Thursday, March 19, 2009

How do you spell PAIN?

I don't know about you, but I spell it D-O-U-B-L-E-D-I-G-G-I-N-G. Maybe that should just be the double part. Digging is fine. Digging is easy. Double digging is more than double the pain.

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.


  1. OMG. My back hurts just reading about it.

  2. I think I know what you mean. Our soil is sand and rocks. Big rocks and small rocks. To plant something, I need to dig a hole with a pick axe and then, remove all the rocks, add a manure or compost. You are right, it's a good exercise. I also hope you don't need to do it for the next 17 years!

  3. I've only double dug for permenant beds like asparagus...other than that is it no till for me in raised beds. I would cry if I had to do them ever again.

    Just think of all the calories you burned!!! Kim

  4. Instead of killing yourself fighting with rocks and roots and clay, make a raised bed for your carrots. Build a bed 2 feet wide, by 2 feet long and 2 feet high. Cover the bottom of the box with hardware cloth to keep critters from tunneling in and eating your roots. Fill the box with a mix of 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 mixed compost. That recipe comes from Mel Bartholomew of Square Foot Gardening fame. Plant your carrots in that box and you will have beautiful long straight carrots that are easily pulled from the bed and no back breaking digging.

    Take a nice hot shower and have some chocolate. You have surely earned it. Good luck with your garden.

  5. Oh god....I've never done that before, but as you know - I do alot of digging around the property. I hate it! Blech.


  6. I'm ready for a long soak in a hot bath tonight, and all I did was dig two long, narrow pea rock, sandy soil, but tons of roots from the neighbor's hedge and my lilac tree. I love gardening, but I hate roots. I'm glad I don't have to fight rocks.

  7. Wow, your soil is beautiful! The double digging really sounds dangerous, but for prize-winning carrots I think it will be worth the effort. I could never attempt it in my soil! I hurt my back just trying to pull weeds!

  8. I'm so sorry for your pain. I have rocks, clay and other 'objects'de'art' left here from when the house was first built...I find it difficult to dig but I've done it so much that my back is literally ruined. I did a lot of disc damage from all that digging!! I like the idea of raised beds fact, that's all I'm doing from now on. No more 1 and 2 foot holes for me (although I will beckon my hubby if that needs to be done!). I hope you have good luck with your carrots!!

  9. I too feel for you. I would say that you are using the wrong tools for the job. There are actually digging garden hoes that are a much better at digging than a shovel and fork.

    Good luck it will be great once you get it done.

  10. Cheryl, luckily I have a strong back. I do have a bad shoulder, but hard word doesn't seem to bother it as long as I don't lift anything heavy. The only muscle that hurt the day after was the back of the thighs from squatting down so much - well and that annoying hand pain which is almost gone today.

    Tatyana, Oh I will have to do it again. Several times more this year for the rest of the bed then I will work my way up, at least if my carrots work.

    Inadvertent Farmer, Yeah there are two ways to do it. I tend more toward the biodynamic methods than the SFG methods.

    Fugative Artist, That requires monetary input instead of just sweat input. I tend to go for the sweat inputs more. I have my mother's frugal nature in me and I'm not afraid of the hard work, my only requirement is that I can complain about it afterward. Now, with a blog, I can complain to a wider audience which is even more fun :>. I also like the more sustainable route, which means not buying your dirt shipped in from somewhere else when you can make it right on site.

    EG, yeah I see you as more of a build it guy than a guy that loves to dig. I just wish I had you around. I hate building things. I do it only when I have to.

    Annie's Granny, Yup the roots are terrible. I keep thinking I need a trashy pair of clippers to just cut them off. You have sandy soil? My last garden, oh so many years ago, was a sandy garden. It was so much easier to dig. It was also warmer in the spring so things could go in very early. At least clay keeps the nutrients in better. It is the only reason I don't hate it terribly.

    Lzyjo, Thanks. It has taken me years to get it that way. The clay that I started with is bright orange. If you dig anywhere else in my yard that is what you find after the top two inches.

    Jan, Luckily I don't find too many of those object d'art around here. The place was a blueberry farm before it was a subdivision. That is too bad about your back. I'd go with raised beds if I had a bad back too.

    Mary, hmm interesting tool. It would be bad for the traditional biodynamic method for turning a double bed. You don't let the soil layers change. You try to keep them intact, but really for my bed that just doesn't happen. All the crap in the soil prevents it and it all gets turned over anyway. For me it would probably work great. Maybe that will be next year's new tool.