One of the greatest difficulties to the novice in gardening is that of following instructions given in technical gardening papers and books, without any knowledge of practical gardening, and, therefore, without understanding the terms used. For instance, the writer has been approached on numerous occasions by amateur gardeners with the questions: “ How do you use a hoe ?” “ What does pricking off mean?” “What is a drill?” and so on.
It is to help such inexperienced novices that this section of the website is intended and, as far as possible, all the ordinary garden operations will be described here.
The first and most important operation of all is, of course, digging. The experienced gardener can dig about three times as easily and certainly three times as quickly as the novice. The aches and pains of which the novice complains after a day’s digging are often more due to the wrong use of the tools than to the work itself. A spade should be kept in a clean, bright, sharp condition; this is the first essential. The spade is used on all kinds ofthat have been previously dug, and on light soil at all times It will not be possible to use the spade alone for the first digging on heavy, stony land that has been lying idle for some time.
When using the spade, the right hand should be on the top of the handle, and the left hand half-way down the shaft. The spade should be first lifted from the ground and then driven downwards so that the blade cuts into the soil vertically. If the spade is driven in at an angle, instead of vertically, it does not penetrate so deeply, and it does not cut a clean-sided trench.
The blade should penetrate to its whole depth, and for this it will probably require the assistance of the foot. When the blade has entered the soil the spade should be levered a little backwards and forwards to loosen a solid cube of soil, which will then be lifted on the spade, and turned completely over as it is returned to the plot.
This is the simple digging process, but it is much easier to carry out the general work of digging a border if a trench is first opened. Digging with a trench can be done in several different ways according to the soil. And the use to which the plot is to be put.
Double digging, or bastard trenching
This form of digging is dealt with first because it is not only the commonest, but is definitely the best way to deal with soil in most cases. It is called double digging because two layers of soil are broken up during the process. Although the two layers are broken, they are left at the same level on the plot as before, that is to say, the sub-soil is left below, and the top soil still remains on the surface. The procedure is as follows:
First dig a trench across one end of the plot or border that is to be dug. The trench should be as deep as the blade of the spade, and should be from 12-in. wide. The soil taken from this trench should be piled in a heap at one side, or wheeled immediately to the far end of the plot where the digging will be finished. Now get into the trench and with the large digging fork break up the soil at the bottom of the trench as deeply as you can. Throw into the trench over this broken bottom, any manure, old leaves, or other animal orsuch as vegetable parings, old bones, etc. Then turn the next 12 or in. of soil over into this trench, leaving a second trench of similar width and depth. Repeat this process until you get to the last trench, which will be filled in with the soil taken from the first trench.
If you are dealing with new gardens where the soil is composed of pasture land, the easiest thing to do is to stretch a line across the plot from one side to the other before taking out the first trench. Use the spade to cut a straight edge through the turf alongside this line. Then move the line in. from this cut and make a second cut right across the plot. Short cuts at right angles between these will divide the turf into squares.
As the trenches are opened, each square of turf can first be sliced off with the spade and turned upside down at the bottom of the trench. It will decay there and make a good substitute for stable manure or leaves. It is much wiser to use the turf in this way than to follow the practice that is sometimes adopted of burning the turf. The grass decays, and forms the finest possible loam, whereas if the turf is burned, most of the manurial value is lost. A point to be remembered, of course, is to watch for wireworms, which will probably be troublesome on old pasture land, but which can effectively be destroyed by the modern method of using soil fumigant.
When bastard trenching has been completed, the soil needs a dressing of lime in all cases except where special lime-hating plants are to be cultivated. The lime can be scattered over the surface of the ground, to be washed in by rains. As lime has the effect of breaking up large lumps of stiff soil, the gardener will save his own labour if he digs his ground early in the winter, and leaves the surface rough, adding a good dressing of lime, say about 4 oz. to the sq. yd. on virgin soil. In spring it will seem easy to work, instead of hard and lumpy.
When ground is trenched, it is dug and turned two spits deep, that is twice the depth of the spade blade. At the same time the soil of the bottom layer is brought to the top. This operation is seldom performed, because the top layer of soil under cultivation is always the more fertile. Fertility depends not only on a supply of the chemicals which are regarded as plant food, but also on the presence of useful bacteria in the soil.
In soil that is well aerated, warmed by the sun’s rays, and kept ^surly moist at all seasons, the useful bacteria thrive. Sub-soil is never so well aerated, and may at times be waterlogged, and the useful organisms are therefore fewer in the under layer of the soil.
In addition, in most soils there is more humus in the top layer, as it is the top layer which receives the decayed leaves and plant-tops each autumn. The humus improves the soil texture and makes it more workable and also a more congenial home for plant roots. Although the fertile soil should be kept at the top, the mechanical condition of the sub-soil is of quite as great importance to the health of the plants as is the fertility of the top layer. Plant roots will sometimes go down to a surprising depth, often to several feet below the surface, in well-tilled land. Wherever the roots are, they need air and moisture to remain healthy, and unless the sub-soil is well broken up, air cannot penetrate. If the sub-soil is broken, however, the roots at a great depth can still use plant food from the top layer, as plant foods are always absorbed in solution, and the moisture that drains through from the top soil will carry sufficient food down with it to the deepest roots.
It might be thought from this that there would never be any need to bring the sub-soil to the surface, but trenching is desirable in two cases. One is in the very common case of a new garden, where the builder has excavated considerable quantities of sticky clay when preparing the foundations of the house and has spread this over the surface of the garden. In such a case the first job for the gardener is to bring the fertile soil to the surface. The other case where trenching is desirable is in a very old, exhausted garden, such as some town gardens. Bringing up some of the sub-soil will improve the condition of the borders, but only a little should be brought to the surface, and that should be mixed well with the original spit.
The easiest way to trench is to open out a very wide trench first of all, in the same way as is done for bastard trenching. If the trench is double width, that is about in. wide at the top, the work will be made easier. Dig the trench so that the first in. width at the end of the plot is 2 spits deep, and the second in., 1 spit deep. Keep the fertile top soil in one heap and the sub-soil in another. Wheel both to the end of the plot where the digging will be finished. Now take the top soil from the third in. width and turn it over into the bottom of the first trench. Next turn the second width of sub-soil on to the top of this first trench.
This again leaves a trench 2 spits deep in the first half and 1 spit deep in the second half.
Bastard trenching can obviously only be done where the soil is vacant, and although most border flowers and vegetable crops can, or should be, lifted from time to time, there are always a number of border plants, such as established shrubs and certain fleshy-rooted perennials like peonies, which are never lifted, or only lifted at very rare intervals. It is necessary, however, during the winter months, to fork over the soil between plants of this type, to keep the surface clean, and also to assist in soil aeration; for such work the large garden fork is used.
When the soil surface is being stirred for the purpose of burying leaves and, it is not wise to drive the fork in vertically, as this generally results in too much root disturbance. The fork should only-lift the top layer of about 3 in. of soil, and turn it over so that all the rubbish is buried.
Particular attention should be paid to this point when dressing the soil of raspberry beds, and similar shallow-rooting shrubs. Many a plantation is unfruitful for no other reason than because it is too roughly treated at the hands of the jobbing gardener.
Plants take the bulk of their food from the air, and from water that falls in the form of rain, but the small percentage that comes from the soil itself is so important that plants cannot thrive without it. As would naturally be expected where plants are grown year after year in the same soil, they gradually rob the soil of the particular chemicals that are taken up by the roots. Unless the loss is made good in some way, the soil will naturally become less and less fertile. Before this fact was realized and before the importance of manure and fertilizers was understood, the old-fashioned farmer used to leave land idle for a year every now and then, in order that it should recover its fertility. This is no longer necessary, as by the intelligent use of fertilizers and manures, land can be kept in good condition to yield not only one crop every year, but, if desired, to yield several crops each year, as is done under intensive cultivation. A common question asked by amateurs is: “Which is the best, stable manure or artificial fertilizers?” Until recently the usual answer given was that a certain amount of stable manure was essential, to be supplemented with artificial fertilizers. It becomes more and more possible, however, to rely on artificials, and chemical research is seeking a complete solution of the plant-feeding problem on these lines, partly because stable manure is not easily obtainable in many districts, but partly also because stable manure, for use in, has certain grave disadvantages.
There is, of course, no difference between plant foods such as nitrates when obtained from stable manure, or from artificial fertilizers, and as a source of food supply, therefore, neither has any particular advantage. But stable manure can seldom be obtained entirely free from weed seeds, animal pests, and disease spores. It follows, therefore, that when the plant foods can be supplied in the right proportions artificially, stable manure as a food can well be ignored. As a matter of fact, the real virtue of stable manure has never been its richness in plant food. Its chief use has been that it improves the mechanical condition of the soil, and makes it more retentive of moisture, and, therefore, of plant food.
Other forms of organic manure such as shoddy, wool waste, leather scraps, horn, etc., take a considerable time before they are available as plant food. This is sometimes an advantage, but, in a number of cases, artificial fertilizers that act quickly are to be preferred.
All organic manure has a disadvantage also in thein that it is bulky and difficult to store, for long periods, without being a nuisance. As a general guide, therefore, the small gardener may take it that animal manure should only be used if a cheap local supply is available, if it can easily be stored without being offensive, or if it can be immediately dug into the soil. It certainly improves the condition of stiff clay soils and of light soils to add stable manure, but when once the garden has been brought into a stage of good cultivation, it can be kept thus by the use of artificial fertilizers alone.
The operation of planting is well enough known to every amateur gardener. It is an operation, however, which is frequently badly done. The most common fault is to plant too loosely in the soil. Unless the plant roots are in actual contact with moist particles they cannot draw nourishment from the soil. They dry out, and the plant becomes starved. After setting plants in a mixed herbaceous border it is a good practice to tread round each, to make sure that the plant is firm in the ground.
Another important point in planting is to allow the roots to be spread out to their fullest extent. For long roots, deep holes should be made and the soil levered against them. When the plants are set in position the roots must not be doubled up under them. If they are spreading surface roots, a very wide hole should be made, and the roots spread out horizontally and covered with fine soil, trodden firmly over them.
When planting is done on the vegetable plot it is best to use a line, such as is used for drawing seed drills. A spacing stick of the length that is to be allowed between each plant should also be used. Not only is the appearance of the plot improved by regular and even planting, but the actual work of maintenance is also eased.
In planting a mixed border, labels should always be put in before the plants are set in position. This not only makes it possible to plant more expeditiously, but it prevents any possibility of miscalculation, so that plants do not have to be shifted again after once being set in position.
Insmall , safety means a good deal. Tender young roots dry very quickly and one of the rules for planting is never to let the roots dry out. If the soil is dry, and the plants must be put out in their permanent positions, the practice of “puddling” is useful. In this each plant root is dipped in a mixture of mud, soot and water before it is set in position. This gives it a good start in life in its new home.
One important part in planting is to remember the estimated height and width of the plant, and to be sure to allow sufficient room. The general rule on the vegetable plot is to allow as much distance between the rows as the height of the plants when they are mature. This of course is varied slightly according to the type of plant, but can be taken as a rough guide.
In the mixed border some thought must be given to the plant’s habit of growth. For instance, thewith thin sword-like leaves occupies comparatively little space. On the other hand a plant of Catmint, with spreading bushy growth, will take up at least an area of in. each way in the border. A dwarf may occupy little more than a square foot of soil, but some of the larger need a space of 4 or 5 ft. sq. for full development.
Another important point in planting is to be sure that fresh manure, if it is being used, does not come in actual contact with the plant roots; it is likely to set up decay. A little fine soil of fairly poor character thrown over the fibrous plant roots is better than over-rich soil.
Always leave the surface of a flower bed or vegetable plot tidy after planting. Although the plants may be trodden round, in order to ensure firmness, the surface soil when the planting is completed should be lightly loosened with a rake or fork. During periods of drought, an addition of a mulch of old, well-decayed stable manure or leaf-soil round newly-planted seedlings or plants will see them safely through the hot dry days.