Working the soil
The best landscape plan in the world will turn into an empty dream if the plants grow poorly. So before you turn the first spadeful of earth, ponder this question: How has the weather been?
If the dirt is gummy wet, wait until it dries out enough to crumble when you try to squeeze it into a handful. If it’s brick hard, water deeply and then wait until it dries to the moist but crumbly stage. If your spade slides in easily, read on.
Spade, Shovel and Moon Phase
The hard work of turning up the soil will seem a little easier if you use a spade. It should be square, sharp, and straight or nearly straight in its shank. When you push it into firm earth with your foot, you want all the force to go straight down the blade. And if you use a file to keep it sharpened, roots and clods of soil won’t be major obstacles.
The best time for cultivating your garden is during the waning phases of the moon or when the moon is transitioning from full moon to new moon. To further refine the best time for tilling the moon should be in an Air or Water zodiac sign.
A scoop-shaped shovel, with its pointed blade, should be used for mixing or turning loose materials. You handle it as if it were a combination of a spade and scoop.
The point on the shovel helps you to slide it into the material and the concave blade keeps the material from sliding off as you lift and turn. A shovel blade is set at an angle to the shaft so it stays flat when you push it horizontally into a pile of material.
In spading up small areas of soil, many gardeners make the mistake of turning each spadeful of earth completely over. If you make the same mistake, any weeds, leaves, or other debris in the soil will form a one spade-deep barrier that cuts off air and water.
Instead, you should lay the dirt on its side (against the previous shovelful) so the original surface is vertical to the ground.
Using a spade to turn the earth is fine for small areas, but for really big jobs you may want to rent or buy a power tiller. Because a tiller is adjustable, it can either scratch the surface or dig down several inches.
If you want to add amendments to packed soil but find it hard to make the tiller dig deep enough, start tilling at a shallow depth. Go over the area a second time (or even a third) with the tiller at a deeper setting each time. (Generally, the more powerful the tiller and the higher its horsepower, the deeper it can dig into the soil.)
In adding amendment, you should mix in a quantity that is from a quarter to a half of the finished volume of soil. (For more information on soil amendments, see soil amendment chart) Don’t pile up so much amendment that the tiller can’t penetrate the soil.
To avoid this, start by adding the amendment in 2 or 3-inch layers, tilling in each layer. If the amendment you choose needs nitrogen, add part of the amount with each amendment layer. Finally, don’t till in the same direction each time you add a layer of amendment. For the best mix the furrows should be at right angles to the furrows you made on your previous run.
Three Step Soil Amendment Guide
1) Spread a 2 to 4-inch layer of soil amendment over soil with a rake; add nitrogen fertilizer if needed. Don’t till yet.
2) Scatter superphosphate or bone meal (following package directions) for good root growth. If amendment is sawdust, also add iron chelate.
3) Cultivate in one direction, then at right angles, tilling the top 8 or 9 inches of soil. Repeat several times to mix soil evenly with amendment.
Following these steps will increase your chances for having a wonderful year in the garden. Happy tilling!