D is for Digging (and Depression)

Crab apple branches

Digging is powerful therapy for me, and I could certainly do with some of that at the moment. Depression wouldn’t be in most people’s gardening alphabet. But perhaps there are more of us depressed gardeners out there than I think.

It’s at this time of year, in mid-winter, that I often feel bad. The ghost at the door hovers closer and closer, until I don’t remember what it feels like to be free of it. In the meantime, I find myself desperately struggling to find ways to ameliorate the darkness – I sew and crochet obsessively. I read or watch box sets. I stare out of the window at the raised beds where my garlic and broad beans are growing. I sleep too little or too much. I apologise to my family, feel guilty or resentful. I look at other people with lives not dissimilar to mine, and wonder why they’re coping when I’m not.

Unfortunately, when I feel like this, and the weather’s grey and wet too, I find it hard to get myself outside. Even though I know that some time working in my garden would do a lot to lift my mood. Now the kids are back at school, I’m going to prescribe myself some gardening treatment. A day to garden, with no other commitments. And then I’ll see how I feel.

If I do get outside, I’m going to do some digging. The physical exertion of heavy digging gets my seratonin levels up, much like a gym work-out or run might do for some people. And it gets all my senses working. There’s something magical about getting so close to the earth. Soil smells rich and fusty, and the rhythmic sound of a spade cutting into the earth can be like a mantra. I love watching ground beetles and earth worms (so pleasingly called lumbrugus lumbrugus in Latin) scurry and slither away in the disturbed soil, or unearthing little treasure troves of slug eggs and carabid larvae.

Now, you might think there isn’t much to digging, but you’d be wrong! There are in fact a number of different digging techniques. Done right, digging will significantly improve your soil. If you’re a keen gardener like me, soil improvement is probably something you are obsessed with. Good soil means healthy, thriving plants. So it’s worth knowing more about how to dig well.

One traditional method is double digging:

“To double dig, you take out a trench 60cm (18in) wide and a spade’s depth deep. Barrow the excavated soil to the far end of the area to be dug. Then fork or dig over the base of the trench, ideally adding one or two bucketfuls of manure or other organic matter per square metre… Then dig out another trench next to the original and shift the soil… into the first trench. The base of this trench is dug over in turn, and so on until the end of the plot. Here, use the original soil from the first trench to fill the last.”

RHS Grow Your Own

To be honest, double digging is too hardcore for me. The idea is that you will have cultivated two ‘spits’ or spade’s depths down, once you’re done. I imagine it’s back-breaking work! And it’s certainly necessary if you’re unlucky to have very poor, stony, or heavy clay soil. Fortunately, with my light, sandy loam, I never have to dig this rigorously and so far I’ve got away with it.

The technique I use is known as simple digging, and I do that if I’m preparing an area where the soil was previously uncultivated or laid to lawn, for example, when I’m creating a new border. Simple digging is simple! You dig and lift a good spit of soil out of the ground, flip it over so it lands upside down, and break it up with the tip of your spade. Then you do another spit, until you’ve covered the whole space, removing any large stones as you go. Once the soil is all nicely worked, roughly dig-in some compost or well-rotted manure. I’d suggest about one bag per square metre.

Unless I’m creating a new border, I practice ‘no dig’ gardening. That is to say, I don’t dig any of my established borders, except when planting or weeding. Once a border has been prepared and planted up, I don’t dig in any more organic matter in subsequent seasons. Instead, I layer thick (3 to 4 inches), nutrient-rich mulches, such as compost or manure, on top of the soil, around the plants. The worms will do all the hard work of pulling the goodness down into the soil. If you do this every autumn and in spring, you should have nicely nourished, moisture retentive soil. ‘No dig’ is a great, easy way to garden. I highly recommend it.

Please cross your fingers that I find the impetus to get outside soon because it will probably do me the world of good. And I hope your new year has started a little more brightly than mine. x

Photos below (and above) were taken on a rainy walk home from school and in my veg patch.


Red berries and ivy

Broad bean seedlings

Garlic bed

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