Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Contemplations on Digging

New bed I dug earlier this spring.
I have a digging problem.

The sun starts shining in the spring and all I want to do is DIG. I'm going to need to join some sort of 12-step program. It'll be me and a room full of dirty nosed dogs.

There is just something about digging, simply digging, that is deeply satisfying: the repetitive rasping sound as your shovel breaks through the earth over and over again, the weight of the soil as you scoop up heaping shovelfuls, the bits and pieces of rock and root that have been unearthed, waiting to be picked out and tossed aside, and the dull ache that begins in your arms and shoulders. 

Digging is peaceful and meditative, yet violent and destructive. All your cares can be worked out, worked into the soil. Your anxieties can become a bed for new life that will sustain your body and your mind.

So if I find digging so satisfying, do I really need to stop? If I want to have a lawn and garden, rather than a mud pit, I'll need to reign in this compulsion. But there may be other reasons to stop digging.

Some gardeners argue that digging actually causes more harm than good. Soil has its own ecology and by digging a bed you disrupt the balance of the system. In Nature, soil forms district layers. The top layer is made up of decomposing leaf litter, dead plants, deer poop and the like. When this organic matter breaks down it become humus, basically an analog of compost. The next layer is the all important topsoil. It is a mix of organic matter (the humus) and inorganic minerals. This is where the plant roots form and extract nutrients. The next layer is the subsoil, which is mostly inorganic minerals. Some plants send roots into this layer too, but not for nutrients. Instead the roots are searching out water and anchoring the plant.

These soil layers are full of microorganisms and invertebrates, yet different layers house differt life forms. When you dig, you mix up all the layers and create conditions that can no longer sustain all of this life, thus disrupting the system that plants are adapted for.

So how do you kill weeds and improve your worn out soil, while still providing your plants and microbes with the layers they like? It is pretty simple: you kill weeds (a covering of newspaper works well) add a few inches of compost or topsoil and then mulch. By doing this you are basically speeding up the natural process of topsoil formation.

This method actually works too. For the past two growing seasons, I lived on a historic site with archeologically sensitive grounds. That meant NO DIGGING. So I removed the weeds, added several inches of compost and sowed my seeds. It worked out nicely.

But, with all that said, is there still a place for digging? I think so. When establishing a new bed, it can be a good way to get rid of weeds, loosen really heavy soils, and remove large rocks and clay chunks. In poor soils you will be missing much of the organic matter that plants need, so this is an opportunity to add it again. Again you are basically mimicking a natural process, just at super speed. You are transforming subsoil into topsoil by mixing in compost. This is what worms do in nature, so just think of yourself as a gigantic worm. After you've established your bed, you can just add organics to the top every year and your soil will regain its usual layered form.

So even though I don't have to dig, you will still find me in the garden with my shovel in hand. And although I may be sweating and cursing a bit as I dig, it will be meditative, satisfied cursing.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Layne ... nice blog.

    There's an intermediary between digging and layering and that's just loosening. It is helpful if you have access to one of those broad forks (two handles connecting tines that you step on and then rock back and forth). You can keep the soil structure while making it easy to pull weeds. But, it is not the same physical feedback loop as digging, I agree. Paul