Wednesday 28 August 2013

Gardening transformed. You can work on wet soil

Reasons not to dig 2 revisited

It’s not that I have run out of reasons not to dig, it’s just that people just don’t seem to believe my previous exhortation that no dig gardening facilitates working on wet soil. I imagine I am perceived as just an eccentric old man who jumps on his soil! Today I am not pussyfooting around, I want to make my point with some force. The gloves are off.

Glove-less eccentric old man
Gardener’s learn on their metaphorical mother’s knee that they cannot go out and garden after heavy rain. For many gardening tasks this is true in a garden composed of loose fluffed up soil! I mean the kind promoted  by most of the media. Some people have not progressed beyond making sand pies on the beach.Their mental image of good soil is one worked with a bucket and spade. They believe the more they cultivate and crumble, the more fertile their soil will be. Wrong, fundamentally wrong.

Of course you should not stand on such a loosened soil when it is wet and least of all, horror of horror, work it. Your feet will sink in and and cause  structural damage. The children’s tyre marks won’t look very good either! Walked on wet cultivated soil will become compacted. Most broken up soils, especially clay ones if worked on when wet become a sticky clarty mess. The children might like to hold a clarty party. The seeds of my love of gardening were sown when making mud pies when I was two. Many wet compacted soils later become hard and  rock-like when dry. Whilst still wet, compacted clay soils may even retain surface standing water which is unable to penetrate into the ground. When I see loosened wet soil I do not see fertility and beauty. I see a disaster about to happen. If the rain is very heavy the disaster may already be underway as the soil slakes down or even starts to erode.

An un-dug soil that carries vegetation is biologically rich and benefits from healthy worm and root action. It takes many months for a soil damaged by cultivation to return to it’s natural healthy state. Rather like a junkie breaking his habit, it takes some effort to revive a soil that has been excessively stirred. I discuss the problem in this post. 
With the passage of time, with enlightened management and no digging, soil becomes settled and cohesive. Your boots do not sink in! If such a none dug soil is investigated with a spade, below the firm surface it is found to be honeycombed with aerated channels which provide  excellent root penetration and drainage. Most of the gardening world thinks that a soil which is firm at the surface is compacted. They are wrong. When I look at settled soil in my borders, in my cemetery gardens and on my vegetable plot, in my minds’s eye I see healthy soil. I do not have to disturb my soil (and thereby damage it) to show the world that below the surface my soil is in fine fettle.

How being able to access wet soil fundamentally changes one’s gardening philosophy.

After heavy rain you can plant. In summer if it pours down all night I am delighted! I can fill my car boot with plants to take to my cemetery gardens or village plot. I can get those brassica plants in on my vegetable garden. When the soil wet - best very wet - it is  ready to encourage rapid root establishment and holds sufficient surface moisture to avoid constant watering.The atmosphere also figures to be humid and the plants will not quickly dry out.
At the time  of writing (mid August), I would love a week’s deep meteorological depression so I can do some serious planting of new borders in Cathi’s garden. Her soil is settled, it has not been cultivated for years. Over the last five months I have by repeated spraying eliminated all of her weeds. I just need to wait for some heavy rain to get planting.The plants will be slitted in or inserted in small holes. I expect the soil to crumble as I plant with my small border spade. They will be trod in with a firm boot. The process will be speedy and 95% of the soil will be undisturbed. I am reshaping the line of the margins and a few square meters of soil will be lightly scratched with a garden fork to scatter grass seed. One hundred square meters of border will take two or three hours to plant and that time  includes lifting a substantial number of divisions from my own garden. All these tasks will be done on very wet soil. If it rains for a few more days I will be in heaven. If it stubbornly turns hot and dry I will be out with the hosepipe, it will only take a few minutes as I will only be watering the planting holes. If Cathi thinks the soil surface looks a little untidy we will later put on a mulch.

After heavy rain I love to go to Bolton Percy to make my maintenance visit and spray glyphosate. When wet, the soil is unsuitable for hoeing, weeds will reroot. As long as it’s stopped raining it is ideal for chemical weed control. Often on my visits I see people walking round. The fact that they are walking on wet soil is of no consequence to the health of my plants, nor will they unduly dirty their footwear. I always invite garden visitors on my open days to walk on my soil to closely inspect plants!

I can plant, I can prune, I can weed, I can harvest. I can walk on my wet soil without damaging it at all. I don’t quite understand why gardeners create raised beds so that they can walk around them. The whole of my former un-dug allotment in Bolton Percy was as fertile as any raised bed. I could access it at any time.
Wet soil never stops me going out in my garden.

Words for the doubters.
I can hear. “Roger you have a sandy soil. Any fool knows that you can access a coarse textured sandy soil at any time. If you damage the structure it matters little on sand”. I confess this is true (ish). My ‘other’ gardens do have a fairly heavy textured soil and over the years in my former gardens and working for clients I have frequently worked on un-dug  wet heavy clay. I stand by what I say.

Things never work out quite as planned. I have been planting Cathi’s border over three weeks now. Some wet weather materialized but not as much as ordered. I have popped over the hedge on several occasions and each time have planted about a dozen divisions. I am nowhere near finished but a hundred hunky herbaceous plants are now established and will have time to make magnificent plants next year. The lifting, planting and watering so far has taken about six man hours.

Not a thing of beauty but it soon will be


  1. I have a mental image of you jumping over a hedge :) Don't forget to show us Cathi's garden border next year.

    1. Whoops, I thought I had replied to your comment Sue, but it has not appeared! I think I said that you will eventually be fed up of seeing Cathi's garden!

  2. Interesting reading again. Great fun to see this "eccentric old man" jumping on his soil. I was always wondering why they have raised beds for vegetables in England. We don't make raised beds in our country. Now I understand it is only for neatness or are there other reasons?

    1. The simple answer is that in Holland you are better gardeners than in the UK! Occasionally raised beds are justified where the soil is poorly drained Readers might suggest some further advantages but in my view they are generally a waste of timber and time.

    2. I don't think we in our country are better gardeners, except may be the professional growers. Nowadays, we quite have a few nice gardens in Holland, but my opinion is that England has the most beautiful gardens in the world and so many........and all those enthousiastic gardeners.....

  3. It saddens and amazes me in equal measure how gardening 'truths', most of which were established around the time of WWII, have become so cast in stone - digging, artificial fertilisers, buying new plants instead of saving seed or taking cuttings.

    Whilst commercialism holds sway this will not change - remember Monty getting a kicking on Gardeners' World for refusing to endorse the use of chemicals?

    At Bag End, soil has been dug once where necessary to remove deep perennial weeds, get rid of tree roots. After that it's nothing but the thickest mulches I can apply every year. Whilst removing some triffid-sized (and old) strawberry plants yesterday I muttered to Management that we might have enriched and enhanced the soil a little too much . . . he knew I was joking :}

    1. Management mutters at me too- and is not always complimentary.
      Whist I am in agreement with your first sentence I suspect we are different kind of gardeners. Whilst I claim that my methods are more natural than most gardeners including many who claim to be organic I would never claim to be an organic gardener nor would the soil association ever want me as a member. I greatly admire Montgomery but disagree with much that he says

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  5. Interesting stuff but you are using one of the worse kinds of poisons to kill weeds, I hope you someday find that weeds are actually helping out by improving the soil and shade it.

    You can also make money with your weeds, please see this video , embrace your weeds and stop poisoning the earth with "Monsatan" crap.

    Paulo Silva from Portugal
    Best regards

    1. Good to hear your comment from Portugal, Paulo although I completely disagree with you!
      As to weeds improving the soil, if the ground cover and green manure I use, whatever the plants may be, they are not weeds! The definition of a weed is an unwanted plant. If it is doing good it is not a weed! One sometimes has to make a judgment whether on balance a plant is wanted or not. In a funny way I do agree with what you say, but as to your comment about 'shading the soil' I think you should read my post on the myth that ground cover conserves water!
      As to your comment about being poisonous I utterly disagree with you that it is the worse kind of poison. Its mammalian toxicity is exceptionally low.
      I share your reservation about the ethics of 'big agro-business' but in the case of glyphosate I love their product! ....and used responsibly its kindness to the soil.

    2. Please read this

  6. I am not prepared to argue about this Paulo although I will air my arguments in a future post.
    I blog about how I personally use glyphosate which I believe leads to no danger to wildlife or humans whatsoever. Just about every chemical and material in human use including cosmetics, household cleaners, pharmaceutical drugs, natural plant products,packaging and plastics if exposed to the same scrutiny as your link will be shown to have measurable toxicity. I cannot live my life worrying about how in this big wide world some people are misusing these materials.
    I know you must care about these issues Paulo but so do I.

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