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Date: April 16, 2003

Proper tilling preserves soil, keeps it from streams

(RICHMOND, VA) - Gardeners often wonder whether to plow, or till, in the spring or in fall.

Although working in soil is better in fall, most gardens need a light tilling in spring to kill weeds and smooth the soil for planting. Spring tilling is better for sandy soils and anywhere shallow tilling is practiced.

An alternative to standard spring tilling is minimum-till or conservation tillage - an ideal method for transplants to the vegetable garden. Try experimenting with small plots rather than your entire garden:

1. In the fall prepare your soil for a cover crop seed by tilling under summer crop wastes. Remove tomato vines and corn stalks to make tilling easier.

2. Plant a combination cover crop of rye-hairy vetch (2 lbs. winter rye grain and .75 lb. hairy vetch per 1,000 square feet). The rye provides mulch for spring planting; hairy vetch provides nitrogen to the soil. The vetch seed must be coated with a Rhizobium innoculant prior to seeding.

3. In spring use a scythe or string-line trimmer to cut the crop cover to a manageable level. Rake the cover crop to the side of the area to be planted and save. Use a lawn mower to completely trim to the ground.

4. Mow the area again one week later. You're ready to plant. Dig a hole for each plant, large enough to accommodate for root spread. Pull weeds in surrounding areas, including cover crop roots. Water the plants with water-soluble fertilizer according to directions.
If available, put a quart of compost in each hole with the plant. Mulch entire area between plants with clippings reserved from the week before. Leave 6 - 8 inches of space around plant base to allow soil to warm up.

5. Some additional mulch will help with weed control. Use grass clippings. If weeds appear, pull them by hand. If hoeing is necessary, try to keep the blade underneath the mulch layer and disturb as little as possible.

6. This process is repeated the following fall to continue minimum-till gardening.

You can add trees to your landscape in early spring. Trees can be home to a variety of wildlife - they can also reduce heating and cooling costs, help clean the air, and shelter you and your house from wind and sun.

Native trees live longer and are more tolerant of local weather and soil conditions. American beech or holly, black cherry, black gum, cottonwood, crabapple, flowering dogwood, hickories, live oak and red mulberry will attract birds to your yard.

For a month-by-month guide to an environmentally sound lawn and garden or a lawn fertilization brochure, contact the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation at 1-877-42WATER. Or call your local Virginia Cooperative Extension agent. Add hardy plants to your landscape - request regional (mountain, Piedmont and coastal) native plant lists from DCR - or contact the Virginia Native Plant Society at (540) 837-1600.


editors' note: May - fertilizing vegetable gardens

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