Still digging

Is Edwin Oxlade having second thoughts about digging? It would seem not as he puts his case for the defence

Oh dear. Have I been wasting my time all these years doing so much digging? Bob Flowerdew seems to think so. And the odd thing is that I agree with practically everything he wrote in the January edition of KG (Digging, why do it? page 16). Bob rarely gets his facts wrong or makes his arguments less than convincing.

I am worryingly forced to the conclusion, therefore, that maybe my digging habit can be put down to nothing more than blind tradition. And yet I am not that sort of person. I like to think that nothing I do is done without good reason and that if I'm not sure of the value of something I do, I experiment until I determine its value, or give up doing it. Didn't I stop bothering to earth-up potatoes years ago? I wasn't convinced by any of the reasons given for earthing-up and, when I found no obvious disadvantages associated with not earthing-up, I gave up the practice entirely.

So, if I were asked why I dig, I would be fairly confident of being able to give a satisfactory answer. Believe me, I ask this question of myself every year, whenever the elbow starts to play up and the back gets stiff and the remaining undug ground seems to stretch away in front of me as far as the horizon. If I were unable to satisfy my own inquisitiveness I would become a no-digger in a moment.

So why dig?

Actually I have a number of different reasons for digging. It only takes one of them to apply to a given situation to start me digging, though usually I can point to more than one at a time. And, just to prove that I'm not an automaton, programmed to dig whatever: if none of the reasons apply, then I don't dig. You see, I don't think digging is essential for its

Digging allows Edwin to bury annual weeds and to remove the roots of perennials such as bindweed and dock as they are unearthed, the occasional stray potato, too

own sake, and each year parts of my plot remain undug and are better off for that.

Perhaps my thinking will become clear if I take you around my plot at the end of last season and into the winter months to see where I intend to dig and where I don't.

We'll start where I grew my spuds. I had them all dug by the end of October and the ground was left in a pretty rough state with a lot of well-established weeds of the sort that wouldn't succumb to a short-term mulch or a hard winter; least of all hoeing in the spring. There was some dock, coarse grasses like Yorkshire fog, even some bindweed. In all I suppose I had about 70sq m (753 sq ft) to deal with. That, to me, is a recipe for digging. Frankly I don't see how else you can clear the ground, not only of perennial weeds that have grown from seed or fragments of previously existing plants over the season, but also of all the stray potato tubers that were missed when the potatoes were dug. No amount of weedkiller is going to have any effect until the tubers and rhizomes sprout in the spring -and that will be too late. So, to be sure of clean ground for planting or sowing, I always dig the potato patch and I always will. As it was, last season, I quickly dug enough of it to plant onion sets and garlic, happy in the knowledge that very few unwanted growths will come through the ground. And, in case you're wondering, not even a 30cm (1ft) depth of mulch is a barrier to a determined potato shoot or dock or dandelion.

Next to my potatoes is the brassica site, another 50sq m (538 sq ft) or so, looking pretty pathetic after its virtual destruction by clubroot. By the end of last year it contained one Brussels sprout plant that struggled on sufficiently to give a crop, just enough, as it turned out, for Christmas dinner, and three purple sprouting broccoli. The rest was a sea of chickweed and other weeds. Did I dig the area later in the year? Again, because of the weeds, I had to.

Beat those weeds

Weeds, as you can see, supply me with my main reason for digging. There are other ways to control weeds, both annual and perennial, but, in my view, digging the ground and burying them and, where necessary, removing the perennating (over wintering) structures, the roots and rhizomes, is not only the best but also the easiest. Digging may seem hard, time-consuming work, but that's because it tends to be done in a few big chunks rather than on a regular basis. Spread over the year, the alternative methods of dealing with weeds ultimately amount to at least as much work, if not more. And you can make digging as hard or as easy as you like, depending on how much you do at a time and how fast you do it. If you're fit and strong and feel like some calorie burning exercise you can attack the ground with gusto, cutting off huge chunks with each slice of the spade and working at the rhythm of an Olympic rowing eight. Or, if you're getting on a bit like me, and worry about your discs and

BELOW LEFT Part of Edwin's plot in April once the digging is done - a clean slate for the new season's crops and not a weed in sight BELOW RIGHT Once dug, perennial weeds do not usually cause any problems on Edwin's plot during the year and germinating seedlings are kept down with a hoe joints, you can pick away at the soil, turning it over piece by piece at a gentle pace and stopping whenever you feel like it. Either way can be enjoyable.

A clean state

That is another reason I dig. I enjoy digging. I like turning the untidiness of a year's growth into a level area of broken soil, a clean slate on which to plan the new season's cropping. I like to make straight, clearly defined edges to my plot. And I like to have a look at the soil in which my plants grow and to watch it improve in colour and texture over the years.

I shall not be digging the ground next to my brassicas, on the other side to the potatoes, however. That's where I grew carrots, onions and beetroot and kept the weeds down all through the summer by regular hoeing. It's not completely free of weeds at the moment but there are sufficiently few to be dealt with by other means than digging, and the ground is only moderately compacted. There really is no need to dig there, however much I might enjoy doing so, especially if I follow the previous crop with one that doesn't require a fine surface tilth and a loose soil.

Which brings me to the third main reason I believe in digging. It improves the physical state of the soil. It is on this point that diggers and non-diggers will argue until the cows come home. Which is better: a soil that is aerated by root channels and worm burrows, in which mixing of the mineral and organic components is done entirely by the natural activity of invertebrate animals, which is sufficiently compacted to optimise the capillary movement of water, without being poorly drained, which contains no sterile, dehydrating air pockets and which is fed continuously from above by a thick organic mulch; or a dug soil that is, in every way, the opposite of this? Even I am persuaded to say that the answer is, or seems to be, obvious. But experience tells me otherwise. The sort of plants we grow on the vegetable plot perform always as well and often better in a previously dug soil than in an undug one.

That's a pretty bold statement but one I am prepared to defend to the last inch of metal on my spade and the last callus on my hand. After all, the structure of a well dug soil is not much different from the contents of a growing-bag or a pot of soil-based compost, and you don't hear many complaints about plants grown in those. The various components of a fertile soil, the clay and sand, the organic matter and the plant nutrients can quite satisfactorily be mixed by hand. It is true that worms and other invertebrates will gradually work applied organic matter into soil that is never dug, but digging it in will speed the process, and I still find plenty of animal life in the ground I regularly dig.

My double digging of the 'clay zone' has already vastly improved both the depth and the fertility of the soil. The evidence is in the crops it produced last season. The peas and beans were magnificent and growing among them were some huge docks that had escaped the hoe and sent down tap-roots to depths of solid clay that hadn't seen a living thing for years. I shall definitely dig that ground again this year and, in doing so I expect to improve its texture and quality as a growing medium still further.

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