And we're talking soil here, folks. One of the archetypal images imbedded in our cultural consciousness is the concept of tilling and amending soil. Getting out there, plunging a plow or--better still--a motorized tiller into the soil and allowing the sweet grind of tines into hard soil to fill our senses. Laying down some nice, dark, black composted material (cow manure! peat moss! coffee grounds! oh my!) and running that tiller over the soil again. Massaging this newly-created fresh and soft dirt through our fingers, marveling at nature's bounty that will soon be ours once we plant. This kind of imagery drives us to till and amend soils.
Except it's a really, really bad idea for most situations. When we till, yes, hard soil can be broken up. Problem is, we're breaking up other significant elements as well. Soil structure is broken up--and leads to compaction. More importantly, soil biota, which plays a more important role than fertilizers for soil health, is broken up--and leads to swiftly declining soil fertility. If you are going to plan an ornamental garden, just don't till your soil.
Do you want to amend the soil? It's been said gardening is an act of patience, and it is no truer here than anywhere else. Lay down a thin layer--perhaps one inch--of leaf compost over the soil. BUT DO NOT TILL IT IN! When you go to cut back your perennials or rake your leaves, leave that detritus in the garden beds and allow nature to work it down into the soil. See?--no tilling. Or, best yet: select ornamental plants that thrive in the lean, not-so-rich soils you (most likely) have.
There is, however, one situation where you might want to till a soil. It's a risky maneuver, but sometimes it might be called for. Stay tuned for more horticultural soil nuggets later...