I know when it comes to cultivating the soil, everyone has an opinion about it. There are a lot of good reasons not to. The soil has a structure and its own little ecosystem of worms, fungus and bugs. Also, digging is hard work! A good reason to dig is if you’re putting in a new bed and you need to amend the soil. I would say that once the plants are in you’re better off spreading compost and mulch on the surface and waiting for the earthworms to work it all in for you.
The one area of the garden that I’ve found needs regular cultivation is the vegetable garden.
Maybe it’s that so much is demanded of the vegetable garden. If plants are slowly creeping along, it doesn’t seem worth the space and time. The first beds I dug over 20 years ago were the start of what is, to this day, my vegetable garden. At first it was exciting to pick a couple of green beans and a few small leaves of lettuce, even though bugs and dirt on my food were a new experience for me. Yeah, at that point I was still mostly a city girl and secretly grateful that most of what I planted barely grew.
David, who has junk in his blood, came home with three old Simplicity walking tractors
and was convinced that this was what was needed to really get the plants going. We started by taking up sod to form a 40’x40′ patch and then David tilled it to perfection! The soil was beautiful, black and fluffy! Then, when the growing season came, the plants grew like crazy. What a difference! The following year after that, David decided that he really like to (in his own words) “make dirt” and tilled a 20′ wide stretch off of the original square that ran almost the entire length of our property, this time without even taking up the sod. He just kept tilling every time the weeds tried growing back. I couldn’t believe that it worked. Maybe it helped that the lawns in Port Townsend are mostly weeds with only a little bit of grass. My garden was 20′-40’x100′.
Fun side note: Synchronicity with Simplicity! They were made in Port Washington, WI. This is fun for me because I lived in Wisconsin for a few years in the 80’s and now I’m in Port Townsend, Washington.
Those were lush times in the garden.
One year I even sold my vegetables at the farmers market. That was back when it was located in a parking lot downtown. I only did this a couple of times. My kids were little and it was very difficult for me to pick and have everything ready so early in the morning. I’m not much of a people-person either and having to talk to and interact with people all day was one of the most exhausting things I have ever done…and it shall never be repeated!
The garden hummed along pretty nicely for quite a few years. I learned as I went: working in gardens and reading anything I could get my hands on. I subscribed to magazines, I read books by gardeners and books on garden design. Even reference books could hold my attention! Yeah, I’m into it.
All of this reading eventually brought me to an article in a magazine about “No-till vegetable gardening”. It was a new concept for me (and the world?) and the article did make some pretty good points, mostly about soil structure and how tilling could destroy it. It said you should grow root vegetables to break up the soil, always keep beds covered in mulch and let the earthworms do the mixing-in of amendments. It sounded so simple and natural that it seemed right. I told David that I didn’t want the garden tilled anymore. This did not go over very well. He loved tilling and argued that it was how people have always grown food and who wrote this article, anyways?
I just wanted to give “no tilling” it a try…
…and try I did…for about 5 years. The results were terrible! The tilling would wake up the soil and get it going every year but, without the tilling, the soil seemed sleepy and the plants were puny and even unhealthy. I had to admit defeat! To this day, David gives me a bad time about it and I don’t blame him! We had to get a new tiller because we had sold our walking tractors to a friend who eventually moved to Alaska. What happened to those cool old machines, we may never know.
Our new tiller is an “Earthquake”. I don’t know that it could till up sod like the Simplicity did but, it is small enough for me to use and that is definitely a plus as we get older and more broken.
Unfortunately, it turns out that even a smaller tiller does not maneuver very well in small spaces.
This is the situation I found myself in just last week. I’m wanting to grow winter vegetables instead of a cover crop but, it’s difficult because I’m having to work around the summer garden that is still producing. I had a limited space to start the lettuce so, I sowed it densely. Last week it was time to thin it out. I had to yank most of my tomato plants to make space for the lettuce starts to move to . The tomatoes get messed with so much while they are growing that the ground gets hard from being walked on. I didn’t want to plant the lettuce in this hard ground. The space was small and surrounded by plants on three sides and a fence on the other. The tiller was not the solution because even the smaller ones need room to turn and churn.
The only other method of cultivation that I know of is to dig.
Sunday morning started off cool, but bright. I finished clearing the space and was finally ready to start digging. The sun decided to heat up and was my unwelcomed companion for the rest of the day. I used the double-dig method which was something that I haven’t done since my early garden days. It was a favorite method taught to me by a woman that gave me my first gardening job. The way I learned it was that you work by digging across the row by first removing one shovel’s depth of dirt and setting it aside. Then you dig down a second shovel’s depth to loosen the lower layer. This is also when you can add any amendments. Then you continue to the next row but, now you can throw your first shovel onto the previous row and continue “double digging” as you work your way backwards. In the end you will have a trench that can be topped off with that first row that was set aside. If done in this fashion you don’t jumble the top layer with the subsoil that’s beneath. This works very well and you can even weed and break up hard clumps of soil as you go. Just remember to not walk on your newly prepared beds and ruin all of that hard work!
Here are some pictures you can look at and click to read. David took a whole bunch of pictures of me digging. They gave us a good laugh over our morning cup of coffee but, they will never be seen by internet eyes! Let’s just say that I’ll think twice before asking someone to take pictures of me working in the future.