Tips on Digging Techniques

When a new garden is taken over, the question sometimes asked is : “ When is the best time to dig it? “ The general answer is : “As soon as you can “; but if the garden is not wanted in a great hurry, digging might conveniently wait until autumn. This would be for the very good reason that winter will help with the work. The action of frost and rain on large lumps of soil breaks down the texture, and prepares the beds and borders for later surface cultivation with rake and hoe.

However, at any time when digging is to be done, it will be done in one of these ways.

Simple digging is quite satisfactory where you are preparing a lawn on a site that is already level. It is not necessary for the soil to be broken to a great depth; in fact, deep digging may easily be a disadvantage, since in this case the surface is more likely to settle unevenly.

In simple digging the spade is driven in vertically to the depth of the blade, or one spit deep. It is then levered a little, to loosen a cube of soil, and this is lifted on the spade, and turned over completely. It is an assistance, even in simple digging, to open a small trench first, so that each spadeful can be turned over into it. The soil originally taken from the first trench can be carried to fill the last. If each trench is cleaned out to the same depth each time, and then filled up as suggested, with the soil from the next trench, the plot when dug will have a comparatively even surface. In simple digging it is only the top 10 in. of soil that is stirred.

Neatness in digging pays, and the novice will be well advised to stretch a line along the plot to mark off the first trench and move it each time the same number of inches, as this will keep the trenches of even size, and result in an even patch of dug soil.

The way a spade is held is responsible for success or failure. The grip on the handle at the top with the right hand, and half-way down it with the left, is correct. The spade should be raised before it is driven into the soil, and a push with the foot should drive it the full length of the blade. Should virgin soil be too stony or too solid for the spade to be used in this way, a large digging fork can be used. A spade should be handy, too, so that the trench can be cleared each time, otherwise the worker will very soon “lose his trench.”

Since double digging, known as bastard trenching, is the most common form of digging adopted in the new garden, let me describe this process as applied to some old pasture which is to become flower or vegetable borders.

The first thing to do is to take the line of string, and stretch it where the edge of the border is to come. Then cut, with the spade, or with a turf cutter if you have one, along the line of the string, penetrating to about 3 or 4 in., i.e., through the turf. For a curved outline to a bed you cannot use the string but must use the spade or turf cutter.

Now, assuming that you have outlined, by cutting through the turf, a rectangular patch of soil that is to be dug, take the line again and stretch it across the plot at one end, 15 in. from the cut edge. Cut along this line, and with the spade cut also across the 15-in. Strip, so that the turf is in squares. This turf, and the soil beneath it to a depth of 10 in. (i.e., one spit), you can move to some point near the far end of the plot : you will need it to refill your last trench.

Stand in the open, straight-sided trench that you have made, and with the largest digging fork break up the bottom soil. It need not be lifted and turned : breaking it is sufficient.

Move the line of string a further 15 in., and cut a second line of turves as before. Strip off each one with the spade or fork, and as you lift it, turn it over face downwards in the open trench. If you have plenty of time to do the work, you can, with advantage, break or chop the turf a little; but if time presses, leave it upside down as it is.

Turn over the soil from under this second line of turves, into the open trench, thus filling it, and leaving the second trench open. This you will treat like the first, and so on all down the plot until the last open trench is filled with the turf and soil taken from the first.

The plot will then have been double-dug, that is, the top spit of soil will have been turned over but kept in place at the top, while the under-soil will have been broken up, so that air and moisture can penetrate it.

This form of digging is the most common, and generally the best. The top spit of soil is the most fertile, the reason being that the active soil bacteria already referred to live in the top layer, and only where they live, and where air freely penetrates, can soil remain fertile. To turn in the top spit, and bring the infertile subsoil to the top, as is sometimes done, is asking for trouble.

Double digging is generally adopted in renovating herbaceous or mixed flower borders, in preparing ground for rose beds and for shrubs, and in all parts of the vegetable garden, at least once a year (with the exception of permanent beds of asparagus, etc.). In place of the layer of turf as described, any available organic manure, the contents of the compost pit, or other matter is thrown into the open trench, and preferably, in this case, forked into the subsoil. This gradually has the effect of deepening the fertile layer, with advantage to the plants.

Digging should everywhere finish with a dusting of lime over the surface. Lime is needed as well as manure—not instead of it, as many gardeners seem to think. Soil dug over in autumn and dressed with lime will, without attention during the winter, gradually break down to a crumbly surface that can easily be raked to make a good seed bed. All the same, soil that has been double-dug on the vegetable plot in October can with advantage be forked over once or twice during the winter, since this allows frost greater action in it, and also brings grubs to the surface to be devoured by winter-hungry birds.


The difference between double digging, or bastard trenching, and trenching proper is that in the double digging just described, the top layer of soil only is turned over and it remains at the top, whereas in trenching the two layers of soil are both turned right over and their relative positions are reversed. There are occasions when this practice is necessary. One is when, in a new garden, the owner discovers that the builder has buried the original top soil under a layer of soil taken from the foundations. This will be discovered when the foot-deep hole is first opened to discover the type of soil. Fertile top soil, with decaying humus (and bacteria) present in it, is of a darker colour, and more fibrous in texture than the subsoil. It has decaying or active weed roots present in it, and it is these that make the difference in colour by which it can be identified.

If, then, the top soil has been buried, and trenching becomes a necessity, this is how to proceed. First, mark out and open a trench as for double digging, but go further. Excavate the subsoil or second spit as well as the first spit, and take it to the other end of the plot. Next, mark out a second strip, turn the top spit over into the open trench, and turn the subsoil from the same width over on to the inverted top spit. Continue as before all down the plot, and fill in the top spit from the first trench in the bottom of the last trench, and the subsoil at the top. This method will have brought to the top the lower spit, which was actually the fertile soil.

Without actually bringing all the lower spit to the surface, an intermediate form of digging is sometimes adopted, if the old top soil of a garden seems to be impoverished and stale. A little of the subsoil brought up on the spade and left on the surface will improve such a garden plot. This method is useful in old town gardens where soot has soured the surface.

Reference to soil cultivation would be incomplete without descriptions of various lighter tasks that serve to keep soil healthy. One is hoeing. It is found that soil which is hoed regularly is warmer in winter and cooler and moister in summer than soil left unhoed. Hoeing means chipping through the top crust of soil, breaking down the sun-baked surface to a crumbly texture, and destroying small weeds in the process. Breaking the hard pan that quickly forms in hot weather after rain ceases allows air to enter the soil, and prevents cracks forming. Soil with a loose crumbly surface, and no deep cracks, is capable of drawing moisture from a considerable depth by capillary attraction—the way in which, for instance, the wick of an oil lamp draws up oil by providing a porous substance. Where deep cracks form, the soil dries into hard lumps, and moisture does not rise.

Hoes are of various types, in two distinct groups. One is the type of hoe that is used with a pushing motion, the user working backwards along the rows of growing crops as he works. This is called a push hoe, or thrust hoe, of which the best known kind is called the Dutch. The other group comprises the drag or draw hoe, used with a downward and drawing motion, the user working forwards between the rows. In both cases the weeds are cut through just below the surface, and the soil is left broken and crumbly. There are hoes, such as the cultivator hoe, that combine both possibilities; and there are hoes of various sizes, for use between rows of large vegetables, and for use between rows of small seedlings in the nursery plot.

Hand forks and weeding forks are used for a similar purpose in flower beds where a hoe cannot be used.

Raking And Forking

Constant raking will break down the surface of almost any kind of dug soil in time. The novice should beware of the temptation to rake off all soil lumps, instead of knocking them to pieces with the rake. This is a tiresome job, but only large stones and loose weeds should be raked off and taken away.

Forking, or pointing as it is sometimes called, consists in turning over just a few inches of soil between established plants, being careful not to let the fork penetrate so deeply that it disturbs the roots unduly. The object is chiefly to remove weeds, aerate the soil, and generally to give a clean, well-cared-for look to the beds and borders. When manure is needed in the borders, and plants cannot be lifted for thorough digging, it is generally distributed on the surface, and lightly buried with the fork, the prongs of the fork penetrating only about 4 in.

Here are a few hints to new gardeners concerning these primary operations.

1. Never dig when the soil is very wet.

2. Never wheel a heavy barrow, filled with manure, soil, or sand over a lawn area, even if the lawn is not yet made. Use one or two planks to take the weight: it will save you lots of trouble later.

3. Never have sand or manure dumped where you intend to make a gravel path. Its weight will make the ground sink unevenly.

4. Never leave your tools outside after use. Keep them under cover, and always clean them before they are put away. Stainless steel tools need only a wash, but other tools should be wiped with an oily rag each time.

5. Don’t tackle too much heavy work at once if you are not used to manual labour. Try it little and often for a time, until you “get the knack.”

6. Don’t let the garden be a worry to you; let it be a pleasure. Don’t talk of garden work; call it play. You probably worked far harder at football when you were at school.