I'm a firm believer in the no till method of gardening. I don't regularly turn over the beds. I do fork them every year to let air into them, but I try to disturb the soil as little as possible. The most I do is mix the compost into the top couple of inches of soil. Not only are my little microbes and fungus in the soil happier with it, but my back is too. I have wide beds with permanent paths between them. I never walk on the garden beds so the soil doesn't get compacted. Ok I rarely walk on the garden beds. Hmm I occasionally walk on my garden beds, but don't mean to? Even today when I was double digging I stumbled and stepped in the onion bed. Whoops.
Occasionally the dog steps in the bed too, though she is a good dog and only does it when very excited which for a dog is almost anytime, like when another dog is walking past or when the dreaded chipmunk runs away. Luckily for me the chipmunk likes to hide from her in the drain spout of my gutters. The drain spout is at least six feet from any plant I really care about. She also gets confused at times. I've taught her to walk on the mulch between the beds. Then I mulch my lettuce and she doesn't understand why that is not acceptable. I never said she was the smartest dog, but she gets an A for effort.
Though I love the no till method, the soil does get compacted over time. My worms just don't work hard enough. After a while it needs to be dug again. When I dig, I double dig. I haven't done this to my main beds in 17 years. That is a long time. I probably ought to do it every decade instead. So this year my lowest main bed (where the tomatoes and carrots will grow) is getting double dug this year. All 24'x4'. Ouch. What prompted this sudden desire to dig? I'm growing some 12" long carrots this year, Sugar Snax.
I've always wanted to try those long beautiful carrots, but have had fear in my heart. My soil is heavy clay. Carrots really don't like heavy clay. In fact they hate it. They don't grow in it and if they do they are mangled, distorted monsters. I figure I've been amending my soil for the last 17 years, so it ought to be better. Double digging is necessary however. Carrots that are 12" long have much longer taproots that go way down into the soil. I wanted to dig down about 20".
Double digging requires that you move half the depth you are working to the side then use the fork to lossen up the next layer. You don't actually turn over the bottom layer, just lossen and get the rocks and roots out of it. The top 10" were nice beautiful, black fairly fluffly soil. Thank you worms. It was slightly compacted but not too bad.
The problem was at about that 10" mark. That is where the digging got hard. There were rocks. Most of them were small, no more than fist sized. I dug out a full pail of those. In addition there were a few larger rocks. Nice sized ones to hold down the edges of my row covers and to edge some of the beds. They were useful rocks. Occasionally they were hard to get out since the rocks tend to jigsaw themselves together. Getting a fork between the rocks to lever them out is sometimes hard. I would occasionally use a trowel to scoop off the soil and see where the cracks were.
The one rock that killed me was the one that is still there. It is really hard to see in the photo, but at least it gives you an idea of its depth. It was 18" down. The rock didn't seem that big when I started. It was only about a foot wide at the top. However it was one of those sloping rounded boulders. I couldn't find an edge. The slope just kept going down and down. Gulp. I thought about it and decided it was better to leave it there. It might be right in the middle of the carrot bed, but without a crowbar and a couple of he-men to help me out it wasn't going to move. I so didn't want to ruin my new garden fork trying to lever that monster out. I've never actually owned a garden fork before that didn't have one of it tines bent at a weird angle until I got my lovely new fork for my birthday (thanks hubby). I mean really I have a beautiful new fork for the first time in my life and I didn't want to ruin it. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. And the rock is still there laughing at my wimpiness.
The other main issue with double digging my garden is the maple tree which is located just outside the garden. More precisely the issue is its roots. Lots of roots. For years I've put my flat spade down along the edge of the bed just to cut them off each year. Do you know what happens when you do that? They grow their larger roots about 12" down so they only have to send little feeder roots up each year. Smart trees. I dug a whole wheelbarrow full of roots out for 7' of bed. That is a lot of roots. The best tool to cut them off is my nice flat spade. A couple of hard jabs down and the roots are cut off. The one inch roots usually take no more than five jabs. But the spade is a problem for two reasons. The first is that the flat spade can't dig a rock out of the bed to save its life. You need the fork for that. So I'm switching between one and the other constantly first the spade to cut off roots then the fork to get up the rocks. The fork gets stuck on roots that aren't cut off so back to the spade and so on and so on. Back and forth. It is very time consuming to switch your tools every few seconds.
The second problem with the spade is the mixture of rock in the soil. I jam the spade down onto the root to cut it off. If I encounter a rock on the way down, OUCH! My whole arm reverberates as the spade stops dead in its tracks. Think the coyote in the roadrunner cartoon as he runs into the wall. His body oscillates back and forth. This is not a fun thing. My hand takes most of the abuse. The middle of my hand is very tender to the touch today. No visible bruises but definite PAIN. Never believe those You Tube videos that show you how to double dig. They show a bed being dug up, no rocks or roots, just easy digging. They lie.
I persevered and finished the 7' that I wanted to get done yesterday. I'll do the rest over time, but I need this spot soon for the first sowing of carrot seed. I will sow the first carrot seed down the middle where my eggplant and tomatillos will be growing. The carrots will be pulled out before those plants need the space. At least that is my hope.
I'll let my hand heal up a bit before I finish the tomato area. The last part of the bed to do will be the potato area and I won't do that until the potatoes get out in the summer. I figure half of the work will be digging out the potatoes anyway. Don't remind me that all the work is really the bottom part. Let me have my illusions that I'm saving myself some work.
Double digging was much easier 17 years ago when I was younger. It took me almost 5 hours to do all this. It did include some easy work like sifting through the top soil to clean the bed of the roots and the worst of even the littler rocks so the carrots will grow straight (not with a sifter or anything useful just with my hands and the fork). It also included amending the bed with greensand and a little bonemeal. I'm not going to put any nitrogen fertilizer on the bed, I'm just going to add in some compost once the pile is defrosted.
I don't want to leave you with the wrong impression. I may complain a bit, but I had a fine time for most of the digging day. It was partly sunny and warm. Digging was a beautiful excuse to be out in the garden.