The Digging Days…of Winter?

When I said in my last post that my first gardening efforts were hampered because I hadn’t yet discovered digging, I was only partly kidding. It’s true that I rarely wielded a shovel in that garden. To start my beds, I marked out some squares of lawn with nails and string, and my dad took the rototiller to them, tilling in grass and all. It seemed like an efficient approach at the time. It was only a month or so later, when all the grass roots and rhizomes had resprouted with a vengeance and made hunting for my vegetable seedlings akin to a trek into the Amazonian jungle (from which you might or might not return), that I realized we might have made a mistake.

Nevertheless, I seem to remember asking Dad to rototill again the next spring. This is what tillers are marketed for. It has to work sometime, right?

Wrong. It never has to work.

Inspired by my obvious natural talent for growing vegetables, I took a long hiatus from gardening. I went to college. Then grad school. Then I started teaching college. I did garden a little here and there. Catch as catch can. Some herbs in Manhattan fire escapes. Some lettuces optimistically planted at my parents’ when I was home on spring break. (I think they harvested a total of five leaves in five years.) A few carrots and radishes planted at my boyfriend’s family farm. (Those actually did amazingly well. But I can’t really take credit for it. The garden was already there. I just put the seeds in. Didn’t even fertilize.) Finally, at the ripe old age of twenty-nine, I decided to become a farmer. Don’t ask me why. It’s a longing too deep and too irrational to be explained. Maybe it was all the fault of the weeds. The weeds were taunting me. Telling me I’d never be able to outsmart them.

Well, I’ve done it. (Knock on wood.) I’ve done it with the help of that nifty new invention: the shovel. I know that I’ve been singing the praises of Steve Solomon’s book Gardening When It Counts a lot lately, but I’m going to do it again, and that’s because this book saved my poor little gardener-wanna-be soul. It introduced me to the wonders of homemade complete organic fertilizer, and it taught me how to prepare garden beds in a way that lets my dainty little vegetable seedlings get a running start on the grass.

Here’s how I do it. (I realize that there are many ways to prepare garden beds, but I’m telling you this one because I have indisputable proof that it works!) I dig. I dig up big chunks of dirt as deep as the shovel will go, and I turn them over. Completely upside down. So those weeds have their faces in the dirt before they even know what hit them. I do this over the entire bed. (Not all in one day, though. You can kill yourself like that.) Then, a week or so later, just as the weeds are starting to figure out which way’s up and are tentatively poking their heads out of the cracks between the chunks of dirt, I dig everything again. I turn the chunks over on their sides and beat the crap out of them. (I loosen them a little.) And then, a week after that…you guessed it. I dig one more time. Before digging this time, I put a ¼-inch layer of composted manure on top of the soil along with some complete organic fertilizer. This time when I dig, all that gets incorporated as well. I try to smooth the surface out afterward. I use a rake if necessary. And then it’s finally time to plant!

So what possessed me to tell you all of this today? Well, normally, preparing new garden beds has to be done either in the fall or in the early spring, when it’s a race against the clock to see if you can get it all done before planting time. The soil can’t be worked during the winter because it’s too waterlogged. (Cooler temperatures mean water evaporates less quickly.) But yesterday, as I was out spying on my fall-planted strawberries and enjoying the 65°F weather, I troweled up a little patch of soil. Just to see. I did the old “make a ball, poke it with your finger, and see if it falls apart” test. And it fell apart! On January 31! I hopped and skipped all the way to the shed where the shovel is stored.

When I described the process of killing sod in your new garden beds by hand digging three times, I know your first thought was, “That’s a ludicrous amount of work! I might as well give up all hope of horticulture!” My advice to you is to start small. The first day, dig only as much as you feel like. Digging is a skill, and it may take you a little while to get the hang of breaking off those clods and slinging them around. It’ll take a little while, too, to get used to the physical exertion, if you’re like me and gardening is your one non-sedentary occupation. But the beautiful secret to it all is that digging is addictive. It’s just so darn satisfying to see lawn become garden. (As I dig, I like to think about how many plants of various kinds could go in the space I’m producing. If I dig just two more feet, I can put it another broccoli…or two cabbages…or eight leeks!) Plus, if you spend all afternoon digging, you can eat whatever you want for dinner, in whatever quantity you desire. And believe me, you’re going to have a very hearty appetite.

The other really great thing about digging is taking breaks from digging. There’s nothing quite like throwing yourself down on the as-yet-unconquered grass, stretching out on your back, and spending several well-earned minutes watching the clouds go drifting by.

I’ll never turn down an extra digging day. Not in the middle of winter.

P.S. If you’re not sure if your soil is dry enough to dig, make a ball with it, poke your finger in the middle, and compare the outcome to these samples:

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. You have inspired me to venture into my compost pile tomorrow!! Maybe even make it to Home Depot to pick up some bags of composted manure. My garden has to look extra good this year. 🙂

    1. Sharon says:

      Wonderful! Unfortunately, we got rain here overnight, so the winter digging may be over for me… 😦

  2. Sharon,
    Ok, I just had this conversation with a coworker right before reading your blog. She suggested covering the ground with a tarp or newspaper for a few weeks before attempting to dig and turn over in order to kill the grass. Any thoughts, pros or cons to that approach? I was thinking about asking Dan to secure a tarp to the area tonight. Also, why can’t you dig when the soil is waterlogged? Is it because it’s too heavy or b/c it damages the soil?

    1. Sharon says:

      Covering the grass would certainly weaken it some. But the roots store so much energy that in the end you really do have to try to get them growing so they expend that energy and then chop them up again. But doing the covering in addition certainly couldn’t hurt!

      Digging when the soil is too wet makes it form clods that will dry hard and make the soil difficult for your plants to penetrate. In the fall, you can get away with digging a little wet, because the freezing over winter helps break up the clods. But in the spring, you have to be careful. (Also, wet soil is heavier and much more work to lift!)

    2. Sharon says:

      Oh, one other thing I thought of: I wouldn’t cover the ground until it’s already dry enough to dig (or close). Otherwise, you’re going to be keeping in most of the moisture, and it’ll take a while to be ready.

  3. DMd says:

    this is one of the things I like about bloggers sharing their successes (and failures) when it comes to gardening. I love what you said about the tiller NEVER working to eradicate weeds. For myself, this year I’m going to pursue the Ruth Stout/ mulching model of gardening. (in a raised bed) As much as I love puttering in the garden and working the soil, I do not want to spend any more time weeding than I have to….ps thanks for taking the time to leave a comment on my potato blog post today too. DM

  4. Brilliant! I should have read your blog before I wrote my post this morning. Although I will probably get a tiller anyway, I understand how successful digging can be for a garden. Thanks for the response on my blog too. I love getting responses…:)

  5. Celeste says:

    Sharon, sharon, sharon…. boy do I know that feeling. I remember in my last apartment I had some real ground to play with. I planted annuals though, because I knew I would only be staying there a year, but before I could do anything I had to remove generations of grass first. I made the same mistake in one patch. The flower beds I managed to get rid of all the grass, but in one patch I didn’t do a good job as I was planning to put lining down and cover that area with gravel (it was under the washing line). I had to put holes in the lining so that water could drain though, not knowing at the time how persistant grass is. Within months the buggers grew through the holes, through the gravel and poked their nosy thin leaves up. I managed to keep them at bay but know next time to make sure that no grass survives.

    Wish you the best with your gardening! From the photo’s it looks like you’ve got some good soil there.

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