Alys Fowler: soil

‘Overworking wet soil now will lead to compaction later on.’ Photograph: Corbis

Now that spring is here, you can scatter seeds wherever you like and everything will grow, everywhere. Oh, how lovely it would be to write such things, but I am aware that many of you will be looking out on to sodden gardens and for some poor souls there isn’t a garden to look at any more, just a wreck in its place. Trying to find silver linings among all that mud is hard work, but I hope for those in this predicament there’s a more resilient garden for the future to be carved out of the bruised earth.

As spring is rushing on, it’s easy to get carried away and want to join in the race, but wet soil needs care. Overworking it now will lead to compaction later on. Clay has a memory, and if smeared by tools or feet, it clings, making an impenetrable barrier once hardened. Often it’s suggested that you should lay down planks and work from these because time is of the essence, but you gain little time and many problems this way.

If the soil sticks too much to your boots and tools, if you dig a hole and it fills with water, if you stand on a bed and sink into it, get off! In the short term, you can cover with plastic sheeting any bed you want to work on. This will keep the rain off and warm up the bed, so early sowings can get off to a good start. Damp, cold soils lead to erratic germination; beetroot, in particular, sulks in these conditions. If in doubt, sow in modules or trays and transplant once your soil has dried out a little.

If you stick some old cabbage or rhubarb leaves or beer traps under the plastic (and under cloches), you’ll find these moist, warm conditions bring out all the slugs: you can take out the first line in one fell swoop if you are diligent and check regularly. The plastic needs to be down for at least two weeks to do anything. Black plastic warms up a lot quicker than clear.

The best way to guarantee your bed doesn’t suffer from waterlogging is to make sure it drains well. The more compost, the merrier, because with more compost, you get more worms, and with them wormholes, which greatly improve drainage. The shape of the bed matters, too. You want to raise your bed up, so excess moisture drains away. I’ve never bothered to edge beds with wood – to me this is just an expensive hidey-hole for slugs. Instead, each bed is gently mounded like a sleeping giant. Over the years, these mounds grow with more compost, grass clippings and leaf mould. It’s a simple technique that works as well for vegetables as it does for shrubs or herbaceous plantings.