Gardening: Soil Cultivation – Improving Soil
As a boy I couldn’t get out of school fast enough when the fields were being ploughed. I just wanted to watch the heavy machinery ploughing their way through and turning the thick dark soil into great deep furrows. This, of course, had very little to do with gardening but it brought home to me what was meant by complete inversion. I am not against the use of mechanical tools, motorised or electrically driven, and have used practically every make on the market.
I have even used some that never got there, including a motorised spade which would, once set in motion, operate on its own right across the garden turning over chunks of soil weighing more than half a hundredweight. However, for the ordinary gardener, man or woman, the fork and the spade are still the best implements.
I mention the fork as a digging tool because under certain conditions, for instance, on heavy, wet or sticky land, the fork is the easiest to use. It can also be used for breaking up the secondary layer or spit after the top one has been turned over by the spade. The spade, is, in my opinion, still the best implement for turning or inverting the soil.
Digging and Manuring
Digging is an art, as well as a job of work because not only is the soil inverted and weeds buried but the whole plot, under the skilful hands of the craftsman, can be completely levelled. It is far better to do this with a spade when the digging is first done rather than to move hundredweights of soil afterwards by raking just to get a level plot. Nobody can dig well unless they have taken out a good trench first because not only is the soil on the spade completely inverted, it is also moved forward 9 to 12 inches.
An easy stance and a rhythmic action can make the job of digging easier and the ‘bites’ or the width of the spadeful should be regulated, not only to the state or condition of the soil, but also to the strength of the digger. To get the full benefit of digging, the spade should be inserted vertically and this is where attention to the ‘crank’ or angle of the blade to the shaft comes in. The spade should always be pushed into the soil to the full depth of the blade so that maximum root run can be obtained. Furthermore, if the spadeful of soil is thrown forward 9 inches or so, every spadeful of soil then advances yearly so that perhaps in twenty years the soil has been taken from one end of the plot to the other. This has the advantage of mixing the soil to the benefit of the crops grown.
To make digging easier, cut a slice by jabbing the spade at right angles to the line of the trench to approximately the width of the spade. This enables the spadeful or spit to be turned forward in one lump without it falling apart. On very light soils this is not always possible, unless the soil has been consolidated, but special tools such as a digging shovel can be used. A digging shovel has curved edges to the blade thus enabling it to retain the volume of soil.
Unless the soil is being roughly dug and left as it is, it will be necessary to break down each spadeful. One reason for this being that if the soil is clayey and the weather is dry, the chunk can bake like a brick, and unless rain falls it is almost impossible to break it down later. So as each spadeful of earth is turned over and thrown forward it should be chopped with the side and edge of the spade to break it up. Of course, the amount of chopping required for each spadeful is dependant upon the season, time of year and the character of the soil. Light to medium soils require very little breaking up but a heavy moisture-retentive one must be chopped if it is eventually to break down and form a tilth.
When to Dig
This is one of the reasons why it is advised that digging should be carried out in the autumn so that the action of the winter weather can reduce the newly broken earth to a friable condition by the spring. It is the heavy clay soils which benefit most from autumn digging and being left to the repeated action of freeze and thaw throughout the winter. This makes them more workable by the/time spring comes. If digging is left until the spring, a heavy tenacious clay soil will turn over in large solid lumps and even with hard work there is very little chance of it forming a good tilth during that season. Light soil is of a different nature and very often spring digging will produce a good friable soil ready for seed sowing within a few weeks.
Double digging is seldom done nowadays, and was really more useful on worn-out soils, which had been cultivated for a hundred years or more. It consists of bringing the second spit to the surface and burying the worn-out top soil.
Much was made of this double digging, very often by writers who thought that the idea was to bring up soil from the bottom, because it was better than the top soil. This is very rarely so, and in much of the land used for building, the second spit is best left where it is but, as I have indicated, breaking it up with a fork ensures better.
Different Manures, Fertilisers and Composts
There are also some useful tricks for placing different manures or composts in and on the slope of the trench.
Read more about different types of manure and fertilisers and when and where to use them. Suffice to say now that the long strawy stuff is best put in the bottom of the trench and along the lower part of the slope whilst well-rotted manure, well-rotted, leaf-mould or peat can be spread over the whole face of the sloping side of the trench.
It will be seen that the layer of organic material will extend diagonally through the soil so that the roots of any crop must come into contact with it. Long strawy manure is inevitably new and unless it has been in the soil some three to four months it could definitely be harmful to the crop above it, for that reason it is tucked down a spade depth out of harm’s way and giving it a chance to decay before the plant roots penetrate to that depth.
Similarly, if you are applying fertiliser to the soil whilst digging, it should be applied on the forward slope of the trench for the same reason that well-decayed manure is spread on the slope. This may seem only a little thing but it is very important, for not only does it provide nourishment for all the millions of bacteria, fungi and small creatures such as earthworms which inhabit the soil.
In the past, too much emphasis has been placed on the importance of burying the manure completely in the bottom of the trench and too little attention has been paid to the value gained from its even distribution throughout the whole of the soil. It is often recommended that the manure be spread before digging commences, but when the soil and manure are wet and sticky you can finish with more on your boots than in the soil.
If the job has to be done whatever the weather, try to get the manure carted out onto the land and tipped into heaps. It will then lose less of its volatile components than if it is spread out. Then it can easily be put into the trench with a fork and boots are kept clean. If you have a willing helper, then you can leave it in the barrow and he can spread it along the trench.