“As soon as the soil can be worked,” may be a phrase you’ve come across when reading about when to start your vegetable garden in the springtime. It’s a vague phrase about the condition of soil that may have you scratching your head in confusion.
Follow the short and sweet, two-step “workable” soil test below and you’ll understand what the commonly used, yet ambiguous phrase means. This will help you understand when you can start planting those early crops in your garden.
Two initial points to consider:
- This phrase mostly applies to in-ground, traditional garden beds because soil in raised beds or containers of varying sizes may dry up, warm up or drain at different speeds.
- This phrase is built around a feeling rather than a fixed calendar date. This date range will vary depending on where you live and your soil starts to be more or less “workable” soon after the official spring date. To find out the planting dates in your area, we recommend the Farmer’s Almanac Planting Calendar website.
Two-Step “Workable” Soil Test:
Step One: Go Outside (!!)
You’ll need to get your hands dirty to perform this quick “workable” soil test. If it’s still too cold to go outside, chances are the soil isn’t ready.
Step Two: Get Your Hands Dirty
Grab enough soil in your hands to squeeze and form a ball (or some version of a ball – mine was more like a skinny lemon shape!). Tap the “ball” (a.k.a. skinny lemon) with your finger, thumb or knuckle. If it easily comes apart and crumbles, it is dry enough to “work” or in more practical terms, it is dry enough to plant some seeds. If it stays firm and doesn’t “give” or if any moisture drains out, it isn’t ready. “Workable” soil will still have some moisture in it but not so much moisture that your seeds will rot in the ground.
That’s it! Now this doesn’t mean that your whole entire garden needs to be cleaned up and planted just yet. The first thing I do in my zone 5/6 garden is plant peas (Our Easy-Peasy Pea Planting Video and Article) and radishes around the end of March. After I decide what spot in my garden they’ll grow, I work in only that small area. Otherwise, I wait as long as I can and leave everything on the ground, as is, until the temperature rises. In early spring, insects (both the good and bad ones!) are still sleeping in their various little nooks and crannies of your garden. Under leaves, in the soil, etc. Many gardeners advise waiting to do spring clean up until the temperatures are consistently above 10°C or 50°F. But as for cleaning small sections to plant peas or radishes – if your soil crumbles, it’s ready!