sealPurdue News

May 16, 2002

Expert: Avoid compacting garden soil; wait until it dries to plant

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Indiana residents ready to plant their gardens should wait until the soil dries to prevent causing long-term damage to the soil, said a Purdue University expert.

Excessive rains sweeping across the state have saturated much of the soil. Tillers and garden spades used in wet soil can compact the soil causing lasting, negative effects.

"Soil compaction lasts a long time," said B. Rosie Lerner, Purdue Extension consumer horticulturist. "It takes a long time to build soil structure and very little time to destroy it."

Lerner said that disturbing wet soil by any method – even walking on it – will pack it.

Healthy soil consists of soil, air, water and nutrients mixed in a delicate balance. The long-term effects of compacted soil include poor aeration, poor drainage, reduced nutrient availability and the formation of large, rock hard dirt clods. It can take years to correct these problems, Lerner said.

Gardeners should test the soil's moisture content before they begin planting. If the soil is dry enough to be worked it will crumble when squeezed in the hand. Soil that forms a muddy ball needs to dry a few more days and then be tested again.

Even though more rain may be in the forecast, anxious gardeners do not need to worry too much, said Lerner, because there is still time to plant.

"The time to plant warm season and summer crops is now, and we have at least a month of planting time still left," Lerner said. "It's a little late for cool season crops, but most can be planted in late summer or early fall for a fall harvest.

"There is still time to plant seeds of crops like carrots, green beans, sweet corn and beets."

Lerner said that vine crops, such as squash, cucumbers, melons and pumpkins, can be planted as seeds or transplants, but tomatoes, peppers and eggplant should be planted as transplants only.

For gardeners who have already purchased seedlings to plant, Lerner offered the following tips on temporary storage:

  • Protect seedlings from excessive wind.

  • Monitor plants frequently for watering needs. Plants in containers dry out more quickly than they do in the ground.

  • Make sure seedlings have plenty of light so the plants fill out properly.

  • When keeping seedlings outside, store them on the east side of the house to protect them from excessive sun.

    If seedlings grow too large for their original containers, Lerner suggests either the use of larger pots until the seedlings can be placed in the garden, or growing the seedlings in large containers instead of the garden.

    Gardeners who frequently have drainage problems may consider container gardening as an alternative.

    "Considering the weather, container gardening may be the answer this year," Lerner said.

    Raised beds are another option for wet gardens because the soil drains better. A short raised bed can be created by mounding up the soil, but beds more than 6 inches tall should be outlined by boards or blocks. While constructing a raised bed can be a large task, Lerner said the benefits outweigh the time spent on construction.

    For more gardening tips, visit Purdue Extension's new GardenTIPS Web site.

    Writer: Virginia Retzner, (765) 494-6681,

    Source: B. Rosie Lerner, (765) 494-1311,

    Related Web sites:
    HO-200 Container and Raised Bed Gardening

    Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes,;

    Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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