Making soggy dirt fluffy

By Steve Boehme - Contributing Columnist

This spring season has brought huge amounts of rain just when we’re all eager to put out vegetable gardens and flowers. No one likes to plant in mud. Working wet soil is very harmful since it squeezes out all the air and makes the soil hard. Soil compaction is the enemy of healthy plants (including lawns). Plants breathe through their roots, so plants in compacted soil can’t breathe. Later, when rains are scarce, water can’t soak in and simply runs off.

We’ve been able to plant successfully even when gardens are soggy and saturated the way they are now, from all the rain we’ve had. Our secret is adding three or four inches of peat moss on top and then deep-tilling. Peat moss is bone dry and absorbs many times its weight in water, so tilling peat moss into wet soil dries things out immediately. It loosens packed soil, making it much easier for roots to spread and water to soak in. It also mixes in lots of air, which is beneficial to plants.

The peat moss solution should be done one row or section at a time, just enough area to get seeds or young plants into the garden the same day. Tilling vast areas of garden ahead of time only invites later rains to saturate the loosened soil, making planting impossible. Ideally you have raised beds or a “square foot garden” layout with foot paths in between the rows so that you won’t need to walk on the freshly tilled earth in order to plant.

One of the big gardening secrets that separate “green thumbs” from non-gardeners is that plants breathe through their roots. Planting isn’t just about “digging a hole” and putting the plant into it. “Green thumbs” know they have to make the soil they’re planting in as close as possible to the rich, well-drained potting soil the plant was grown in at the nursery or greenhouse. Compacted soil is the biggest reason plants fail to thrive, so if you don’t prepare your soil properly there’s nothing you can pour on top of the soil later on that will help plants breathe.

Another key fact that “green thumbs” understand is that the roots of a healthy plant extend out at least as far as the tips of its branches. Shoehorning a plant into a little hole is a recipe for failure. “Dig a hole, make a bowl” we like to say, because a small planting hole in compacted soil simply holds water and drowns the plant. Ideally, you should loosen and enrich the soil in an area as large as the mature spread of whatever you’re planting.

Whenever we plant gardens or landscape beds we always till in plenty of peat moss to break up the clay soil. Peat moss isn’t food; it simply adds organic matter to the soil to keep it from sticking together and permit air the reach the plant roots. We till in a mineral-rich meal-based fertilizer as well, one that includes beneficial microbes (soil mycorrhizae) to rebuild soil vitality. We call this “making fluffy dirt.” It helps plants build healthy root systems quickly. It’s magic.

Organic materials such as compost, peat moss and manure help open up air passages into the soil, and earthworm activity helps keep it loose. Mulch on the top helps also. What makes peat moss ideal right now is that it’s as dry as talcum; compost and manure aren’t.

Try this method the next time you plant: scatter some “Plant Tone” fertilizer on the ground, spread three inches of peat moss over it, and then till the whole area until you have fluffy topsoil six to eight inches deep. Pull some of it aside, set the plant in the middle and pull the soil around it, tamping it gently. Mulch and water, and then try not to walk on the soil close to the plant ever again. You are now a “green thumb.”

Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers.” “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at For more information is available at or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.

By Steve Boehme

Contributing Columnist