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Digging may be one of the most important jobs in the garden, but it is not exactly rocket science is it

01:00 Thu 24th Jan 2002 |

A.� No, but it isn't just a case of picking up a spade and turning over some earth either.

Different types of soils and conditions demand different methods of digging, there are right and wrong times to do it and, although hardly complicated, a correct technique.

Q.� Why do we dig, and aren't there those who advocate not digging at all

A.� The main reasons for digging are; to break up heavy soils and let air in, to incorporate organic matter in preparation for new planting, and to getting rid of annual weeds by burying them.

The non-dig movement started about 20 years ago. It argues that digging actually damages the soil structure and that to incorporate nutrients into the soil all you need to do is scatter organic matter on top of the soil and let the worms and rainfall take it down.

However, although it is true that very light soils can suffer from over digging, making it impossible for them to hold on to nutrients, heavy soils don't get lighter on their own and years and years of anecdotal evidence suggests that digging generally does more good than harm.

Q.� OK, where do we start

A.� By getting the right spade for you and the job. If your experience of digging is retiring with backache after a few minutes then you've been using the wrong one.

A standard spade has a shaft length of 70-72cms, but if you are over 5 feet 7 you will need a slightly longer one. The best way to find the one for you is to go to the shop and try them out, not ripping up the carpet but going through the motions and seeing which is most comfortable.

Remember that the trick is that you should not have to bend your back when you push the spade into the soil. You then bend your knees to get the leverage. If you have a heavy soil there are what are called 'border spades' that have smaller blades and so carry less weight. Otherwise stainless steel blades are best, easily slipping into even clay soils.

Q.� What about technique

A. If you aren't used to digging then don't rush into it like a bull in a china shop. Take it easy, perhaps half an hour a day initially and build up.

Autumn and early winter are the best times for digging in manure or compost, but don't try digging when the soil is either hard with frost or waterlogged. You'll do more harm than good to the ground and possibly yourself.

It is best to mark out the area you want to dig and divide it into a series of trenches about 12 inches wide. You can do this by nicking out a roughly straight line with the blade of the spade. Then when you dig try and put the blade in vertically, bend the knees and lift out the soil.

Done right digging is not just good exercise but once into a rhythm it can be quite therapeutic. You'll soon find yourself daydreaming or working out how to make your next million.

Q. What's the difference between single and double digging

A.� Double digging is the traditionalists, some would say masochists, favoured way of maximising the air and organic matter introduced into the soil. It is particularly valuable if you have a heavy soil as it improves drainage or if you grow a lot of root crops that grow deep into the ground in search of nutrients.

It is hard work, however. Basically it involves digging trenches twice the depth of the spade's blade, adding a layer of organic matter to the bottom. you then back fill to half way, add another layer of organic matter and then�finishing with the remaining soil, a bit like a double sponge cake.

Single digging is essentially the same, but much less hard work and is adequate in most situations. You dig your first trench to one spades depth and put the earth in a wheelbarrow. Add some organic matter to the bottom and then start a new trench, filling the first with the soil from the second, and so on. At the end fill the final trench with the soil from the first one which put in the wheelbarrow.

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By Tom Gard

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