Sunday 13 September 2015

Ode to digging

There was a lot of digging to excavate my pond. When I made my borders there was no cultivation at all but some soil was used to raise their levels
No, I have not changed my spots but there are elements of gardening where digging is needed or at least is highly convenient. I will try to tell my story without my usual caveats that excessive soil disturbance is a very bad thing.
Visitors to my garden express surprise that the garden has been made without prior digging. They imagine that a no dig gardener never used a spade.The garden was never ‘dug over’ but I did use a spade!

I have published a whole series ‘why gardeners dig’ where I discuss the many procedures such as planting that requires soil disturbance. In these articles I have taken a rather broad view of the definition of digging and have included references to any deep soil disturbance whether it be ploughing, rotavation, burial or just digging holes! Today in justifying digging I confine myself to ‘real’ digging, a procedure that usually involves ‘turning’ the soil when preparing a plot.

Digging is perhaps part of the essential education of a young gardener. How else do you teach him a love of the soil? He is not ready for the sophistication of leaving things to nature or controlling weeds with herbicides. These things are long term and for motivation you need instant gratification. Not only can digging itself be highly enjoyable, it gives immediate opportunities for such as planting a border. I have found that in many things in my life I have learnt ‘the basics’ only to modify or discard them as I have learnt more. My bridge partner teaches bridge to beginners but you should see how she actually plays!

Students plotting
The students on the course I ran at Askham Bryan learnt a great deal about basic horticulture and how to grow plants on their individual plot which they maintained over the whole academic year.
Every year the plot transformed from absolute magnificence when it was judged in June to an overgrown wilderness over the Summer vacation. For the new students in September the transformative capacity of digging was certainly needed! All that debris and those magnificent weeds!
I have to tell you that the teaching methods of one of my colleagues - the student’s practical instructor - were positively Victorian. Imagine Mr Squeers with a gardening class! It is a strange thing that a man who many of the students positively hated would in later years be recalled with nostalgic memories of how much they learned.
Their thirty square meter plot had to be two thirds single dug and a third double dug and the students were assessed on their work.
Woe betide anyone who
  1. failed to take their opening trench out to the correct dimensions
  2. failed to separate the weeds when the trench-soil was barrowed to the place of later trench closure
  3. parked their finishing pile in an inappropriate place 
  4. failed to completely bury weed skimmed into the bottom of their trench
  5. filled the trench with insufficient manure
  6. failed to invert the soil as they dug
  7. did not dig to the full vertical depth of the blade of their spade
  8. lost their levels
  9. failed on completion to have a pristine plot of completely weed free clods of soil
  10. was slow!

For anyone unfamiliar with proper digging, each time a new trench is retrieved and after skimming in weeds and incorporating any bulky organic matter it is covered by soil achieved by several passes neatly turning the soil in,  The size of each bite will vary with soil conditions and the strength of the gardener.

If that is real digging then most gardeners do not dig properly!  Many gardener’s so called digging is so shallow that it is virtually minimum cultivation!

I have had experience myself of a foreman with very high standards when three of us dug a two acre plot on Hartlepool Parks Department nursery. I was in my ‘practical year’ before college. I can confirm that it is a healthy and hugely enjoyable experience. My horny handed fellow digger was an absolute craftsman. His digging was a joy to behold! He was the one who ‘turned’ the soil every year in the park!

The raison d’ĂȘtre for digging
In the days before herbicides the only way to control weeds was by cultivation. As agriculture developed over the millennia, weeds evolved to exploit the new niches created by man. Because of weeds crop yields were only a small fraction of their potential.
One of the greatest advances in managing weeds was when in the seventeenth century Jethro Tull promoted the use of deep ploughing and ‘clean cultivation’. Inventor of the seed drill he was a landowner and musician. He transferred his knowledge of the working principles of musical instruments into his inventions of methods of tillage. Ironic now that if you google the great man of agricultural history you need multiple pages to get past his more recent musical namesake.
To enable Tull’s soil surface preparation and mechanical hoeing prior ploughing or digging was at that time essential.

Advantages of digging
My above ramblings hint at some of the merits of digging. In particular digging’s ability to transform a weedy plot into pristine condition in a day. Farmers, landscapers and many allotmenteers all benefit and indeed frame their methods on this concept.

Digging is healthy and enjoyable and an excellent introduction to gardening for the young.

Many new gardens have compacted soil. It is sometimes  a result of plough pans from previous farming or more often builders’ excesses. There is a case for single or double digging. Just once.
I am rather ambivalent as to whether on such sites you can leave it to nature and the passage of time to correct this severe defect. I think I am persuaded that a deep cultivation might sometimes be needed.

Sometimes a new site might have buried rubble and dumped debris which might need to be dug out. Occasionally previous usage might have introduced a layered structure of soil or gravel or clay or sand. It will need mixing  together by cultivation. Similarly if you are amending your soil with bulky material such as gravel, woody prunings or in my case newspaper or charcoal it needs to be dug in.

In praise of the spade

All my spades together, a very rare event as I am usually unable to find them all at the same time

I have mentioned before when a Bolton Percy resident proclaimed in mock horror ”you - with a spade!”
Spades have many uses other than digging! In fact a small stainless steel border spade is my favourite and most versatile tool. Someone once questioned my judgment and suggested that an ordinary steel spade is sharper. I agree a very sharp edge is occasionally useful but with my levels of maintenance an ordinary steel spade would be both rusty and dirty!

My favourite spade is stainless steel, metal and plastic and was bought at Tesco! Note the rim of the blade which is very foot kind

When I cannot find  the stainless steel one I use this
In sheer desperation I use this unfortunate purchase which is falling apart

I have decided to list the multiple uses of a spade! Not just as a game but as a vehicle to illustrate various aspects of gardening.
I use my spade for each of the following
a) In emergency in someone else’s garden to create a new feature or transform a border within a day.
b) Make and restore an edge on a lawn.
c) Insert vertically and ease out a tap root.
d) Dig something out such as a potato or a carrot or a hunk of concrete! Indeed things too numerous to mention.
e) Make a slit or a hole for planting.
f) Undercut soil or a sod to pop under a handful of bulbs or a seed potato. If the propagule is not upright that is quite immaterial. No bulb planters for me. Never!
g) Lift and cut turf.
h)  Make a hole! When we moved into Boundary Cottage I dug out my two very large ponds. I moved six barrows a day for all of three months.
i) Ditto above, I moved six barrows of soil every day for three months shifting soil left in piles by the previous owner. In both the latter cases I used  the soil to elevate borders and fill in the dreadful cut out sunken rectangular ‘borders’ that I inherited. To put precious soil in a skip and throw away is an unforgivable sin.
j) Slice away moss or liverwort - both gifts of minimum cultivation
k) Use as a hoe where a dutch hoe is not to hand or where a heavier momentum is needed to avoid pain when I might jar my arthritic wrists.
l) As an inferior substitute for a shovel when scooping up molehills, collecting sweepings or mixing compost.
m) Levering out stumps or roots. I have lost many spades this way!
n) Propagation of herbaceous perennials and certain shrubs by division. It’s my favourite way.
o) Chopping things.
p) Slitting out shapes in a lawn before spraying off with glyphosate to later make a border.
q) Move and plant plants.
r) Break up compaction.
s) Move soil to create a level
t) Root pruning. For me this is a theoretical notion but in the old days fruit tree rootstocks were cut to reduce tree vigour. 
u) Nurserymen sometimes cut and undercut open ground plants months in advance of lifting. So can the gardener who anticipates future moving of a large shrub or a small tree.
v) Banging sticks and stakes in the ground! Better to use a hammer!

If anyone can take me to the end of he alphabet, please help!
Enough is enough. I have irretrievably destroyed my reputation.

Further reading
All my previous thoughts on good and not so good reasons for digging or other deep soil disturbance can be found by clicking ‘Why gardeners dig’ in my theme column on the right. 

You might be also interested in ‘Digging in manure on Christmas Eve’ and about Natural Selection of weeds in my ‘Musings from York’


  1. Must admit I prefer to use a garden fork to a spade. Then again I do not dig properly at all.
    w) to stick in the ground close to where you are working so that if you are down on your knees and can't get up you have something to grab hold of. Can you tell that I have recently tweaked my back and not digging. I was deadheading my annual flower bed.

    1. Sorry about your back Sue Thanks for w) ! Very imaginative
      Don't worry about digging properly - I am not really promoting it

  2. Belated congratulations Roger, I have been somewhat out of the loop for the last few weeks. How well I remember digging the park's display beds to finish with a beautiful tapered mound, not only did it give me great satisfaction but I was also in competition with the apprentices and I am far to modest to say who generally won! I would definitely advocate digging over a new plot, in fact if it was going to be a one off and I had the energy I would double dig it to find out what was underneath albeit not necessarily a happy experience.

    1. Welcome back to the loop Rick and thanks for the congratulations.
      I can just see you digging and yes it can be a competitive activity!

  3. I use a spade in many of the same ways. Cutting an edge is my favorite use. I get out a lot of frustration make a clean-cut edge.

  4. I use my spade to lift a door when trying to reset the hinges

    1. That's x) Paul
      …and similarly I use mine to lift the edge of the manhole cover if the drain floods!


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