As a new recruit to the landscaping business I worked with a chap who was an artist with a rake. As a preliminary to laying turf or sowing grass seed he could, in a few blinks of an eye, transform a rough expanse of soil into an immaculately smooth surface. I watched and learnt - the easy push/pull movement through the top few inches of soil, a swift tamp to break down the accumulated
clods, before the final perfect levelling with the back of the rake. I would never presume to have attained the same pinnacle of rakemanship, but I find it satisfying work nonetheless.
On my narrow no-dig beds I can get away without any preliminary digging but for good results on compacted ground you will need to fork over the area first. Then you can set to with your rake. Working backwards (so as not to tread on the area you've just prepared) raking involves pushing and pulling the tines through the surface layer, loosening the soil and breaking it down into smaller and smaller particles, while drawing all remaining chunks towards you. These can then be repeatedly set upon with the rake using both the tines and the back of the rake to bash them into progressively smaller lumps. As you continue this process you will accumulate a growing pile of stones, weeds and other assorted bits that are resistant to further fragmentation - if you have added farmyard manure to the bed in the last year or two you'll know what I mean. You can then shovel this pile up and deposit it where lumpy does not matter. Your objective is a smooth, level surface made of uniformly fine soil crumbs. It is not quite as simple as it can sound and requires practise, patience and puff.
It is not all down to technique. Soil type has a major bearing on what can be achieved and how easily. A sandy soil should be relatively easily brought to heel, whereas a stony or clay soil will always prove more resistant to conquest. Weather conditions and soil moisture levels also play a part. A wringing wet soil makes raking difficult; a ground frost makes it totally impossible. Ideally, the ground needs to be on the dry side of middling but beware too much raking with dry, light soils on a windy day unless you want to watch as your topsoil is blown into the next county.
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