Issue: January 27, 1997

Digging a garden now


Can I start digging my garden now? When is it OK, and what should I do?


This question can have different answers for different parts of the state and different parts of an individual landscape. In much of the northern and higher elevation parts of the state, there are areas of frozen soil. Some areas are still too wet, and some areas of the state are just right.

Can you get a shovel or spade into the soil now? If it is frozen, then no, you shouldn't start digging yet. If the soil is soggy, then wait. If it is moist and crumbly when you dig the soil, now is a good time to begin digging. For most of us this has been a moist winter so there is goodsoil moisture which makes it easy to turn the soil. However, if this moisture is frozen or the soil is still too wet, especially if it is a clay soil, it would be better to wait. Clay soil which is worked when it is too wet forms clods which are difficult to break as they dry. This damages the soil structure, the natural granularity of the soil which allow the easy penetration of water and air to plant roots.

What should you do? Some gardeners prefer to "double-dig" their garden. This loosens the soil to a greater depth as you first remove a spade s depth of soil, turn another spade s depth, then move to the next row, placing the first spade full of soil on the top of the previously double-dug row. Working the soil to a greater depth allows root and water penetration deeper into the soil. This increases the efficiency of water use as the deeper water is less likely to evaporate and more likely to be used by the plants. Other gardeners will dig to a single spade depth as they turn the soil, others rototill and turn the soil as deep as the tiller will work the soil. These methods are fine.

However, as you turn the soil it is a good idea to incorporate organic matter into the soil by adding it as you dig. The preferred form of organic matter is well decomposed compost. If you do not have compost, it is not too late to apply manure if it has been weathered in the open and not allowed to form a crust which has shed water as it weathered. Organic matter, especially compost, helps alleviate salt problems in the soil. It also improves the structure of clay soils and water-holding ability of sandy soils.

If you had your soil tested last year, you can add the amendments recommended in the soil test results. If you haven t had your soil tested recently, you should consider doing so. However, your test results will be more accurate if you wait for the soil to warm before collecting a sample for testing. You can get information telling you how to collect a soil sample and where to send it from your county's Cooperative Extension Service office.

Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email:, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.


For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page.

Send gardening questions to Southwest Yard and Garden - Attn: Dr. Marisa Thompson at, or at the Desert Blooms Facebook.

Please copy your County Extension Agent and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!