To till early or not to till

Bob Dluzen
Special to The Detroit News

This week, during the third week of March,  I decided to till the vegetable garden. For southeastern Michigan, it’s pretty early for that but I decided not to wait much longer this year.

During the last couple years during the month of March, much of the garden had standing water. By the time the water receded, I wasn’t able to till the soil until June.

The problem was, every time the soil was on the verge of having the proper moisture level, it would rain again making it too wet to till

It can be tempting to till according to the date on the calendar, but tilling while the soil is too wet is always disastrous for soil structure. Soil damage of that sort can cause problems for years to come, depending on the type of soil you have. It’s a much better plan to lose a couple weeks of growing time rather than ruin your soil because of impatience. 

A quick test for soil moisture is the ol’ squeeze test. Grab a handful of soil and squeeze it hard as you can. If you see water coming out, it’s way too wet. Next, form the soil into a ball and poke it with your finger, if the ball of soil falls apart, the soil is ready to till. I wrote a blog last year discussing soil structure and soil moisture. Scroll back through my posts if you would like to read it.

After tilling, the soil was in near perfect condition.

This year, on March 24, the soil moisture was right in the sweet spot and everything else looked like it was a go. There was 1 to 2 inches of rain forecast, which would likely set me back more than a week. The early date was the only thing that made me hesitate.

I made a risk management decision and went for it -- only time will tell how it will work out.

I’m not the only one who made that same decision, farmers here and there are out on their tractors going over some of their driest fields with chisel plows. Those fields will most likely be planted with field corn.

With the advent of treated seed decades ago, farmers found they could plant field corn in April, well before the last frost.

Way, way back in the olden days, if a farmer tried to plant untreated seed corn in cold soil, the seeds would rot well before they ever got a chance to sprout. That fluorescent pink fungicide coating on the seeds lets the corn seed sit in place until conditions are conducive for germination. Seed for home gardens may not be treated with fungicide, especially if it is organic or heirloom.

No worries if there happens to be a hard frost that kills those early corn plants. Just the tops will be frozen. The growing point of corn plants at that stage is under ground where it is safe from freezing.

Once the temperatures warm back up, the young plants will come roaring back.

We can look forward to lots of fields with rows of baby corn plants in early May, or even before. While I’m driving through the countryside in the spring I always enjoy looking through the windshield at the first rows of corn popping up.

Now that my tilling is done, I’ll be able to plant some cool weather crops like peas, radishes, lettuce and potatoes.

One potential drawback is the possibility of the weather turning for the worse over a long period of time, allowing weeds to get a foothold. We’ll deal with that later if need be. And, it’s not all that unusual for us to get an April snowfall, but hopefully not this year.