Ask a Master Gardener: How can I tell when soil is ready for planting?


Question: I know it's a bit too soon to be thinking of spring, but how will I tell if my soil is too wet to plant when the weather begins to change?

Answer: Do a quick test. Grab a handful of soil and compress it in your hand. When you open your hand and poke at the soil and it readily falls apart into smaller pieces, it is most likely that you can begin to plant. Don't forget about adding amendments if needed.

If, however, when you release your handful of soil, and it still clumps together, resisting breaking up, then your soil is probably too wet.

It's a good thing you asked this question, because planting in soil that is still too wet isn't good. It actually injures the soil. Beyond that, any seed or plant you place in wet soil will either sulk or rot. So be patient - better weather is on the way.

Q: I don't understand how people get such lush gardens with the cost of plants these days. Are there any ways to keep the cost down?

A: How about eliminating the cost? As in free? All you need are some generous friends and neighbors. And no, you won't be raiding their gardens. You'll be asking them if they would mind if you layered or took a cutting from a few of the plants in their yards. My guess is they'll be delighted to help out.

Let's tackle cuttings first, as they're the easiest. Many plants - penstemon, geranium, fuchsia, abutilon, willow to name just a few - will readily root from cuttings. You need to wait until the plants are leafed out in the spring, however. A quick test to determine if they will easily root is to take a pencil-thick cutting and try inserting it a few inches into a loosely filled pot of soil. If the stem buckles and bends it is definitely softwood, and you can begin new plants with cuttings.

Use a well-drained soil mix, and keep the soil warm. Keep the cuttings out of direct sunlight. An easy way to keep the right humidity is to place a clear plastic bag or lid on the pot. You'll have to remove it periodically to allow fresh air in.

You can take cuttings, about pencil-thick, from evergreens. Be sure to keep them covered, and insert the cutting two-thirds into the planting medium. They will take up to a few months to root.

Then there are the plants that are considered difficult to root. Layering consists of selecting a stem close to the ground, wounding the bark (scratching through the bark), and burying the wounded stem in a trench with a stone placed on the buried section to secure it. The tip of the stem is left protruding from the ground and the other end is left attached to the parent plant while the buried section produces new roots. This process can take from a few to several weeks.

The good news is that this is the best time of year to layer plants. So start asking around. Chances are your friends, neighbors or relatives will be interested to see what you're doing, and might even ask you for a start or two.

Q: I mentioned to a friend that I was going to start planning my vegetable garden after the holidays. She mentioned that I should pay attention to rotating my crops. I have some idea what this is, but can you please give me the lowdown on it?

A: Crop rotating is an ancient practice. Ancient civilizations in Africa and Asia, as well as the Romans, all perfected ways of doing it. Many of those techniques are still being used today.

Crop rotating is as useful for the home gardener as it is for the commercial farmer. It's done to reduce the build-up of pests and diseases, to improve the soil structure, and to avoid the depletion of particular nutrients. All of these undesirables can result when the same crop is planted repeatedly in the same place.

So don't place plants from the same groups in the same place every year. Move them.

Vegetable plants fall into these main groups: alliums (chives, garlic, leeks, onions, shallots); Brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, kale, kohlrabi, turnip, radish, mizuna, bok choi, radish, arugula, rutabaga); beets (beets, spinach, chard, Swiss chard); carrots (carrot, parsnip, parsley, celery, fennel, celeriac); cucurbits (cucumber, zucchini, melon, squash, pumpkin); daisies (artichoke, cardoon, endive, lettuce); legumes (beans, peas); potatoes (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, sweet and chili peppers).


Ask a Master Gardener will appear in The Bellingham Herald monthly through the winter. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to

Master Gardener Kathleen Bander is a resident of Bellingham and life-long gardener. For more information on Whatcom County Master Gardeners, go to

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