Digging is the breaking up of the ground to turn the soil into a better growing medium. This often involves removing debris, weeds, and roots and incorporating compost or manure at the same time. It is done initially to prepare a bed or border for planting or sowing, and is often performed annually in the vegetable plot. The first ease is obviously nearly always necessary for optimum results, but the benefit and sense of an annual dig is now contentious with “no-diggers,” who maintain that it’s superfluous or even counterproductive to dig every year regardless.
Many, especially those with a heavy soil, believe a regular autumn dig helps to improve the texture. Those with a light soil, for whom ironically digging is much easier, apparently benefit from it far less, if at all. In either case, the use of fixed Beds with permanent paths, or avoiding treading on the soil when it’s wet to prevent compaction, reduces the need to dig more than once a year. In trials, a dig every five to seven years, mostly to break up mole runs and ant nests, seemed to be of optimum value. It seems that an annual dig will be a rather wasted effort, better employed turning the compost heap, collecting compost, or hoeing weeds. ‘This is even more the ease with a vegetable bed where rotation is practised, since this ensures the soil is broken and mixed up anyway when harvesting the root and potato crops every fourth year or so.
Whether or not you want to dig annually is up to you and your choice of plants or soil, but bear in mind that it will become easier over succeeding years. I personally think that an initial dig of any patch is always crucial to success, if only to remove pernicious weeds and debris. Before starting, check there are no electric cables, drainage, oil or water pipes you may accidentally hit. Remove any top growth, saplings, and surface junk and debris. Digging is usually easier if you first go over rough grass and growth with a tough rotary mower before trying to cut into an old turf sward.
There are several ways of dealing with the roughest topmost layer. You can simply invert each spit of soil as you dig, or skim and drop the skin in before covering it with a clean spit of soil. Or it may be skimmed off and stacked under an opaque plastic sheet to rot down into a useful loam For adding to potting composts. If it is full of pernicious, especially creeping, weeds, then this last option is the sensible one as it is foolish to bury them.
Those not wishing to be organic may want to kill off the weeds by applying a herbicide before digging. These must be used according to the instructions and are most effective when properly applied by a trained operative. Some are available for home use, but ask your local supplier for advice according to your situation and intended planting. Hear in mind that herbicides must be applied at least several days, if not weeks, before you intend to dig and that some require the right weather after spraying to be thoroughly effective. Organic gardeners may wish to weaken or kill the weeds first with several treatments of flame gunning (the equipment is available from hire centers) or by covering the ground for a period of several months under an opaque plastic sheet.
If no prior treatment is undertaken, it is essential that weeds with strong root systems, such as brambles, thistles, docks, and stinging nettles, are removed during digging or they will regrow vigorously¡ªeven if buried a spit down. It the area is large enough to accommodate a mechanical rotary cultivator, an initial dig incorporating the weeds can be followed by regular digs until the weeds expire. However, even with power assistance this is still an arduous task unless the weeds are easy to kill. Less vigorous weeds such as fine lawn grasses, mosses, daisies, chickweeds and groundsels, green manures, and most small weed seedlings may safely be dug under.