When to Dig?
If you are clearing the plot for the first time then the answer is: ‘Whenever you’re ready’. Just get stuck in and dig your plot over, and if it has not been cultivated for a long time, then use the double dig method described below.
Once your plot has been dug over once, unless you use a no-dig method of gardening, then you will most likely need to dig each bed on an annual basis. When this needs to be done very much depends on the type of soil you have. Loam and clay soils should be dug over in autumn and left rough. This will expose a bigger area to the winter frosts (which will break the soil up for you), and prevent compaction from heavy winter rains. If on the other hand you have a very light soil then it is best dug in spring, otherwise the winter rain will wash off the nutrients in the soil. It is also best to cover light soils with a green manure or mulch of leaf mould over winter, which can be dug in in spring and will improve the soil structure.
No Dig Gardening
We won’t go into this in too much detail here, however it worth mentioning that even no dig gardening will require some digging when you first take on the plot in order to improve drainage. It is usually recommended that you double dig your plot initially before moving to a no dig gardening method.
Double digging means that you dig the ground to a depth of two ‘spits’ (2 spades deep, first with a spade, then with a fork). This is unfortunately hard work. The good news however is that in most cases you will only ever need to do this once. Double digging is usually carried out on virgin ground, or ground that has not been cultivated for a long time. If you take over a recently cultivated plot this is unlikely to be necessary.
The following video shows the basics of double digging, and can be summarised into 4 basic steps.
Dig a trench to 1 spit deep (as deep as a standard spade) and put the contents in a wheelbarrow (not shown on the video). Also make sure you remove any weeds from the soil at this stage paying particular attention to any roots in the soil – each small piece of root will grow into a new plant.
Loosen the soil in the trench with a fork – you can also add manure at this stage if you wish.
Dig a second trench putting the topsoil into the first, and repeat the process.
When you reach the end of the bed, tip the topsoil that is in the wheelbarrow from the first trench back in.
This is digging to a single spade’s depth and is adequate for most purposes. The process is similar to double digging, but there is no real need to remove the contents of the first trench into a wheelbarrow, nor will you need to fork the ground in each trench.
Single digging is not easy, however on well prepared ground it can in my opinion be very therapeutic. Just take it easy and do a bit at a time.
Once your ground is well worked, you may not need to dig with a spade each year. It may be all that is needed is to fork it over to remove weeds and mix in any manure or other organic matter. Just follow the same principle as single digging, but use a fork.
A rotovator is a petrol powered machine that will ‘dig’ the ground for you. It is efficient and compared to digging by hand undemanding. It will make light work of clearing an overgrown plot, however the nature of the rotovator means that it will chop up the roots of the perennials in the soil into tiny pieces, and each of these will grow into a new weed… so be careful. If you do decide to use a rotovator to clear new ground, then fork it over afterwards to remove as many fragments of root as you can.
Once the plot is cultivated and free of those nasty perennial weeds then a rotovator is fantastic. Just use it once a year to prepare the ground (autumn or spring depending on the type of soil you have). It makes light work of the job. It can also be used just before you are ready to plant and followed by a little raking will help produce a fine tilth (an even layer of fine soil with no stones or big lumps) ready for planting.