Digging the Right Way
Obviously there are right and wrong ways of digging and one can do more harm than good if digging is not carried out in the correct way. For instance, it would be disastrous to mix together your highly fertile topsoil with the less-fertile subsoil or lower. This would result in poor growth of your crops.
Choosing and using tools for digging
One cannot dig correctly without the proper tools. It pays over and over again to buy the best you can afford. A good-quality spade and fork (made of high-grade steel) will last you a lifetime if well looked after.
When choosing a spade make sure it is not too small otherwise it will take you a long time to dig your plot. At the other extreme, ensure it is not too large and heavy because then the work will prove very tiring. Choose a spade to suit your stature. Always ensure that the blade is full length to enable you to dig to the correct depth. A full-sized blade is about 30 cm (12”) long and 20 cm (8”) wide. If a light spade is needed then the blade should be narrower rather than shorter.
Buy the best quality spade possible—a stainless-steel spade is far easier to use if you have a heavy sticky soil, as soil does not adhere to it. And it will not rust.
The blade of the spade should not be at too much of an angle to the handle, or helve, otherwise it is difficult to dig vertically (with the blade at right angles to the soil surface), which is most important.
Spades are available either with or without flanges, or ‘treads’, along the top of the blade; the type with treads is better, as they stop the top of the blade from cutting into your boots.
Spades and forks may have d-shaped, y-shaped or T-shaped handles; most gardeners find that the first two types are more comfortable to use then the T-shaped. Handles may be made of wood, usually ash or plastic-coated alloys; both are good if they are well made. Check that the joint between the blade and handle is strong before buying a spade.
A four-pronged fork (with cylindrical prongs or tines) is used for normal digging, while a square-tined fork is useful for breaking up difficult heavy clay soils. Again choose a suitable weight and buy only the best quality if possible: stainless steel if you can afford it. A fork is useful for digging really heavy soil and especially for breaking up hard soil in the bottom of the trench during deep digging. You may find a fork easier for digging very stony ground, or very hard land, where it may be impossible to insert a spade to its full depth.
If you cannot afford to buy new, then consider a second-hand spade and fork. Ensure, however, the blade and tines have not been unduly shortened by a long period of use and that they are not twisted or distorted. The blade or tines should still be securely fixed to the handle and not be loose.
Maintenance consists of washing off all soil after digging, drying thoroughly and applying a light coat of oil to all the metal parts. Use an oily rag for this job. Never let spades or forks get rusty or you will find they are not so easy to use. Sharpen spades once a year, or more often if needed, by filing down the top edge of the blade only; secure the spade in a vice. Always store tools in a dry shed or garage, preferably hung on the wall, so that they are out of the way and will not cause accidents.
When to dig
The usual time for digging a vegetable garden, or a fruit plot before planting, is in the autumn so that the ground lies rough over the winter, subjected to all the weather can offer. Digging may be carried out in the summer, generally between harvesting one crop and sowing or planting the next on the same piece of land. Generally this digging simply involves forking over the ground to the depth of the tines to losen it, rather than turning it over rough.
Avoid digging soil when it is very wet and sticky, or frozen, otherwise you will damage the soil structure. Nor should one try digging ground that is very dry for generally it makes for hard work, especially if you have a clay soil.
For good-quality work and to ensure you do not tire yourself, you must consider the basic technique of digging. Always insert your spade or fork to the full depth of the blade or tines, so that the ground is broken up to a depth of about 25 cm (10”). The spade blade or fork tines should be inserted perfectly upright and not at an angle in order to achieve this.
Do not be in a continuously doubled up position when digging otherwise you will soon have acute back ache. Try to stand upright as much as possible, especially when inserting the spade or fork. You will have to bend a little when lifting a spadeful of soil and turning it over. Try to keep your right hand on the handle and your left hand on the shaft near the handle when inserting the spade/fork. Then move your left hand lower down the shaft so that it takes the full weight of the soil. Try to straighten yourself up as soon as possible after lifting and turning over a spadeful of soil.
With practice, you should find that you can make the spade take most of the weight and just tip it over with a flick of the wrist, instead of lifting the spade right up with a load of soil on the blade and then turning it over.
Do not rush into your digging, especially if you are not used to it. You will tire yourself out in a very short period of time if you do. Slow steady digging, with rests every half-hour or so, should enable you to work for two or three hours at a stretch without becoming tired.
For good-quality work always dig in a straight line. This will ensure every square foot of ground is dug and will enable you to maintain a level, even surface. A garden line can be used to mark out each line of digging—just score the ground along it with a spade, and then remove it so that it does not get in the way.
When you insert your spade or fork to its full depth you are in fact digging ‘a spit deep’, to use gardeners’ jargon. When digging you generally lift out a block of soil on your spade/fork and completely turn it over. The thickness of each block of soil is important. Too thick and it will be too heavy to lift easily; too thin and the work will slow down. About 15 cm (6”) thick is just right for most people. Try to ensure uniformity of thickness each time you insert the spade/fork so that you keep in a straight line. This will also help to ensure a more level surface.
How deep should one dig? This depends on your soil conditions. There are various methods of digging, each with a definite purpose. There is single digging, half trenching (or bastard trenching), double digging, or trenching, and ridging.