Garden Q&A: How can you tell if soil is 'workable'?

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The instructions on my seed packs say to direct sow in "early spring" or "as soon as soil can be worked." What does this mean?

Spring is commonly considered to be March, April and May. "Early spring" implies March to mid-April. Sometimes gardeners push the envelope in a mild winter and start activities in late February, but that is taking a chance. If it doesn't work, it means resowing later.


"As soon as soil can be worked" refers to how wet the soil is. Working the soil — both planting and cultivating — when it is too wet can damage soil's structure, especially clay soil. When it dries, it becomes cloddy and hard as a brick. It take years to recover.

A "workable" soil has some moisture, but not too much. Test it this way: Squeeze a clump of soil and bounce the resulting "ball" on your hand. If it breaks apart easily or crumbles with presume from your thumb, it is ready to be worked. If it stays firm, it's too wet. When spring soil stays wet and you must get the seeds planted, try this: Seed on top of the soil and cover the seed lightly with a soil amendment such as Leafgro, bagged top soil, or moistened potting soil.


Some kind of grassy weed has popped up where I seeded last fall. It's growing much taller and faster than the fescue I planted. What kind of liquid weed control do you recommend? By the way, I fertilized in March.

Given the timing, this is probably from the straw you used to mulch the seedbed (assuming you used a good-quality grass seed, which should have virtually no weed seeds). Straw is made from the stalks of wheat or other grains that are leftover when the grain is harvested. Some grain gets mixed up in the straw. Wheat or oats often appear in a lawn after straw mulch is applied. These seedlings are annuals and will die when you mow your grass. Search "lawn fertilizer schedule" on the Home and Garden Information Center website for the best fertilizer timing.

Digging deeper

Stinkhorn fungus

This peculiar formation (shown cut in two) may be discovered in mulch or soil. It is the beginning life form of the stinkhorn fungus.

A hidden Easter egg never found? An old avocado? This peculiar formation (shown cut in two) may be discovered in mulch or soil. It is the beginning life form of a fungus that generates alarm, curiosity and revulsion — the stinkhorn fungus. Dog stinkhorn or devil's dipstick is in the Phallaceae family of fungi. The fruiting body of a fungus is a mushroom, but stinkhorn is not your typical mushroom. The stinkhorn egg is the fungus' mushroom just before it emerges. It shoots out of the ground in a matter of hours as a thick, crazy-looking, reddish-orange stalk with a tip covered in brown, fetid goo. The goo attracts flies, which feed on it and fly off, dispersing the spores hidden in the goo. This harmless stinkhorn fungus survives only a day or so before shriveling up, so no control is necessary — except over one's emotional response.

—Ellen Nibali