below the reach of the tiller’s tines. One more reason not to over till: Every time you turn the soil you dredge up zillions of weed seeds and expose them to light, which will jump-start them into growth.

Cure your addiction to excess tilling by amending your soil with organic stuff — compost, peat, straw, mushroom spoils, salt hay, leaf mold, aged manure — whatever you can get your hands on. This works to improve both nutrient-poor sandy soils and air-deficient clay soils, by the way.

After blending in amendments, mulch the soil with something organic and leave it alone. Mulch will retain moisture and keep the soil surface cooler. This will encourage the worms to move in, and they will take over the tilling for you as they tunnel though the soil, leaving behind their rich casings (a k a worm poop).

But leave that tiller be for now, gardeners. And try to remember that patience is a virtue.