Soil Cultivation

Before continuing with this section the writer would like to give the following piece of advice, particularly to those people who are not accustomed to such a manual task as digging.

Faced with a whole new plot to dig, some gardeners may have the urge to get the digging out of the way as soon as possible so that they get on with the planting

This is a commendable attitude but quite often they can over do it and end up injuring their back after the first day.

This injury may render them incapable of digging again for a number of days meaning nothing was gained by over doing it on the first day.


The best method of tackling a new plot is to work at a leisurely pace over as many days as is required.

As a suggestion, dig / prepare one bed per day or half a bed if the going is tough.

You may find that in the first year, you have insufficient time to dig the whole plot before planting out time.

This situation may have been brought about by a number of reasons,one of which might be that you could not get access to the plot earlier than you did.

If this is the case, you could consider leaving the task of digging and do the planting out in areas that you have managed to prepare, then return to the digging after the planting out is completed.

The task of digging the remaining beds can then be done at a leisurely pace during the growing season.

On completion of the digging it is advisable to cover these beds with black plastic sheeting (or similar).

This will keep the majority of weeds at bay until such time as you are ready to use the beds.

When to start digging:

There is neither a beginning or an end to the vegetable grower's calendar, although it could be argued September/October is the start, as this is the time when preparations normally begin for the following year’s crop.

Circa Week 40*: You could start by removing current year’s debris, planting out over wintering crops.

Next, commence digging the soil and adding humus making material to these cleared areas.

*Some may wait till spring when the soil begins to warm up and become workable, the choice is down to the individual as to when he/she finds it best to do this preparatory work.

Obviously these preparations are dependant on the weather and the workability of the soil.

The time to dig is when the ground is not so wet that it squelches underfoot, is not frozen or covered in snow.

Heavy soil e.g. clay, is best dug in late autumn / early winter.

Leave the surface lumpy for wind and frost to crumble it.

If the digging is delayed until say, early February the surface should be broken down as finely as possible with spade or fork as the work proceeds.

Avoid digging and walking on the soil during inclement weather even if this causes a delay in your planning.

This is particularly important on heavy soils, to do so may compact the soil to such a state as to prevent essential air getting into the ground.

Light soils can be dealt with at any time.

If this preparatory work is carried out many weeks in advance of sowing / planting the surface should not be fined down unduly.

To do so might cause the soil to become hard-caked under the action of wind and rain, meaning it may need forking/tilling over again.

When digging always sink your spade or fork to the greatest possible depth, except if preparing for a follow-on crop.

In this case it is sufficient just to loosen the surface and remove weeds.

Why Dig?

This is open to debate as there are those who advocate a no dig policy is better.

Basically the no dig method is carried out by mulching / spreading a 2”-3” (50-75mm) layer of organic matter e.g. well rotted manure and / or compost annually on to the surface of the bed.

The mulch is then left to the action of worms and soil based insect life to pull this mulch downwards into the soil.

The tunnels formed by the worms provide aeration and drainage and their excretions bind together soil crumbs.

It is said that the no dig system is freer of pests and diseases due to the build up of beneficial soil fungi and insect life.

Similarly,moisture is retained more efficiently under the mulch than on the open surface of bare soil.

Pros and cons of the No Dig system:

This system is easier than digging.

It is long term process.

It is reliant upon having a plentiful supply of organic matter.

It necessary to thoroughly remove any perennial weed roots from the area beforehand.

Pros and cons of the Digging system:

It breaks up the soil to a good depth thus making downward path of roots easier.

Essential air is let into the ground.

Unused stores of plant food are opened up.

The soil becomes fertile to a greater depth.

Plants in deeply dug soil suffer less in dry periods.

Pernicious weeds are removed as digging proceeds.

Organic matter is dug in as digging proceeds.

Organic matter can be left on the surface in the same manner as the no dig mulch.

Where to start:

Depending upon the state of the plot, removing debris, turf and or matted weeds is most likely the first task to be tackled.

If it is turf, dig up the sods and bury them in the bottom of each trench you dig.

Turf contains valuable plant food which the roots of vegetables of every kind will appreciate.

To do this lay the sods in the bottom of he trench, grass side down, then chop them up with the spade.

If the turf contains grubs such as wireworms or leatherjackets, scatter lime or fresh soot thickly over the turf before covering it up.

Alternatively, pare the turf from the surface with a sharp spade used nearly horizontally, before digging begins.

Place the sods of turf in a heap, grass side down, somewhere on the plot, and leave it for at least year to decay.

The following year, open out the heap to enable birds to demolish whatever grubs that have survived, and dig it in as though it were manure.

Some of the fibrous soil created can be sifted for use in seed boxes and flower pots.

If the plot is covered with weeds such as; couch grass, dandelion, dock, thistle, nettle or any other perennial weeds, then dig these out with a fork.

On lifting the weeds knock the soil off them and place them in a heap ready for destruction at the next bonfire.

The resultant ashes are rich in potash and should be forked into the surface a week or two before sowing or planting.

Spade versus Fork - The Pros and cons:

Ground that is of a clayish nature, is more easily worked with fork than spade.

Stony, gravelly or sandy soil needs a spade.

Whichever tool is used, it should be of medium weight.

Smaller tools are better suited to people unaccustomed to digging.

Handling a Spade and Fork:

Note: Proper handling of these tools can prevent blisters forming on hands, and back muscles pain.

Stand over the spade (or fork), feet close together, the left foot a little in advance of the right.

Clasp the Dee/Tee handle loosely with the right hand, the back of the hand facing upwards.

Grip the shaft about one third down with the left hand, with the back of the hand towards the left knee.

Keeping the spade / fork as upright as possible, press the blade (or tines of the fork) full depth into the soil with the ball (not the instep) of the left foot.

Don't jump on it, if necessary, work the blade (or tines) backwards and forwards, maintaining pressure with the left foot, until it has gone down full depth.

Next, slide the left hand down the handle, remove the foot from the tread of the tool.

Push down­ward with the right hand, and lift with the left and raise the bite of soil.

Then with a twist of the right wrist throw the soil forward and completely over so that it falls upside down.

Note: a left-handed digger will naturally reverse these hand and foot positions.

After a little practice, those motions will become automatic and the digger will find it quite easy to keep an open trench at his/her feet.

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