Time to get digging

By Andrew Collyer - Practical Gardening

Published 22/10/2016 | 00:00

Ceratostigma willmottianum
Ceratostigma willmottianum

Start your leaf clear up

Ceratostigma willmottianum

Digging is a term that can send a dreaded shiver down the spine of many a gardener, or scuttling to the kettle at least. I think its called procrastinating. But toughen up because it is better to take on this task now rather than in a few wet weeks time when the job can become truly awful or even impossible. The ground is still relatively dry at the moment and we all know with autumn turning into winter this will not last. Early digging on heavy clay soils is particularly beneficial because they suffer more in wet conditions and their early cultivation allows winter frosts to break up the clodding and improves the soil structure for spring working.

If you are keen to get out digging this week you may start with the vacant areas of the vegetable patch. If you are planning new flower and shrub borders now is a good time to mark out and dig over these too. For existing plant borders it is not recommended to 'dig' them over deeply the way you would cultivating fresh ground as this can damage the root systems of existing plants. Better here to lightly fork over an inch or two deep and mulch afterwards.

The two easiest ways to dig your garden are either to find someone else to do it or hire a rotovator. Rotovators can work well on previously cultivated soil but on untouched earth they are pretty usless until the soil is opened up. Most garden areas are often too small to warrant hiring a machine at any rate. Other than this it is about selecting your instrument of torture and getting on with it.

For us purists the only tool is a short 'D' handled digging spade. The 'D' is the shape in the handle at the top of the shaft and the blade is rectangular and square at the bottom. With this tool you can create perfectly straight uniform furrows in the soil, if a job is worth doing, and in the right hands it is a precision tool if a spade can be described as such. You have to bend the back with a short handle spade but similar rectangular bladed spades with long handles are also available although slightly more unweildy. The main tool in the Irish digging armoury seems to be the pointed long handled shovel. To me this is a tool for moving soil, shovelling the clue is in the name, and it can be useful for excavating. For cultivating digging it is a crude tool in my mind but the job is tough enough and if it works well for you use it.

The object of digging is to open up a compacted soil structure to allow it to be tilled to create a heathy environment for root and plant growth. During this process it is also a good opportunity to improve the soil quality and fertility by adding organic matter in the form of manure or compost to create what is called a friable soil. To do this spread your organic matter over the area to be cultivated before you dig. Incorporate the organic matter into the soil as you go. This organic matter will help keep your soil structure open and will also encourage earthworm activity.

To dig don't just force the blade into the soil and try to turn but make a slice on the sides and back of the area of soil you want to turn which will then come away much more freely from the surrounding soil. Digging which ever tool you use is hard work so do it in short stints and always take care with your back.

If single spit, this is the depth of the spade blade, digging isn't enough to satisfy your digging urges you can try double digging. This involves digging out a single spit depth channel in the soil then digging over the bottom of this channel another spit deep incorporating organic matter. Next you turn the soil behind this into the channel creating another channel which you double dig again and so on. This gives you a cultivated depth of 50 centimetres as opposed to 25. It is very beneficial when starting a new border or done in area rotation in parts of a vegetable garden. This kind of soil loosening can be done in a crude manner with mechanical diggers if you have access and areas that justify it.

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