Thursday, April 18, 2013

To Dig or Not to Dig: The Dirt on preparing Your Soil

The quickest way to start an argument among gardeners is to get into a discussion on how to best prepare your garden soil for the growing season.  Those opinionated gardeners have thoughts on compost and fertilizer, soil testing and mulching, and of course whether to dig or not to dig.  As I sit here writing this I can just imagine a few folks reading the information below and shaking their heads in disagreement.

The Dig Method

The basic premise of the dig method, is well, to dig.  The idea is that by breaking up the soil and turning and mixing the soil you are loosening the air pockets and spreading the compost and nutrients throughout the soil structure.  Digging your garden is especially important for those with heavy soil that needs to be broken up.

Dig in the fall months on a dry day to maintain soil structure.  The best methods of digging are either to single dig or double dig.  Before you embark, be aware that these methods are labor intensive and are difficult for even the most fit gardeners.  For both methods, start by digging a trench.  For single digging, dig the trench 1 shovel depth, and for double digging, dig the trench 2 shovel depths.  Dig a row alongside the trench turning the soil into the trench.  Continue turning each row into the newly created trench and fill the final row with the soil from the first trench.  You can also simply dig down in your garden and turn each shovelful into the hole.

The No-Dig Method

When I first read about the no-dig method, I thought - what a bunch of lazy gardeners, coming up with a whole method just to save themselves the work of digging.  But the more I read and came to understand the no-dig method, the more I realized the the no-dig method actually makes  a lot of sense.

No digging is based on the idea that natural systems actually create passages in the soil for air and water, and organisms such as worms will do the work of bringing the nutrient rich soil on the surface down to the deeper soil.  When you dig you actually break up this delicate balance and then compress the soil by walking on it. 

To employ the no-dig method, you need to enrich the top of the soil and allow natural processes to bring nutrients down.  You can also use this method to build up a raised bed.

What's Best

Both digging and not digging have their own benefits, but ultimately it depends on your soil, the life of your garden, and you own time and energy commitments as to what will work best for you.  For brand new gardens, it is often best to dig your bed to pull out any rocks, clumps of clay and simply break up the soil.  Once your garden is established, I have found it easy every year to add some compost to the top and simply work it into the top couple inches of soil.

What method do you use in your garden?

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  1. My husband insists on using the rototiller. However, when we have permanent raised bed gardens I hope we will be able to retire (Craigslist) the rototiller. Thanks for all of the information and also thanks for listing other blogs with even more information! I enjoy devouring all the information I can get!

  2. How interesting! Our garden is new, so last year and this year we've used our tiller to break up the soil. We built raised beds this year, so next year we hopefully will be able to just work some compost into the top layer of soil in each bed.

  3. We're using the double dig method this year. Last year we did a single dig and add lots of compost to the garden, but our crops didn't do as well as I hoped. This year I dug down deep and found that the soil beneath was very compressed and mostly clay. Not a worm to be found down there. Instead of replacing the clay rich soil I put a lot of compost into the bottom of the trench along with some partially decomposed straw and leaves. I'm hoping all that work will get us a better yield this year, now our tomatoes can really dig down deep with those roots!

  4. My husband loves his rototiller as well - sounds like there's a theme here :-) I have banned him and his loud machine from "my side" of the garden and I'm using the no-dig method because I'm lazy. I put a good layer of mostly composted chicken/pig poop/leaf/straw mixture on top a month ago. As soon as the snow melts (will it ever?) I plan on lightly mixing it in and planting! I did this last year and my tomato plants were gargantuan and fruitful!

  5. We have mostly raised bed with some open garden for corn & squash. Beds have been no dig for years. This year we are converting to Back to Eden for all. I will be blogging our progress.

  6. I plan to use the no-till method for the rest of my life. I really believe that not disturbing the soil is the answer to healthy and vigorous plants. To each his own! Happy gardening everyone!

  7. We kind of do both. We have awful bermuda so we may dig a bit to break up the soil and then proceed according to the no dig method. Thanks for sharing this at the HomeAcre Hop Gretchen! Look forward to seeing you again tomorrow:

  8. thanks for this useful i find something that i want to know..