(Can You) Dig It

Or Not?

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.

Brandon in garden
My first son and first two rows of garden. It was mostly wildflowers by the end of summer.

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.

Jeremy in the garden
My second son two years later. A tilled garden and a gate!

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.

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9 thoughts on “(Can You) Dig It

  1. the things you talk about in this article remind me of ones i read about years ago in organic gardening. do you read this magazine? i found it to be ahead of its time by 15 to 20 years!!


    1. I think that was the one with the no-till article! Good magazine, although the technique didn’t work very well in a veggie patch. I wouldn’t recommend it.
      The double-dig is an old-time, honored way to prepare your planting beds. It’s work but, it works!


  2. I see straw put down in the pathways of a lot of gardens, and I’ve always wondered why that’s done. Is it to keep the weeds from growing in those areas or maybe to protect the soil? Obviously I don’t have much gardening experience, but I find it really interesting and appreciate the way you explain the how and why of keeping a garden!


    1. It’s used as a mulch with the veggies, so, it keeps down weeds (although it usually contains it’s own seeds), helps to regulate soil temperature, lessen water evaporation, and keeps the veggies clean! I guess it’s used over other mulch because it takes a while to break down and is easy to rake up and reuse as the veggie garden shifts around. It would be a messy mulch to use in the rest of the garden but, is a good fit when growing food.


  3. Beautiful pics of your boys as babes in the garden, Bridget .. and this info about cultivating the soil is just what I’m searching for.. as we prepare to head into our rainy season in a few months.. I’ve a fantasy to finally add some plants to the general shape of this yard. It’s been pretty barren in 2 1/2 years, but now seems like it all feels ready to proceed .

    thanks for the advice ! sheesh, this is great.. so often I’ve thought, I wish I had Bridget around to tap into her gardening and landscaping expertise. . and now I do, thanks to your blog ! (which I spent some time the other night catching up on posts.. hanging out with you!🌹)

    much love~ Dawn


    1. Thanks! I couldn’t believe I was able to find two pictures that went so perfectly with this post. I was up late digging through boxes and almost gave up.
      The double-dig method is great for putting in new beds (and adding amendments, any aged manure from some of those farm animals?)and all you need is a shovel and a straight back!


  4. Bridget….Once again you’ve done a great job explaining “to dig, or not to dig.” (Sounds like a line from “Hamlet”) I enjoy how detailed your explanations are — you could write a pamphlet for the DIY’ers. AND it would be a best seller!! Really proud of you!!

    Love, MOM

    Sent from Outlook ________________________________________


    1. You guess it!
      “To be or not to be…” It feels like one of those big questions that makes you think…or argue. It’s fun that on my blog I can mostly have the final say! Ha, ha, ha…..


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