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Double Digging: Please tell me it's worth it

I have blisters on both hands. My left arm has lost so much mobility that I could barely hook my bra this morning. And don't get me started on my lower back. On the plus side, the dirt is nice and fluffy now, and I have a very large rock collection - all sizes!

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    One large, ripe, red, juicy, warm from the sun tomato dressed with a bit of basil from the same garden.

    It all becomes worthwhile.

    3 Replies
    1. re: alwayscooking

      small h, shoveling whatever is one of the reasons I make myself get some regular exercise each week. About to turn 60, I'm afraid if I stop I'll freeze in place.
      But, after my success last year with a lasagna gardening, I have my doubts about double-digging. First of all, our new garden is in old pasture with very thick sod. We have all the nasty grasses and weeds New England can offer. We actually used a backhoe to dig an asparagus bed. But for the rest of the garden I had built up layers of compost the prior year in my spare time and limited my garden efforts at our new home to some tomatos in big flower pots. Last spring we topped the two lasagna beds with a layer of well composted horse manure and had fabulous results with far less work. This year the beds are still soft and fluffy. I keep the beds narrow so I don't walk thru them all the time and we won't rototill them. Building the beds still takes a lot of shoveling. We got a hay fork to make picking up grass cuttings from a neighbor easier. It's also lighter than a spading fork.
      Seriously, if you don't get much exercise during the rest of the year you might think about getting into condition before you start heavy garden work.

      1. re: dfrostnh

        Thanks to you both. Alwayscooking, I will, as you suggest, look forward. I hate to put so much pressure on that tomato, because it's also going to have to deal with slugs and a less than ideal amount of sunlight, in addition to my high expectations.

        Dfrostnh, you say you have doubts about double-digging, but you don't say why, only that lasagna gardening works for you. I've looked into lasagna gardening, which looks like a great system, but it is not an option for me because my garden is not at my primary residence. Thus, no compost. And don't worry about me: I get plenty of exercise. But short of working as a grave digger, I don't know of any way to get "into condition" to lift and toss a shovelful of dirt a few hundred times.

        1. re: small h

          small h, I think double-digging didn't work for me because I didn't put enough organic material into the garden. Last year we dug an asparagus patch and amended the soil that we put back into the trenches but the condition of the soil is still not as loose and light as that in the lasagna beds. We certainly piled on grass clippings, leaves, etc and had the advantage of a utility trailer and a neighbor who had a huge pile of grass clippings he didn't want. I have found free or nearly free manure on Craigslist. (only paid to have owner use his tractor to fill our borrowed utility trailer). We have lots of rocks here in NH. More will always work their way to the surface. We have saved kitchen waste in used kitty litter containers (large, covered with good handles) to put in the garden "later". I have composting worms but just two of us generate a lot of kitchen waste. You might consider saving your kitchen waste in covered containers to put in your garden once a week in a compost area.
          Now, if I had mulched with grass clippings, grown a cover crop, etc. I probably would have incorporated more organic matter into a dug garden. Last condition of the soil in the lasagna beds is amazing but the method forced me to put in all that organic matter.

    2. I remember what you describe! When I first got a P-Patch, I had to double dig because the soil was SO clay-ey. But it's worth it.

      1 Reply
      1. re: PAO

        I did it for one bed, and found it such a chore I took the easy, and expensive way out and imported butt loads of compost and mixed it in by hoe. We have terrible clay soil here, and I was able to grow potatoes and onions with no problem. I had a very large garden. so double digging would be alot of work on top of all the work i already put in. I speak in the past tense as I sold my house and now veggie garden in containers on my patio with very good results.

      2. It certainly is a chore, but the benefits last and last and last. Good on you for all that work!

        I have to admit after doing one large double-dug bed years ago in heavy clay soil, I switched over to 4' square raised beds the next year.

        One trick I've heard about but not tried yet (for sod-covered, untilled soil) is to pick your spot, cover with landscape cloth, pull the cloth off once the grass is dead, turn over the top couple of inches of soil, wait until dormant seeds have sprouted and re-cover with clear plastic and sun-bake/sterlize the soil, then plant with daikon radishes. Don't let the radishes go to seed and let them rot in the ground. It loosens the soil and becomes a natural compost. Then the next spring, you can turn the ground much more easily.

        5 Replies
        1. re: weezycom

          I did throw a tarp down over the winter, so grass wasn't a major issue; I'd probably be typing this with a pen stuck between my teeth if I'd had to deal with a lot of roots in addition to the clay. I'm VERY glad to hear that this is a longish term solution.

          The radish thing sounds interesting. And a little complicated. Let's see how ambitious I am at summer's end.

          1. re: small h

            There is *Absotively* *Posiloutely* NO doubt that double digging brings about the Eden Curse of the Old Testament back to the foreground -- In the sweat of thy face shalt thou earn thy bread! It is back breaking, ab straining, arm wrenching work BUT nothing else does the job of double digging, it is the foundation of soil preparation, you can't short cut it without suffering a loss of crop yeild and soil tilth. Dig in, double deep, mulch well, amend heavily and your garden will reward your effort no matter where you live. Yes, you will suffer! but you will also gain a great deal both in fitness and in produce!
            I like the daikon radish idea! I REALLY like that idea!

            1. re: TransplantedCajun

              I have read your other posts sir, or madam, and you have machines (I don't). So fie, fie on you. And thanks for the encouragement, also. I have regained most of my upper body strength. Finally.

              1. re: small h

                well, when I started my home garden, I did not have a separated left shoulder, nor had I broken my right forearm. Unfortunately, neither have healed well, so yes, I do use machines for the heavy work, but the garden hoe is still sharp and unerring!
                As for raised bed gardening, you can't get a tiller effectively in a raised bed, so those are done by hand, I have four of them now, and am planning on a 20 x 4 raised bed to add next year. Yes, I know, hand gardening is best, but when the scale gets that large, 2 people cannot do that by hand, so fie on me, and I'll use the machines to do the work my hands cannot do.

              2. re: TransplantedCajun

                You'll have to give us a report on the radish results. I've always remembered it (read about it maybe 4 years ago), but have never undertaken a garden bed on a scale sufficient to make use of it since then.

          2. I've read double digging can ruin good soil structure, if you have it. I use raised beds, don't walk on them, and usually keep digging to a minimum.When I'm on my game,. I use a cover crop off season. YMMV.

            3 Replies
              1. re: Shrinkrap

                My permaculture friend tells me the same thing - digging aggressively ruins soil structure which is a complex ecosystem. Maybe OK to double dig once to get things loosened up, but generally should just add very organic rich nutrients via mulch to the surface and let the worms and other creatures do their thing.

              2. Unless you want high production from a
                very small garden space, it's hardly
                worth it for the home gardener who has
                decent soil. Unless
                you're fascinated by the idea and
                need the exercise, of course.

                I dig in a healthy shovelful of manure in
                each planting hole and get 500 tomatos
                from 10 plants. Who neds double digging?

                7 Replies
                1. re: mpalmer6c

                  <Unless you want high production from a very small garden space, it's hardly worth it for the home gardener who has decent soil.>

                  That's exactly what I want, and I don't have decent soil. So it seems like I made the right call.

                    1. re: Shazam

                      Hmmm. That article just says double digging is less effective than rototilling, not that it's pointless. And it's just one person's opinion (I am a relentless multi-sourcer). I have an irrational fear of power tools, and my garden is super-rocky, so I went the labor intensive by-hand route. But hey, it could be true! I guess I'll know for sure in a couple of months.

                      1. re: small h

                        Well, you can do it, but you might as well just not.

                        I have never double digged. Not that it would've worked for me, since after about a foot I have nothing but clay subsoil.

                        I can tell you that regular, easy to do top dresses of compost have vastly increased the quality of my soil. Worms do a lot of work.

                        Don Engebretson runs that site, BTW. He really, really, really knows his stuff.

                        1. re: Shazam

                          I did do it. I'm the one that started this thread. And if it turns out to make no difference, I will certainly change my silly double-digging ways. I got the idea from the special fancy dirt that I was just going to throw over top, but then I saw the double-digging instructions on the bag...

                          Past tense is probably double-dug, no?

                          1. re: small h

                            I think if you do it once you'll be glad you did. My clay subsoil was drowning plants even when the top soil was very dry. I double-dug and mixed it all up, with great results. And no, I never did it again because it was a big pain in the butt, but it evened out the soil so that more things could grow better.

                        2. re: small h

                          In our case, rototilling was less effective (actually useless) than double digging (much to our dismay). Our soil is heavy, heavy clay strewn throughout with quartz and sandstone ranging in size from literally boulders down to pebbles. We had a guy with a medium sized tractor and pull behind rototiller come in this spring to our new house to till the existing garden and break and till two new gardens. Even with his heavy equipment he was only able to till up the top 4" of top soil in the "garden" and the new plots. When I went out the next day I could not get a spade past his tilled layer. We had to greatly change our garden plans for this year because we've had to do it all by hand, first rocking the clay loose with spading forks, then screening it to remove rocks and pebbles, then amending it with compost, vermiculite, sand, and sphagnum moss. The two 4' x12' beds we've completed are growing and producing mightily. The parts of the old garden that we haven't got to but had to plant are growing but slowly and poorly.

                          I hate the labor of double digging- hate, hate, HATE it! But we don't have a choice, rototillers can't get through the rock and clay here. And there's just no arguing the effectiveness of it when comparing the finished beds to the rest of the old garden.