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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.

                  1. small h -

                    I am very curious about how your garden grows with your well tilled soil and sweat from your brow as fertilizer!

                    So hope you look back and answer!

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Sal Vanilla

                      Thanks for your interest! The conditioned dirt seems to be having something of a positive effect, but I'm up against a lot of other obstacles, including, but not limited to, the fact that I only see my garden every other weekend. So! The beans shot up like rockets and were promptly set upon by an army of slugs. I put out beer traps. A nice lady at the hardware store advised me to fling some iron phosphate around, and if I can score some, I'll do just that. The European Mesclun (that's what it says on the seed packet - who knows what the hell it means) is quite glorious, and has already provided me with two salads. My four eggplants vanished without a trace. Moles? Space aliens? I cannot say. The beets look as though they may actually produce beets, which would be a first, because I am terrible with root vegetables. The carrots are not doing nearly as well, ditto the marigolds. I blame the ridiculous amount of rain. My tomatoes have fungus, because my tomatoes always have fungus, but hopefully they will rally. The peppers are kind of stunted. Maybe they'll get a second wind or something. I also planted edamame, because what the hell. It looks alright.

                      That's probably way more information than you wanted. It all boils down to this: I am not a very good gardener. I try, though.

                      1. re: small h

                        Gardens are always learning experiences, and it sounds like you're having a lot of experience, lol.

                        To answer your initial question, double-digging can be worth doing once, in the beginning, especially if you've got some compacted soil. But now that you've done it once, go for no till from now on and just add amendments on top.You'll build up some great soil ecology.

                        Good luck, have fun, and hope you get some more nice meals from your garden.

                        1. re: Karen_Schaffer

                          That sounds like solid advice. I shan't disclose how many summers I've devoted to this sorry plot, because it will make me seem psychotic. I'm a slow learner, apparently. And either gloriously idealistic or shamefully stubborn.

                    2. Apropos of tilling: Maybe a small tiller like a Mantis would be useful in small gardens or raised beds. I do not work for Mantis.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: chaz

                        Thanks for that idea. Next year, I'll see whether such a thing is available for rent.

                      2. If you want, or perhaps need, a great garden with great tilth right now, I'd say double digging is totally worth it and will last for ages. However, I don't think it'll ever replace the no-till method, which requires several years (up to five) to create perfect soil with the perfect microbiology to maintain it's tilth. And believe me, alfalfa roots can break through the hardest of clay soils

                        1. smallh, just wondering how did your first garden in the double-dug bed turn out? IMO, it is worth doing once to get rid of a lot of the rocks. Particularly if you want to grow root vegetables. I've never heard of planting the bed with daikon radishes, but might try that in one area, myself.

                          I understand the difficulties with gardening away from your primary residence. Luckily once school gets out, I am able to tend to my garden more often than once every week or so. Hope your garden this year is even better.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: decolady

                            I had mixed results. I think the double-digging absolutely improved the beets and carrots. But it's hard for me to say what effect double-digging had on the other plants, since there were so many other factors working against them. Last summer was a terrible one, what with the rain and the tomato blight. I forgot all about the daikon radishes; maybe I'll try that at the end of this growing season.

                            Ugh, the rocks. I can never actually get rid of them altogether. Every year there are more.

                            1. re: small h

                              What are rocks? Where I live, Houston, they're buried under hundreds of feet of sediment. You have to drive a hundred miles to see one of these things. I just got my first tomato plants for my patio/farm. I got sweet 100, sweet million, and something I haven't seen, super bush, plus a jalapeno plant. I'll buy some more in a few weeks.

                              1. re: James Cristinian

                                <You have to drive a hundred miles to see one of these things.>

                                If you're willing to drive a thousand miles, I'll give you your very own bunch of rocks to take home. You'll be the envy of all of Houston.

                              2. re: small h

                                Simply considering physics, double digging is going to work well for root vegetables and other plants with deep or thick root systems. Lettuce, for example, would not benefit. But if you are into gardening and get into the habit of lightly amending the soil every year or so and not walking where you plant, you won't have to do nearly as much work as starting from scratch. Every year, it gets easier to grow things because the soil is fluffier and fluffier! Good luck with those rocks though...sounds harsh. Are they actual stones, or clods of hard dirt?

                                1. re: Jemon

                                  Actual stones. I built a fire ring out of flat river rocks years ago, and I use the garden rocks to augment it. One day it will look less like a fire ring and more like a silo, and then I'll know it's time to stop.

                                  Memorial Day weekend I'll be starting the garden up again. I have high hopes! (I always do.)

                            2. I am blessed with 10-12 feet of river loam for soil. I mulch every year with blended mint compost and add my own compost when I can get someone to move it. With all the organics the worms take care of turning over the soil and providing drainage, they also are handy for fishing trips.

                              I use a electric mantis tiller now for turning over the garden beds, works like a champ and starts every time!

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: duck833

                                What is " blended mint compost"?

                                1. re: Shrinkrap

                                  Blended mint compost is a mixture produced by a local company. They take mint straw left over when they distill peppermint from local growners, add chicken manure, add local produced compost and other organic matter and mix it up. Comes out black, rich and great top dressing for beds in the garden and flower beds.

                                2. re: duck833

                                  Thats pretty sweet. What do you grow there and how does it work out?

                                3. We got one of those light weight Mantis-type tillers this year and double digging suddenly became a whole lot easier! Last year we about killed ourselves double digging by hand.

                                  We break sod in a new bed with the big tiller and remove it entirely. Then we go back in with the big tiller, break up the next layer and shovel it out to the side. Next we go in with the little tiller (with the back wheels removed) and start working that soil. We discovered if we run the little tiller across the width of the bed the whole length, it will kick the soil to one side leaving a furrow. In this furrow we drop in some amendments then go around to the other side and repeat the process. Then we give the whole bed a quick over all till and rake it smooth. Next we shovel in the soil we set aside, place the amendments on top of that and thoroughly till all that together with the little tiller. We use to screen the top layer before we put it back in the bed and if we run into a lot of rocks and pebbles we still do but often we can skip that step. The tiller's light weight, small size and mobility allows us to do a more thorough job with less backbreaking labor then all the hand digging (excavating) we were doing.

                                  6 Replies
                                  1. re: morwen

                                    Is double digging for noobs like me? Sounds like a lot of work. I'm not sure what a root vegetable is. Will double digging help for non-root veggies? My soil is clay like. I am fascinated by the idea and need the exercise, of course.

                                    1. re: Bottomless_Pit

                                      <Sounds like a lot of work. >
                                      It is. At least if you do it like I did, with a shovel.

                                      <I'm not sure what a root vegetable is.>
                                      Carrot, parsnip, beet, turnip, rutabaga, etc.

                                      1. re: small h

                                        At least it only needs to be done once when you're building a new bed.

                                    2. re: morwen

                                      That's what I plan on doing this year. I'm thinking removing the sod with a sod cutter, seems much easier, though I'd probably have to rent one. The thought of double-digging again by hand (well technically with a shovel and tilling fork) sends chills down my spine. It took me almost 50 hours just to clear and then double dig a 6 by 12 foot space. I ended up with a 2 foot high pile of rocks at the end of it and a shovel that bent in half. It just makes me amazed how construction companies take away the natural soil and add back in rock hard clay and giant rocks and pebbles, thinking it will increase the real estate value.

                                      1. re: takadi

                                        Your soil sounds like ours. We got enough small gravel to fill the holes in our driveway. The rocks and small boulders I'm using to build a low rubble wall to designate the guest parking area. Actually some of the rock is quite nice, white and rose sparkly quartz. Wish we could blame it on the construction company but no, our soil is just that way.

                                        1. re: morwen

                                          That's rough. I learned by this thread that I double dig everytime I plant something new. I didn't even know that is what it was called and I never actually learned it from anywhere. It just seemed like the best way to get a great soil texture for seeds or seedlings. I had decent soil to begin with, so it was much easier for me to do it. Plus I never walk where I plant. If I do take a step in by accident, the soil compresses about 3 inches because it's so fluffed!

                                    3. Howdy small h,

                                      Old (59-ish seasons) Noob poster, farm boy here.

                                      These folks are right for their particular soil conditions, no two gardens are the same.

                                      Multi task and study your garden soil while gathering data.

                                      One other thing you and the rest of the posters may want to look into is Google "Terra Preta De Indio".

                                      Charcoal, not briquettes, fine ground and mixed in (sometimes as deep as 3 meters/nine feet is a phenomenal nutrient/water/"carbon condo"/detox storage system.

                                      I studied the science of this system and then jumped in with both feet 3 years ago.

                                      You may want to wash your feet after this venture.

                                      The science IS sound and your garden will continue to love you long after you've left this little dirtball.

                                      Eugene out.

                                      3 Replies
                                        1. re: foodIlike

                                          I appreciate the advice. But if you check the date of my OP, the whole double-digging adventure took place in the spring of '09. I'm all planted up for this season already, but I will certainly look into the charcoal thing for next year.

                                          1. re: foodIlike

                                            I tried out the charcoal thing this year. Burned all the leftover twigs and branches I had from the winter, and then buried everything. Inpired by Terra Preta and hope it works well