Gardening is hard enough without adding in the back-breaking labor of plowing the soil. However, without plowing, your garden will never reach its full potential. The advantages of plowing far outweigh the disadvantages, especially when it comes to vegetable gardens where a high yield of produce is the desired outcome. Knowing a little about how and why to plow, or cultivate, will motivate you to strap on your boots and hit the dirt.
Plowing is the act of turning or loosening the soil. Often referred to as cultivation, it is used to improve the soil so your crops will grow better. Optimal garden soil should be loose, evenly textured and readily crumbled 12 to 18 inches down. Using additives, when plowing, can help overly sandy or thick clay soils achieve this texture.
Roots need oxygen for cell respiration and the correct amount of water to nourish the plant. Plowing nurtures the soil by providing aeration and improving drainage. A well-plowed space also allows for easy root movement. Fighting against compacted soil wastes good growth time and energy for the plant while well-cultivated soil allows the roots to move freely and get the water and nutrients they need. Plowing provides a fine, even texture in the upper inches of soil. This allows for a good seedbed and increased germination. Another benefit of plowing is a reduction in weeds and soil erosion.
When to Plow
Eager gardeners sometimes work the soil before it's ready. Test your soil for readiness by squeezing a handful. It should clump into a ball and, when dropped, should break easily into smaller sections. If it is still putty-like, wait for drier weather. In contrast, if the soil feels hard or crumbles easily into dry fragments, water the area thoroughly and check back in the next day or two. Fall plowing in colder climates is preferred to spring as it has the added benefit of exposing heavy soils to frost, killing exposed insects and giving additional time for plant matter to decompose.
When your ground is ready to work, start by removing dead weeds or debris from last year's crops. If you choose to till in the plant matter, wait one month before planting as it will temporarily reduce the available nitrogen in your soil. Choose to break the ground with a shovel or rotary tiller. If you have a large area or back problems, a rotary tiller is recommended. However, most tillers will only work the soil 4 to 6 inches down. Double-digging, after using a tiller, will help you reach the 12- to 18-inch desired depth.
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