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Winter Digging


I really do not like the short days of winter but do celebrate the shortest day, as for me I then know that the lighter nights are on there way and soon the gardening season will be on its way again.

Many gardeners wonder what they should be doing over the winter months and depending on your point of view digging is something that I always do and frequently recommend. The reason for doing this in my garden is that the soil is so fine and well drained that I need to incorporate loads of organic matter every year to enable good crops to be grown. The other problem with my soil is that it settles into a compact hard mass making root growth difficult.

I am also a great fan of green manure. This is where a fast growing crop is sown and before it flowers the entire crop is tuned into the ground to rot down adding much needed organic matter to the soil. Its other advantage to me (on my soil), is that the surface layer of foliage covering the soil helps prevent damage to the surface of the soil due to heavy rain drops battering these fragile soil particles if left with nothing to protect them. Digging allows you to incorporate this green manure.

On my light soil I tend to dig in January or February but on the heavy clay soil which I grew up with in Lancashire the winter digging was always done by November leaving the plot as rough as possible so that the winter frosts and freezing and thawing could help break up the heavy clay.

I suppose that I could go down the no dig route but I find in practice that trying to sow seeds into layers of organic matter on the surface of the plot difficult and tend to have to start all the vegetables in containers or modules so that they can be transplanted into the garden when they are ready and have been hardened off.

In practice I believe it depends on your soil type and which management techniques you wish to follow and how you wish to grow your crops. Many people often argue one way or the other but to be honest both techniques seem to work. For many years this argument as been rumbling on and to be fair, over as many years you will have growers supporting their preferred method having produced some really productive crops. What this shows me is that either method works.

Obviously a good spade that is the correct weight and size is important in making this job easier as with a garden fork. Too many people buy either item without much thought. Remember that the weight may be ok without anything on the blade but when it’s loaded with soil or manure it’s going to be considerably heavier.

So many different types are now available I tend to recommend going for a smaller blade size due to the weight issue rather than a bigger sized tool. Ladies (otherwise known as ‘border’) forks and spades are really useful if you get tired quickly and are suitable for the older person who finds digging very hard work.

Also remember to warm up before you start digging by doing some stretching exercises or take yourself a brisk walk so that you are ready for some strenuous work.

When actually doing the digging take thin slices of soil and turn these over. Do not take thick slices that are too heavy. Only do a small patch at a time. Doing an hour a day is better than spending three or four hours digging, ending up so that you can hardy stand up straight without your back killing you!

I actually enjoy digging on cold days as it warms me up and I often do it in the late afternoon, so once it’s dark it forces me indoors where I run a hot bath, put in the foam bath, pour myself a glass of whiskey and then just have a long warm soak, enjoying sipping the drink, often listening to some lovely classical music – what a nice end to a Winter’s afternoon.

A manure fork can make handling manure or compost considerable easier to move about and a decent wheelbarrow with a good well pumped up tyre makes pushing a heavy load much easier.

I used to think that stainless steel tools were not worth the extra expense. That was before I used them. Heavy soils do not stick to the blades as much as with normal steel and they stay sharp, making them ideal for getting through heavy soils. If you can afford to treat yourself to a set of stainless steel tools I am sure you will not regret it.

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