How to Dig the Garden: Basic Gardening Techniques

Digging can be one of the most back-breaking and time-consuming of garden chores. However, you don’t need to go at it like the proverbial bull at a gate, and the deep and thorough digging recommended by many gardening books, although desirable, is not absolutely essential to success. It will usually be sufficient if the topsoil is turned over to a spade’s depth when the preliminary preparation of the beds is being carried out. You can use a fork to break up the subsoil beneath as you go. The choice of suitable tools for the job will help to cut down on the time and effort spent on this task. Buy the best spade and fork you can afford, choosing those that suit your capabilities and that feel ‘right’ when you handle them. If digging soon tires you, opt for a lady’s spade or fork. These days, many gardeners are turning to these lighter and easier models, to the extent that manufacturers are renaming them ‘border’ spades and forks to save embarrassment to their more chauvinistic male customers. If funds will run to it, always choose tools made of stainless steel, as they are stronger, maintain a sharper edge, and weigh less than other types.

For clay soils, there is a useful type of spade with a curved blade, known as a ‘graft’. This makes a sickle-shaped bite into the soil which prevents it sticking to the blade, cutting down on the time spent in scraping off lumps of clay. Grafts are not easy to come by, but for those who garden on heavy clay, tracking down a supplier is well worth the effort.

For the physically handicapped, the elderly or infirm or indeed for anyone who wants to take some of the backache out of digging, there are mechanical spades and forks with a kind of lever action which lift and turn the soil in a single operation.

A mechanical cultivator is a worth-while investment for anyone with a garden of more than 0.2 ha (half an acre) in area. For smaller gardens it is cheaper to hire a machine for the initial preparation of the sites for lawns, beds and borders.

Although these machines save time and labour, bear in mind that they cannot remove the weeds as you do when hand digging; instead, many of the weeds are buried beneath the surface of the soil. Even after a thorough going-over of the plot with the rotavator to chop up the weeds, the more persistent ones will recover and grow again, especially during wet spells. The best time to rotavate, therefore, is in dry weather when there is much less chance of such a re-emergence of weed growth.

In the initial stages of digging, you should incorporate as much organic material as you have available into the top layer of soil. Later, forking in quantities of compost, peat or other materials rich in humus, supplemented by annual dressings of a general fertilizer, such as ‘Grow-more’, will keep the soil in good condition.

Regular mulching with compost, peat or leafmould will also cut down on the need for digging, since they will help to suppress weeds and need only lightly forking into the topsoil during autumn or winter.

Anything that lightens the soil texture makes cultivation easier, and mulching, which is a sort of composting in situ, will improve it to a depth of 30 cm (1 ft) or more as the materials of the mulch are broken down by earthworms and soil bacteria. After a few seasons of regular treatment, even the most difficult plots should end up with a reasonable depth of friable, fertile soil.

No-digging methods

Various garden books nowadays advocate the ‘no-digging’ system of gardening as a means of saving labour. The initial preparation for a ‘no-digging’ garden starts, paradoxically, with digging. First, the chosen plot is dug over to a depth of about 30 cm (1ft). Annual weeds can be turned in as digging progresses; persistent and deep-rooting weeds such as ground elder, creeping thistle, docks, dandelions, buttercups, bindweed and couch grass should be removed and burned.

The surface of the site is then covered with a 5 cm (2 in) layer of compost or, if this is not available (as, for example, in a new garden) with a layer of peat, spent hops, leafmould or bark fibre. Some of this layer will be taken down into the subsoil by the action of rain and earthworms so that a yearly topping-up will be needed.

There are certain drawbacks inherent in this system in that, after a limited number of years, the soil fertility of an undug plot appears to deteriorate considerably. Also, the sheer physical effort of making enough compost to keep the plots topped up and harrowing it to the site must be taken into account.

After having drawn attention to the disadvantages, it must be admitted that ‘no-digging’ gardening can be of value on heavy clay soils where it is well-nigh impossible to maintain a suitably fine surface for the sowing of small seeds by more orthodox methods. The top layer of organic matter created by the ‘no-digging’ system is valuable not only in the kitchen garden, but also on ornamental beds and borders. Its value is more in question where bedding plants and annuals are concerned, where the regular replacement of plants makes weed control comparatively easy.

27. February 2012 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Featured Articles, Gardening Ideas, Time Saving | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on How to Dig the Garden: Basic Gardening Techniques

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