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Digging - Best Practice and Tools for the Job


It is great to see the recent burst of interest and research into no-dig farming methods as a means to preserve and promote the health of our soils. However, it is unlikely we will be downing tools anytime soon in our gardens as mechanically working the soil is by far the quickest way to convert a patch of unused land into a fertile and workable medium for vegetable plants. By cultivating the soil, we can quickly create an ideal loose friable structure by breaking up compaction and a directly adding organic matter such as compost and manure. This provides fertility for both the plants and the soil life which will work to maintain this improved structure. The opportunity is also taken to remove as many weeds as possible, especially the roots of perennials.

Double digging

Double digging involves digging your bed to the depth of two spades and usually incorporating a layer of manure or other organic matter to a deeper layer. This is a very laborious way to prepare soil, however, the results are fantastic and great yields can be achieved with relatively small areas as planting spacing can be reduced. Most importantly, if the bed is managed properly, double digging should only need to be done once. If you avoid walking on the bed and protect the soil in the winter months with a green manure or ground cover it will not become compacted again and organic matter/manure/compost can be easily forked in at the surface.

Care when digging

Digging, of course, can be a strenuous activity and if not carried out with care can be damaging to the body. Problems generally occur from three aspects: lifting too much weight, putting ourselves in awkward positions with bad posture and staying at it too long after we tire. When we get tired we tend to lapse into bad posture and in haste we may try to lift too much weight to get the job done quicker.

Good posture is key as back pain often results from using bad form. A good thing to keep in mind is to always avoid rounding your back when bending to dig or lift a load. Keep emphasis on using your legs to do the work rather than your lower back. When lifting the load – drop into your hips and knees, to lower your centre of gravity beneath the handle of the shovel, and then lift with your legs. Throughout, your back should be kept in a lovely long neutral position. Other things which may help include:

  • Warming up before hand with a little stretching.
  • Never work the soil when it’s frozen or wet and heavy.
  • Using a wheelbarrow to avoid needlessly moving loads by foot.
  • Break up your jobs into smaller tasks of 15mins or so in length and alternate between digging and non-digging tasks.
  • If possible, try alernating between using your left and right side of the body to dig.

The right tool for the job

Choosing the right tool will make a big difference in how efficiently and safely you can get the job done. Things to consider:

Weight and size -  Though a tool should be 'heavy-duty' in the sense that it will stand the test of time, a literally heavy tool is not always advantageous. As well as being more suitable for areas requiring a bit more precision, smaller tools such as a lightweight spade will prevent you from overloading them and lifting too much weight. This is also an important factor for the compost and manure forks in which their lightweight design makes moving these bulky materials much easier.

Various Fork Sizes

Handle - Using tools with longer handles can help prevent excessive bending. However, the longer handle makes for greater leverage against your body which would cause more harm if overloading. A good example of using this leverage to your advantage is with the cultivating hoes and forks. Having the tool head at a right angle to the handle, means the weight of the tool does all the work in conjunction with the leverage of the handle. This makes them great for turning over heavy soils and breaking new ground with maximum efficiency. They can be used for a long time without getting tired.

Tool Shape - Generally speaking, flat bladed spades and forks are the implements used for digging whilst shovels refer to a more dished blade that is more useful for moving already loosened material. The digging shovel (main picture) is a noticable exception. It is a kind of hybrid between a spade and a shovel and a good all rounder digging tool for a variety of garden jobs.


Almost Digging

The biofork, also known as a broadfork, provides the perfect compromise between no dig systems and the need to aerate the soil. The biofork contains 5 strong round tines which remove compaction and allow air and water channels to be opened again whilst maintaining the structure of the soil. The fork is pressed into the ground with your bodyweight to get as deep as possible and then the handle of the the tool is levered back to 45° or so before being drawn out and repeated a foot or so ahead.

Seamus Heaney knew a thing or two about Digging -

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

- Seamus Heaney



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