Why is the garden I tilled in the fall all cracked in the spring?

cracked soilI am a new gardener. I tilled up a place for a vegetable garden last fall. I just looked at the garden and the soil is all cracked. My neighbor’s garden doesn’t have cracks. Is my area safe? How do I fix it? If it is, what else do I need to do before planting?

To fix it, all you have to do is wait.

You tilled up the soil and loosened it. Then it got wet and froze. When water freezes, it expands. That’s your cracks. Just wait for the thaw and everything drops back into place. But this does not mean that you can hop back into the garden and start working.

If the soil is too wet, you, your tools and rototiller are going to do some serious soil compacting. If you ruin the structure of the soil, it will create a number of problems.

Take a handful of soil from the garden and compact it into a ball. Then take a finger and poke it. Don’t jamb it hard or gently caress it. Find a place in between. If the ball stays together, the soil is too wet. If the ball cracks apart easily, you can get back in the garden.

If you have not added organic matter, like compost or composted manure, to the garden, consider adding. The easiest way of doing it is to add a total of 4 inches deep over the area. But it is difficult to turn in that much so add two inches, till or mix it in and then add the final two. During the summer, you can mulch aisles with straw and in the fall, mow it up and turn it under.

But most importantly, get a soil test. You can buy a soil test self-mailer at www.msusoiltest.com and follow the link to the MSU Bookstore. You will get a recommendation in about two weeks and you then can adjust the pH or add any missing nutrients before vegetable season.

My white pine trees have finally gotten bigger and my perennials are now under the branches. They are not doing well. Some are dying. What do I do to remove all the acid that the pine trees are putting into the soil? What do I add to fix this for my flowers?

You have it backward.

Pine trees like to grow in acidic soil. They do not make the soil become more acidic. If you plant an evergreen in alkaline soil, it slowly or rapidly declines and dies. If it had the ability to change its environment, none would die because of alkaline soil problems. It would just acidify the soil and grow on.

But pines can grow in a soil pH that is somewhat variable. They will do well with a soil pH of 6.0, which is acidic to about a soil pH of 7.4 which is alkaline. The perennials require a soil pH of about 6.5 which is somewhat acidic.

Your perennials are not failing because of acidity. Your perennials that grow well in full sun are now being deprived of direct sunlight. You said they are under the branches, which means they are no longer getting uninterrupted sun. Dig up the perennials and move them to a sunny spot.

If you want to know what the soil pH is, get a soil test. It will also let you know if there are nutrients that should be added for the pines. A large portion of southeast Michigan had alkaline or neutral soil. The falling pine needles will contribute a miniscule amount of acidity to the soil which would probably be welcome. Now you can use that area to put in ferns, hostas and other shade-loving plants.

The soil didn’t change, the amount of sunlight did.

Contact MSU Extension-Livingston County Horticulture Educator Gretchen Voyle at (517) 546-3950.

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