Digging is the first task we carry out in the process of soil cultivation. ‘No-dig’ gardening has it followers, but when a no-dig garden is established, the ground is invariably dug over first. Sown seeds stand a much better chance of survival in cultivated soil, when there is good soil-seed contact. .
We dig, or to put it another way, turn over the soil, for a number of reasons. Soil nutrients are washed to lower levels in the soil by the rain, digging brings enriched soil to the surface. Shallow rooted weeds are buried, adding humus to the soil and perennial weeds are easily removed. Soil pests are exposed to the effects of the weather and to predators. Digging provides an opportunity to incorporate fertilisers, manures and composts into the soil. Soil that has been dug can be further broken down to a fine tilth, suitable for seed planting. Soil loosened by digging will have more air spaces, will drain well and will allow roots to penetrate more easily.
You will need a sharp spade and a digging fork. A spade holds the ‘spit’ of soil more easily but the fork is better for new ground. It is a matter of preference. It is a good idea to use both. A garden line is useful for following straight lines and a wheelbarrow be used for moving soil.
First of all, mark out a small plot with the line, two metres by three metres is fine. The prospect of turning over a large area can be daunting. It is energetic work and beginners need a little time to develop a ‘rhythm’, to use as little effort as possible. Dig a trench two metres long, the width and depth of a spade. Fill the barrow with the soil and take it to the end of the plot. The soil will be used to fill the trench at the end.
Working from left to right, drive in the spade at right angles to the trench to make a neat cut at the edge of the plot, make another cut one spade width to the right. Drive in the spade to join the two cuts. Pull the spade back, like a lever, to break the spit of soil free from the ground. Lift the spit, turn it over, placing it upside down in the prepared trench, so that the deepest soil is at the surface and the surface soil is buried.
Take care to drive the spade vertically and to its full length. The trench formed can be filled with composted materials and lightly forked in. Continue to the end of the row, filling the trench in front and forming a new one. The spit of soil can be broken up by striking it once or twice with the spade. Any perennial weeds can now be collected and placed in a bucket.
It is a good idea, when next in the country, to look at a ploughed field, or better still, watch it being ploughed. There are some interesting parallels between farming and gardening. Note how the plough first cuts the soil and then turns it over, completely burying the plants on the surface. Well ploughed land has even furrows and all of the previous plant cover is buried.
When the first row is turned over, the second is started. Each row is turned into the trench formed by turning over the row in front. It is a matter of preference, the amount of soil turned over in each row. If soils are heavy or there is strong grass or weed cover, a smaller spit is lifted. You can experiment with different spade widths but it is best to turn over a full spade depth. At the end of the section, when digging is complete, the remaining trench is filled with the soil from the first row. Freshly dug soil can appear rough but exposure to the weather soon breaks down the lumps, further helped by hoeing and raking.
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