Garden Soil Prep School: double dig it or no-till?

I’ve prepared the ground for various gardens in a variety of ways; here are methods that got me the best garden soils.  I hand you this in the fall because autumn is the perfect time to set up for next spring: your garden will have all winter to absorb the glory of your work.

Three options: double digging, the dig-free “no-till lasagna”, and hugelkultur.

Double Digging

Double-digging is the hardest, the most labor intensive. This is the best option IF: you are on hard packed dirt, especially soils with poor drainage, and you do not have the time to wait through a year of getting various cover crops to do the ‘break it up’ work for you (or a winter to let the lasanga work), and you do not have the money for raised beds, AND you have a good strong back.  In that situation, by all means double dig your garden.

I’ve done this, it’s incredibly hard work, and it is very, very successful.  Here’s how double digging works:

Double digging method of garden bed soil preparationDig a shovel spade deep trench and put that dirt aside, perhaps into a wheelbarrow or several trash cans.  I was working in long, thin garden beds; I dug my trench across the short way, so a wheelbarrow was plenty.

double digging method of organic garden soil preparationUse a pitchfork to loosen up the underlying soil.  It doesn’t have to go anywhere, and you can toss in some sand and organic matter if you want, but the only really crucial part is that you get in there and ‘adjust’ it a bit.

Move over.  Dig the next trench by dumping that dirt into the trench you just double digging to prepare an organic vegetable garden beddug. Loosen the bottom of this second trench. Move over, repeat.  Do this the whole way across the garden bed, using the dirt from the wheelbarrow to fill the last trench.

Now go lay down for a while.

The first time I double dug a garden, I did this for 3 long thin beds and then gave up and didn’t do it for the 4th bed in that garden.  Every single visitor to the garden could have pointed to the bed I skipped- it was the least healthy, least vigorous, least productive of the four, by far.

One particular rose garden I installed had such heavy soils and poor drainage that, in addition to adding back in the original soil, my crew and I also added in a sizeable amount of composted materials and builders sand.  Those roses took off, allowing their tender to move to entirely (or nearly entirely?) organic methods for caring for her plants.  I’m sure it also helped that we diversified the garden, adding lavender, daisies, society garlic, and a host of other plants from a variety of families and genuses.

Up Next: The No-Till Garden Lasagna Method

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2 responses to “Garden Soil Prep School: double dig it or no-till?

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