THE ART OF DIGGING SOIL

DIGGING is no top-speed, frantic business. For the good of the job and the well-being of the digger it must be done at a leisurely pace. It must not be left to accumulate so that a hot-sweat bout is necessary just as seed sowing or planting becomes imminent; as soon as possible after a crop has been cleared its piece of ground should be dealt with.

Soil needs to settle down somewhat before seed is sown or plants set out, and this it cannot do if the necessary attention is delayed until, say, March, when other essential jobs are clamouring to be tackled.

Digging that is rushed is certain to be scamped; the benefits that come of a proper handling of spade or fork are not attained.

Why Dig? Obvious reasons are the burial of weeds and the covering-in of manure. The ultimate reason is the ensuring of really profitable crops. By breaking up the soil to a good depth the downward path of roots is made easy. Essential air is let into the ground. Unused stores of plant food are opened up. The soil becomes fertile to a greater depth. And vegetables in deeply dug soil suffer less in dry periods than those in ground inexpertly, hurriedly or lazily turned over.

When to Dig.

The time to dig is when the ground is not so wet that it squelches underfoot; when it is not frozen; when it is not snow-covered. Heavy ground – of a clay-like nature – is best dug in early winter, the surface being left lumpy for wind and frost to crumble and sweeten 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. Soils of a lighter nature can be dealt with at any time, though if some weeks in advance of sowing the surface should not be fined down unduly, or it will become hard-caked under the action of rain and wind, and so need forking over again.

Spade or fork should always be used to the greatest possible depth except when a follow-on crop is to be sown or planted immediately, as spring cabbage after onions, or turnips after early potatoes; in this case it is sufficient if the surface is turned over and weeds removed.

Spade versus Fork.

Ground that is clay, or of a clayey nature, is as a rule more easily worked with fork than spade. Stony or gravelly or sandy soil demands a spade. Whichever tool is used, it should be of medium weight; a quite small one does better work in hands unaccustomed to digging, and without undue strain on the muscles.

Clearing the Ground.

The disposal of whatever covers the surface naturally comes first. If it is turf, this could be buried deeply during the digging – turned grass- side down into the bottom of the digging-trench and there chopped up with the spade. It contains valuable plant food which the roots of vegetables of every kind will appreciate.

If the turf contains grubs such as wireworms or leatherjackets (they will be obvious enough if present) scatter lime or fresh soot thickly over it before covering-in. Or pare it from the surface with a sharp spade used nearly horizontally, before digging begins, and make a heap of it, grass-side down, somewhere on the plot, and leave it for a year to decay. Then open out the heap to enable birds to demolish whatever grubs have survived, and dig it in as though it were manure. Part of this good, fibrous soil should be saved for filling seed boxes and flower pots.

Heaping-up pared-off turf and burning it is wasteful – unless it is very weedy with couch grass, dandelion, dock, thistle, nettle or other perennial-rooted persistent weeds; in which case burning is the safe plan. The resultant ashes are rich in potash and should be forked into the surface a week or two before sowing or planting.

Where tall weeds of the foregoing nature occupy the ground the roots should be got out with the fork, and after the soil has been knocked from them the tops and roots should be added to the general woody refuse heap for destruction at the next bonfire.

Handling Spade and Fork.

The spade is the ‘ founder of the feast,’ and on the method of its handling depends the absence or presence of blisters and the condition of die digger’s leg and back muscles at the end of dirty minutes of hard toil in the garden.

Stand over the spade (or fork), feet close together, the left foot a little in advance of the right; right hand loosely clasping the D at the top of the handle, back of the hand uppermost; left hand gripping the handle about one-third down, back of the hand towards the left knee.

Keeping the spade 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.

Then slide the left hand down die 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 bite to the nature of the soil – narrow for clay, wider for easily worked ground; pick out all weed roots and grubs revealed.

Keep the Spade Clean.

Labour is lightened and the work expedited by keeping the tool clean. As soil accumulates on it, scrape it off with a piece of wood fashioned like a label with sharpened edge. This scraper can be carried in a pocket where it can be got at for immediate use. It will be needed quite frequently when heavy or moist soil is being dealt with.

Digging-in Manure.

The ideal time for manuring heavy soil is early winter; late winter for light ground. Decaying vegetable refuse should be got into the ground, whatever the latter’s nature, during winter if possible.

It should be buried at the bottom of the digging-trench. If a soil fumigant (such as naphthalene) is to be applied, fork this into the surface the digging.

The manure or vegetable refuse may be forked into the trench from the wheelbarrow, or be spread over the surface before digging begins and be scraped into each trench as encountered. The latter method means that the digger must tread on the material as he works backwards; he may therefore find the barrow method preferable. Another method is to spread the manure or refuse in heaps over the plot and so be able to deal with it by the forkful.

Bastard Trenching.

If ground is never dug deeper than one spit the soil below that depth remains so hard packed that plant roots find it no easy matter to penetrate it.

It is therefore advisable to dig two spits deep every third year, the method being known as bastard trenching. One third of the plot should be so treated each year, so that in three years the whole of the ground has been broken up to the depth of approximately 2 ft.; the two-thirds that are not being bastard trenched being dug one spit deep.

The deeper treatment of the soil improves the prospect of crops very considerably, facilitating deep penetration by roots and making more readily available buried stores of food and moisture.

In this case the digging trench is 2 ft. wide and 1 ft. deep. The first trench opened, the digger gets into it and, standing at right angles to its direction, breaks the subsoil up with spade or fork to the depth of 1 ft., mixing in any manure or vegetable refuse available.

When the run of open trench has thus been dealt with from end to end, it is filled in by the opening up of an adjacent trench of the same width (2 ft.) and depth (1 ft.), and so on until the completion of the digging.

It will be noted that the subsoil is brought to the top but retains its original position relative to the surface; it is simply broken up to the depth of a foot and left where it is, top soil being turned over and moved forward.

Subsoil lacks fertility. To bring it to the top and bury the original surface soil would be great mistake, handicapping very seriously any vegetable sown or planted therein. The lower soil might even be sand, gravel, rock, chalk or hard clay, a pick being necessary to break up these obstinate materials. To improve the drainage of the rock, chalk or clay subsoil, various lightening materials need to be added, as explained in the section ALL SORTS OF SOILS.

The more manure or vegetable refuse is mixed with the subsoil, the more fertile it becomes, with a correspondingly greater yield in crops.

Deep Trenching. This is not to be embarked upon lightly, entailing as it does considerable time and labour. It involves digging three spits deep – breaking up, turning over and moving forward the top and second spits (without changing their positions relative to each other) and breaking up the third spit.

As in bastard trenching a start is made by digging, at one end of a strip, a trench 2 ft. wide and 1 ft. deep and removing the excavated soil to the far end. But instead of merely breaking up the subsoil, another trench is made therein – the width of spade or fork and a spit deep. This second lot of excavated soil is also taken to die far end and placed in front of the first lot.

The digger then stands in the deeper part of the trench and breaks up the bottom thoroughly, leaving it where it is. A layer of manure or vegetable refuse is placed on top of the broken-up bottom, and the first step of the wide trench is then turned over, in spadefuls or forkfuls, on top of the manure or refuse.

This also is then covered with manure or refuse and the top spit of what will be the second trench is moved forward, in bites, and turned over on top of it. There is now exposed another stretch – 1 ft. wide and two spits deep – of subsoil, and there is a new step.

Break up the new bottom, manure it and turn the new step over on to it, covering this in turn with manure and then with the top spit of the third trench. Repeat this until the last trench is to be filled with the subsoil that was wheeled away from trench number one, covering this with the top soil from the same.

Labour of this arduous nature is not necessary for the production of normal crops. Deep trenching, however, is an excellent method of draining waterlogged ground.

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