Photo: Arley Hall, Wikimedia
- If your garden lacks borders, or your existing ones have descended into chaos, define some beautiful flower borders to transform your garden. Learn how to create borders in six easy steps.
- Double Digging: How to Build a Better Veggie Bed
- Double Digging
- Double digging vs. Tilling
- Double-Digging Crudely Hits Pay Dirt but…
- How to Double Dig a garden bed
If your garden lacks borders, or your existing ones have descended into chaos, define some beautiful flower borders to transform your garden. Learn how to create borders in six easy steps.
Create borders which complement your garden for year-round interest and heavenly scents. Establishing these stunning floral boundaries will also encourage beneficial wildlife and attract pollinators.
Create borders in your garden in six steps:
Plan your border:
Take into account how long each spot spends in the shade when planning your border. Sun-loving plants will not thrive if they are left in the shadows, so keep this in mind when deciding where to place them.
Perfect the shape:
The shape of your border will depend on the size of your garden. Straight edges look neat but can sometimes make small gardens look even smaller. Curved edges can give the appearance of more space.
If you’d like a curved border, lay a hosepipe along the proposed edge to achieve a smooth and attractive design. If straight edges are what you’re looking for then use a stringline or measuring tape. Make sure the border width remains consistent to avoid having slanted borders.
Remove the grass:
You can remove preexisting patches of grass to make space for borders with a spade or turf cutter before tilling the soil. Take care to remove rocks, dense roots and weeds. If your soil isn’t in particularly good health, now’s a great time to reinvigorate the ground with compost. Find our top tips on making your own compost here.
Photo: Pitmedden, Wikimedia
It’s imperative to make clear, defined border edges with an edging knife to prevent the lawn from invading your pristine borders. You’ll need to create a trench at a suitable depth (at least 4cm deep) so that you can still mow the lawn without sifting up the soil. If you prefer, you can separate your borders by lining them with an edging material.
Plan the placement:
While it can be time-consuming to place your plants before planting, it’s an effective way to perfect the appearance of the borders. Choose complementary colours for a subtlety or bold colours and ornamental grasses for bright, contrasting border. Incorporate evergreen plants so borders have year-round interest, form and structure.
Once you’ve perfected your plant placement, remove plants from their pots and gently tease out the roots with your hands or a hand fork. They’re ready to plant!
Nourish the soil:
Water the new plants generously, then apply mulch to the moistened soil. Mulch provides soil with nutrients, retains its moisture and suppresses weed growth. Find out what kind of garden mulch is the best here.
Get the expert tips from TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh on how to improve your garden borders further here.
Don’t forget to sign up for our monthly The English Gardener newsletter, bringing you all the grow your own advice you need throughout the year. Sign up on the right of this article. Need plants or gardening kit? Visit our directory of suppliers.
Double Digging: How to Build a Better Veggie Bed
Double digging is an alternative approach, one that capitalizes on the soil’s inherent ecological processes, while making it loose enough to plant in right away. The basic premise of double digging is to create an extra deep bed of loose soil – 16 to 18 inches, versus the 6 to 8 inches that most tillers create – without inverting the soil layers.
In the natural process of soil development, distinct layers, called “soil horizons,” develop, where the most fertile soil is closest to the top. Mixing the layers with a tiller brings the less-fertile soil to the surface – that’s a disadvantage for plants and a disruption of the finely tuned relationships of the soil food web, which helps make nutrients available to plants, contributes to pest and disease resistance, and increases the water-holding capacity of the soil. Over the course of the growing season, the plants and soil microbes work together to re-establish a natural soil structure, one that would eventually lead to the black gold you’d find under the duff in a mature forest or undisturbed grassland, only to have the process set back again by next spring’s tilling.
Double digging was developed in the 1960s and ’70s by organic gardening guru Alan Chadwick and later refined by John Jeavons, who brought the French “biointensive” method to the United States. It takes a bit more elbow grease at the outset than tilling, but the good news is that, unlike tilling, double digging only needs to be repeated every few years when done right the first time. Here’s how:
- Drive four stakes in the ground in a rectangular shape to mark the corners of the bed you want to build. Four feet is the maximum width that allows easy access to the middle of the bed without stepping on the soil and compacting it, but the bed can be as long as you would like. Remove any existing vegetation from the area where the bed will be.
- Dig a 12-inch wide trench to the depth of your spade (about 8 or 9 inches) from one end of the designated bed and put the soil in a wheelbarrow or on a tarp for temporary storage.
- Gently loosen the soil at the bottom of the trench by pushing a digging fork in the ground as deep as possible and rocking it back forth, making sure to not turn the soil over or mix it. Spread a couple inches of compost in the bottom of the trench and work it into the soil in the same fashion.
- Excavate a 12-inch wide strip of soil adjacent to the trench and use it to fill the trench. Avoid mixing the excavated soil by letting each spade-full slide off gently, rather than turning it over. Loosen the soil at the bottom of the new trench and enrich it with compost just as you did in the previous step.
- Continue with this process until the entire bed has been worked through. Use the soil from the first trench (which is waiting in your wheelbarrow) to fill the trench that is left at the end of the bed.
- Spread a layer of compost over the completed bed and work it into the top layer of soil using the technique of rocking back and forth with the digging fork. Then rake the bed into a smooth, even surface, ready for planting.
Avoid walking on the bed at all costs to prevent the soil from becoming compacted again. Each spring, loosen the upper surface of the bed with a digging fork and enrich with the soil with fresh compost to replace the lost nutrients of the previous season. Depending on your soil type, you’ll need to double dig again every three to five years or so as the lower layers of the bed eventually become compacted again on their own.
Here’s a video how-to:
I hear and read many people who are completely against double-digging, and to state this upfront, for those most part, I’m in complete agreement with their assessment. I am a believer in no-dig gardens. Even more so, I think being patient with our soil situations—planting what will grow and piling organic matter atop the soil to replenish the nutrient cycle—works. I’ve seen it work in dry situations, in clay situations, in sandy situations.
In a word, I know that, with a little time and some simple measures, we can reinvigorate the planet, at least the little patches we have some say over. I mention this to establish that I’ve come to double-dig gardens with this mindset: the answers to our fertility woes are not dominating nature but rather collaborating with it. Nature is constantly working to repair its soil problems and stabilize the eco-system, so we don’t need to fight it but simply better enable it.
However, it is worth noting that some of our garden beds, even in a permaculture system, are not exactly the way nature would do it. Kitchen gardens are intensively managed areas in which we often ask more of the soil than natural systems would. Few of us are living primarily off of perennial crops, so we must accept that annuals will feature somewhere, to some degree, in our self-sustaining cultivation plans. That will likely mean amending soil in organic, yes, but still unnatural ways.
The Issues with Double-Digging
Double-digging has several things that people object to. That begins, of course, with digging at all. It’s becoming more and more widely accepted that digging and/or tilling in the garden is not a long-term plan for food production. Digging destroys the soil life, which at first works to the gardener’s advantage as the corpses and such decompose, but the ultimate outcome is that, with no soil life remaining, all of the benefits those organisms naturally provide—aeration, fertilization, decomposition, etc.—are increasingly missing.
Another topic commonly brought up with double-digging, as with tilling, is that it mixes subsoil with topsoil, creating a less nutrient-rich growing medium. Root systems, in principle, are meant to work with the natural layering of soil, where leaf litter covers humus atop soil that has buried the subsoil. The shallow thin roots spread outwards to collect as much nutrients as possible, while fewer, thicker, deeper roots mine minerals from the subsoil. Mixing this all up isn’t in tune with how roots actually function.
There are more considerations. When we dig, we loosen soil, and loose soil sinks ecosystems because it is much more susceptible to erosion by wind and water. When we dig we unearth seeds that have been waiting for a chance to become weeds, while these weeds, left alone, would slowly rebuild the soil and system, they usually aren’t our goal in creating garden beds. When we dig, we release carbon into the atmosphere, while our planetary goal should be more geared towards sequestering it in plant life.
All of this and it’s extremely labor-intensive.
In Bed with Double-Dig Devil’s Advocate
Not entirely to flip-flop, but a carefully constructed double-dig bed does address some of the claims brought against it. Done well, soil layers remain or are recreated as they should be: subsoil, soil, humus, and organic litter. Done well, the risk of erosion is dramatically decreased, and the topsoil—presumably depleted—is revived with nutrients, even life. Done well, weeds are suppressed, and drainage or water absorbtion is increased. The method doesn’t necessarily equate to complete destruction.
Sometimes, one might say, double-dig beds are useful. When soil is completely compacted, void of plants, and lacking in fertility; when the space is near the house and to be heavily managed by humans anyway for intensive food production, zone one food production; could double-dig beds not be a viable method? Certainly, it’s not the only method, but must we demonize it so? Can we not imagine it as something that might actually function well and sustainably in the right hands?
• If we take only the topsoil out, not mixing soil layers, and aerate the subsoil with a fork, never turning it, have we not maintained some soil life while instantaneously aerating and possible amending the—presumably depleted—topsoil, including inoculating it with new soil life to account any destroyed by digging.
• Wouldn’t this quickly deal with compaction issues in areas—Zone 1—where we are meant to first begin cultivation, and doing so in abundance, allowing us to then concentrate on building our long-term sustainable system atop something that can produce now rather than in six months?
• If we then, cover our double-dig beds—as we should—with a layer of humus or humus-like compost, mulching over that with organic litter, have we not in fact rebuilt the soil layers as they would ideally be, only with drainage, erosion, and aeration issues more immediately addressed?
• In the case of labor, might we also say that, in some circumstance, small gardens in largely urban areas, gathering the materials required to sheet mulch or utilize other no-dig methods, which are resource-intensive, could require more work than double-digging and using less organic material for the top two layers only?
A Singular Double-Dig Method
Truth be known, double-digging beds has not been something I’ve often utilized or something I often see as the best option, but I also think—in permaculture—we are to examine and analyze methods for what they are: tools we can utilize. We don’t have to use the same technique every time in every situation. In fact, permaculture teaches us not to do so, that our job is to find the right solution for each individual set of circumstances. With that in mind, it seems a bit pious (in the devoted no-dig sense) to claim double-digging should never be a viable option.
I like to think that, by and large, while many certainly wouldn’t adopt the technique, the overall objection to double-dig beds is to the notion of repeating the process again and again, a la annually tilling a garden. In this case, I would have to agree that double-digging does have a destructive, unsustainable element to it. However, if we are digging then fostering the soil life to blossom, afterwards feeding it undisturbed from the top with leaf litter from perennial plants, as naturally happens, in this case, have we really done something so different than digging a swale or building a sheet-mulch bed on hardpan?
The wider issue here, for me, is that sometimes I feel certain techniques and terminology come with a fingers-in-the-ears approach from their practitioners, such as with composting, and on the whole, that warrants a little worry. Some would suggest double-digging as a worthwhile consideration in certain instances. That’s not to say the buck stops here, but experienced voices—even of those not doing things exactly as we might—are worthy of paying attention to. And, in much the same way, double-digging seems an instrument that sometimes strikes the right note.
While I know the damning comments are likely to follow below, regardless, I’d again like to remind that this was not an argument that all gardeners in all places should use double-digging all the time but rather recognition that there may be a place for it for some gardeners at some time.
Feature Photo: Fork and Spoon (Courtesy of Erich Ferdinand)
When following biointensive gardening principles, the way to relieve compaction, improve drainage and promote deeper root growth is by double digging garden beds.
If you’re on especially sandy soil, you might be able to skip it. I’m on clay, which is why I double dig a couple of beds each spring for my potatoes.
By moving my potatoes every year, it ensures each part of my garden will get double dug at some point.
It’s hard work, but it makes a nice bed.
Here’s how to do it (Academy members, we cover this in month 1 along with many other aspects of preparing a garden bed):
Take a garden fork or spade and dig a 4-5 foot long trench, 12 inches (30 cm) deep, removing that soil off to the side.
Then use a garden fork to loosen the soil a further 12 inches in the bottom of that trench, which is why we call it ‘double digging’ the garden bed.
Next you dig a trench right beside the original, placing the soil from that new trench over in the original trench, and then again loosening the soil at the bottom of the new trench.
Do this all along your bed, perhaps placing some of the soil from your first trench into your final trench, saving the rest for your compost pile.
The reason I like double digging when building a garden is not only to loosen the soil, but also to incorporate compost and organic fertilizers.
What I would say about this deep soil penetration, though, is that it’s the ‘physics’ approach to improving soil structure, and adding compost is the ‘biology’ approach, and what’s missing in biointensive gardening is the ‘chemistry’ approach.
If you want your soil structure to stay in good shape without having to double dig it every year, you need to balance soil fertility by using appropriate mineral fertilizers, generally based on a soil test.
The counter argument to this is that soil testing and fertilizers cost money (true), aren’t available everywhere (true) and aren’t as sustainable (true).
All of these are excellent points, and when they are true for you, double digging your garden every year or every few years can help. This is the case when using more ‘physics’ in place of ‘chemistry’ makes sense.
It still doesn’t address your fertility imbalances, but it will help with your soil structure in the short term.
If you want to learn how to do the double digging technique, click the button below where I’ve shown it on video:
Video: How To Double Dig
Previous: How To Grow MORE Food In LESS Space With BiointensiveNext: Biointensive Composting To Improve Soil Fertility
- Double digging is a quick fix for impenetrable soil. It’s hard work, though.Photo/Illustration: Janet Jemmot
- This subsoil is so dense that plant roots will have a tough time penetrating it. Double digging and the addition of organic matter will change all that in a hurry.Photo/Illustration: Janet Jemmot
- Here’s a double-dug bed ready for planting.Photo/Illustration: Jennifer Matlack
- Photo/Illustration: Janet Jemmot
- Photo/Illustration: Janet Jemmot
- Photo/Illustration: Jennifer Matlack
by James Kerr
from issue #17
As every serious gardener knows, the key to a bountiful harvest is good soil. Along with adequate light and moisture, fertile, well-drained soil can make all the difference between healthy, pest-resistant plants and those plagued with problems.
Good soil is something that is sought, rarely found, but can be made. With the first thrust of a shovel into new ground, a gardener is likely to discover that just beneath the surface lies an almost impenetrable layer of clay and rock. Or, he may find shifting sand that won’t hold either nutrients or water.
How you deal with difficult dirt is dictated by resources. If money is not an issue, a backhoe, a dump truck, and loads of topsoil is the easiest route. But if cost matters, that solution’s quickly ruled out. Even raised beds, another option for managing soil quality, can be expensive, and some find the boxes objectionable.
Many gardeners resort to rototilling, but most tillers don’t go deeper than 8 in., which is not enough to break up poor subsoil. Double digging is the inexpensive, low-tech way to go. It requires lots of elbow grease but creates fertile, well-drained soil every time.
Why double dig?
Simply put, double digging involves removing the top soil layer, exposing the subsoil or hardpan beneath, breaking it up, adding organic matter, and replacing the topsoil that was initially removed.
Double digging allows roots to reach deeper into the earth, where better-draining subsoil makes it less likely they’ll become water-logged or oxygen-deprived. Deeper roots mean plants don’t have to be watered as often. And more plants can grow in the same area because they don’t have to rely on the topsoil alone for moisture and nutrients.
That’s the rationale for this simple technique, but simple doesn’t mean easy. Double digging through rock-hard subsoil is tough work. Fortunately, double digging a bed is a one-shot deal you’ll never have to repeat. And it’s the fastest way to good soil.
A spade is all it takes
This low-tech process requires only a couple of tools, the most important of which is the proper digging implement. I use a short-handled, square-tipped spade rather than a round-tipped shovel (the latter I use for double digging holes, not beds). The spade allows me to make flat, sharp slices through the dirt, and the short handle forces me to bend my knees while digging, thus taking the strain off my lower back.
You may also need a wheelbarrow for hauling organic matter to work into the bed. The wheelbarrow can also serve to move topsoil from the first trench dug to the last; a tarp would work, too.
Proceed to the garden
Before you start, determine the beds you want dug. Make them 3 ft. to 4 ft. wide if you want to reach the middle of the bed from either side. They can be as long as you want.
Some plants require wide spacing, such as tomatoes and eggplant. These don’t need to be put into beds, but can be planted separately with a modified double-digging technique. Double digging an entire bed for them would mean more work. Unless you’re a glutton for hard labor, double digging a hole (and amending the soil) is all you need do for these plants.
|When you double dig a bed, you expose the subsoil layer, break it up, and amend it with organic matter.|
Technique for double digging. Healthy soil is essential to a productive garden, so it pays to expend the energy and double dig your way to it. But don’t hurt yourself in the process. Remember to bend your knees, and try to keep your back straight. Don’t try to lift too much soil at one time. Take periodic breaks and drink plenty of water.
When you’re ready to go, expose an 18-in. to 22-in.-deep section of your soil. Typically you’ll find an upper layer of topsoil and subsoil beneath. Sometimes, as in the photo at right, the strata are easily seen. In double digging, you want to work the subsoil, amending it with organic matter.
To double dig a bed, start at one end and move backwards. Once the soil is loosened, turned, and aerated, you don’t want to step on it again, as compaction defeats one of the purposes of double digging. Dig a trench across the width of the bed, removing the topsoil and piling it at the top of the bed on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow. The trench should be 6 in. or 7 in. wide, the width of your spade, and as deep as your spade, 9 in. to 11 in.
|1. Dig a trench as wide across as you want the bed to be. The trench should be 9 in. to 11 in. deep and as wide as your spade. Remove this topsoil and pile it at the end of the bed. Add organic matter to the trench and chop it in. Above, I’ve used old cornstalks, but any organic matter can be used, as long as it’s disease free. Now loosen the subsoil another 9 in. to 11 in., working in the organic matter.||2. Do yourself and your soil a favor and don’t walk on it again after you’ve finished digging. Work backwards and dig another trench just behind the first, following the same steps. Place the topsoil on top of the first trench’s subsoil and organic matter mix. Continue to dig trenches until you reach the end of your bed. Don’t hesitate to take breaks.|
Next, put several inches of organic material in the trench. Fresh manure or any rough, non-woody plant matter like leaves, grass, or old flower stems can be used. I like hollow cornstalks and sunflower stems because the air trapped inside them allows microorganisms in the soil to flourish and accelerates the breakdown of organic matter and the production of humus. Don’t use diseased plants, as they may infect the soil and pass on the disease to future crops. And save your fine compost to mix in the topsoil once you’ve finished digging the bed. If this is your first garden and you don’t have a source of organic materials to add to your soil, commercially bagged compost or manure will do.
After adding the organic material, loosen the soil to another spade’s depth, chopping or turning the organic matter into the subsoil. If it is very rough and rocky, take 2-in. to 3-in. sections at a time. Remove large rocks as you go. You want to break the hardpan into small chunks interspersed with organic matter, providing channels for water to drain and roots to grow into. If you find a soil fork works better than a spade on this bottom layer, by all means use it.
There, you’ve double dug the first trench. Wipe your brow, have a drink of water, and repeat the process. Start another trench parallel to and just behind the first, one spade-width wide and one spade-depth deep. Throw the topsoil from the second trench on top of the first trench’s mixture of organic material and subsoil.
Repeat the process by tossing a layer of organic material into the second trench, and digging and mixing it into the subsoil. Keep double digging trenches down the length of your bed. When you get to the end of the bed, you will be one layer short of topsoil. Go to the top of the bed where you put the topsoil from your first trench, and bring that layer of topsoil down to spread on the last trench.
That done, rake smooth the top of the bed, add some fine compost or other soil amendment, and your double-dug bed is finished. You’ll see it’s raised 6 in. or more above the surrounding area. This is due not only to the addition of the organic material, but also to the de-compaction of existing soil. And this is how soil should be— loose, enriched, well aerated, and as pleasing to the eye as it will be to your plants.
|3. Bring the topsoil from the first trench dug to the last. The soil should be aerated and free of large rocks. Add compost or other amendments if needed.||4. Rake the soil smooth and take in the bed’s beauty. The bed will be raised a few inches above the surrounding soil, due to aeration and organic matter. You now have a home for your plants where they can reach their full potential.|
Double Dig Instructions
- Dig a trench one shovel-length deep (nine or ten inches) and the length of your planting area.
- Pile the soil in a wheelbarrow. (ours piled in front of first trench, although wheelbarrow makes it easier to transport to last trench at end of double dig.)
- Loosen the soil at the bottom of the trench another nine to ten inches. (Spading fork works great for this)
- Add organic material, such as compost, and any necessary soil amendments. Using a spading fork, thoroughly mix them into the subsoil.
- Dig a second trench parallel to the first and repeat steps 2 and 3.
- Use the topsoil from the second trench to fill the first one, adding more organic matter and mixing it in.
- Repeat the procedure until you’ve dug, enriched and amended the entire planting area.
- Fill the last trench with the topsoil you put in the wheelbarrow when you dug the first trench, enriching it with organic matter as you did before.
Visit the Grow Biointensive Website for more information and to order John Jeavon’s books at: http://www.growbiointensive.org
Double digging vs. Tilling
To paraphrase a popular saying, “Compost Happens”. It really doesn’t matter if you compost in place or compost in a pile. The advantages to pile composting are that if you get the perfect mix of carbon and nitrogen (browns and greens) you’ll get heat generation that will speed up the process. If you just lay the material on your kitchen counter, the same process will take place, just at a much slower pace. The heat from a pile has the added benefits of usually rendering weed seeds infertile and killing many plant bacteria and virus.
Notice the preceding paragraph is full of “if’s” and “usually’s”. The more careful you are with your compost pile, the more of those conditionals you’ll eliminate. But, most of us don’t have the time or energy to constantly futz with our compost, and our source material streams seldom work out to give us the right C:N mix all the time. That’s alright, it will still work! I compost my kitchen waste in a tumbler. In addition, I have a rather large pile behind the barn that has been working for a couple years. It didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so I dumped a load from the tumbler into it to get some microbial activity going, and started bagging the lawn to get some high N content. I’ve been a little more careful about turning the pile every time I have the tractor out, and now I have 8 or 9 yards of some pretty good looking stuff. My point is, it is just about impossible to compost “wrong”. The worms don’t care if they eat the stuff in a pile or in your garden bed. In place composting has it’s advantages, but takes a little more care in that few people want to see their kitchen waste just laying on top of the ground, and it isn’t going to do the soil any good if the opossums eat it all. Mom always dug trenches in her raised beds in the fall, put the scraps in through the winter, and raked a little soil over each addition. That works during mild weather in the transition zone, but it wouldn’t be a very good approach in Duluth or Buffalo. She also put every morning’s coffee grounds and egg shells in her petunia bed right out front of the kitchen. She had the prettiest petunias in the county.
Looking back over this post, it is kind of a ramble. Sorry. If I had a point, it is that it doesn’t matter how you compost, only that you DO compost.
Double-Digging Crudely Hits Pay Dirt but…
Double digging is a technique where you dig, put the soil to the side, dig a bit more and toss that second lot of soil into the first hole. Essentially, you are turning the soil and bugs upside down and letting their shocked, dead bodies feed the your new plantings. In thin soils (like dryland soils) you would be bringing up the subsoil and trying to turn it into top soil. Double digging is destructive.
Double-Digging can be Instantly Impressive
The growth on plants (and sometimes the weeds) is quick and leafy. Double digging is an old farming technique used for centuries in countries with cool climates, deep soils and a careful regime where the soil is rested for long periods to try to recover. If you are in the modern world where land is expensive and there is pressure on you to do use (no time to rest it), or you want to use the space that is close to your backdoor not far away in a forgotten back corner of your garden. Then double digging is not your best option.
There is a serious cost to double-digging. Put bluntly, double-digging does irreparable damage to your soil. Double-digging
- kills the micro-organisms in the soil. The dead creatures make double digging so amazingly productive. Their little bodies become instant fertiliser for the crops.
- damages the structure of fragile soils and tempts erosion due to weathering by water and wind.
- can bring up the useless, hard clods of subsoil unless you are digging on a rare fertile flood plain.
- has a high risk of erosion from the moment vegetation is removed or hard-hoofed animals are put to graze. The typical Australian soil is only centimeters deep. This risk is amplified by the process of digging.
- releases carbon into the atmosphere.
Digging can be satisfying.
We can buy a fruit tree, dig a hole and put the tree in the ground. In a short time the tree may be fruiting and voilà we have the start of a food forest. Or do we? A real food forest captures condensation (more condensation can come to your garden than rainfall). A Permaculture forest builds soil. Condensation is trapped and rainfall stored in the soil. Water is used and re-used. Organisms are nurtured not sacrificed. A good permaculture forest design optimises the use of natural energies and serves to increase the health of the soil. Healthy soil gives us healthier trees and more nutritious fruit.
What Soil Really Wants
Good soil has 5 components:
- Air (digging does increase the air, but so do worms)
- Water (digging can increase water penetration) but if not designed well it can lead to erosion
- Micro-organisms (digging kills many of these). Mulching provides them habitat
- Nutrients (plants including weeds can mine for nutrients and make good air pockets with their long roots) Biochar can boost the nutrients in the soil as well as increase habitat for micro-organisms.
- rock or other growing media such as recycled brick.
Healthy soil grows in height over the years. We can see the somewhat gruesome evidence of this in ancient graveyards where the ground level has risen.
Jerry Glover displays the impressive roots of grasses versus grain
What could be more satisfying than Digging?
Simple No-dig Gardens
No-dig gardens can be designed to capture and filter the rain-water and protect the soil and micro-organisms from erosion. No-dig gardening
- is physically easier and faster to set up
- suppresses weeds
- can regenerate soil (fertile, rocky, sandy or solid clay)
- requires less effort
- uses waste materials and
- evolves into a beautiful garden
Our abundant little no-dig garden perches on rock-solid subsoil that could not be dug by man or woman.
No dig gardening requires a little patience but the soil is regenerated, fertility is enhanced and the organisms are constantly building in numbers.
Joyous Songs of Worm Charmers
There are many traditional farming techniques where the nutrients and organisms in local forests are brought to their fields to ‘seed’ worms and nutrients into the fields to improve fertility. Some people have turned it into a quirky sport like worm charming.
Have fun learning about healing the earth with a permaculture course.
Welcome to our new series on permaculture renting, in which we attempt to grow food and live a simple life while moving from rental to rental at the whim of landlords + Australian housing prices. Yay!
So we’ve been off the farm just over a year now. We’ve just moved into our second rental house, as the first one went on the market, so we got the boot (thanks, Australian housing price bubble + negative gearing).
But i feel like we’re learning fast the tricks of permaculture renting. Including the lesson of if you want to eat it, grow it now. Like, right now.
Last time we grew veggies in quantity, we took the long view of building up our soil over years, using succession, improving things slowly, bit by bit.
We did this because we wanted to take a gentle path to land stewardship + long term soil health. And also because our budget was limited, so the slowly slowly technique of soil building made sense.
And we could take this attitude because we owned the land we were growing on (or Nick’s parents’ did, anyway). And we did a good job – by the time we left that land, the market garden’s soil was pretty damn fine, considering what we started with.
But here where we are now we’re on a 12 month lease, or maybe 24 month, if we’re lucky. And once we leave this little cottage + lawnspace, it will likely be ‘renovated’ to the point of total rebuild.
My point is that soil stewardship, in our current context, is not about prioritising the long term crumb structure over shorter term harvests, because in a year or two our gardens will likely be underneath the concrete floor of a new pool room.
That said, there’s no reason why we can’t create great soil here to grow in.
It’s just that we’ll take the high human energy input route, rather than the no-dig long-term veggie patch approach, when it comes to preparing our vegetable beds for planting.
It’s all about context. And now I think I’ve gone on long enough about our current one which is: Rental. Want food now.
To do this, we’re taking a biointensive gardening (ish) approach to this new rental garden.
Still organic, still soil stewardship, but relying on a heap of human energy inputs to get the growing system going, rather than primarily using soil biota + certain plant roots to de-compact the soil over a longer period of time.
And human energy we have. So let’s go.
We’ve started with an existing garden bed that was choked with couch grass, succulents and various mystery bits of metal. It was clear that this bed had not been tended to in many years.
Our first step, after weed removal, was double digging the bed.
Double digging is a great way to de-compact soil quickly and create a fine tilth for planting into, while retaining as much soil structure as possible for the benefit of the soil food web.
How to Double Dig a garden bed
The basic technique for double digging involves firstly dividing your garden bed into trenches. Making the trenches the width of the spade you’re using works well in a small context like our current one.
Then, in the first trench, take out the top 20 cm of topsoil and set it aside, out of the bed (this bit is important).
Then, grab a garden fork and aerate the subsoil in that trench by digging in and rocking back and forth – you’re not trying to upend any soil here, just open the structure up a bit.
In a larger context you could use a broadfork for this task, or if you’re working on the small, like us, a sturdy garden fork is fine.
Then, in the next trench, take off the top 20 cm of topsoil and plonk it into the trench you just dug.
Repeat the ‘topsoil off + into the previous trench, subsoil aerated’ until you run out of garden, then in the last trench, put your first trench’s topsoil back in as the last thing you do.
**Note – some folks add manure to the subsoil layer as they go in this technique, and some don’t. We didn’t for this bed, but we will for some future beds, to observe the difference.
Decompaction done! And with a free workout. Win.
Here’s what our soil looked like once we’d finished:
After that, we mapped out some keyhole paths to make double-reach planting areas in the bed, and built them out of bricks we found down the side of the house.
This path approach is not exactly biointensive style (boards over the tops of the beds are more commonly used) but we figured this solution would be more kid-friendly for whole family harvesting + planting.
Also, digging out the paths meant we could use the extra topsoil where we dug out on the beds. Excellent.
So – paths in, we raked the topsoil’s surface to break up any big clods.
Finally, we got planting winter green things: fennel, rocket, broad beans, radish, carrot, beetroot, lettuce and brassicas.
Not bad for an afternoon’s work.
From here on in for garden beds, we’re going to be ‘turning the lawn into lunch’ – so a slightly different approach to bed prep, but with the same result.
Beautiful home-grown green things, to supplement our family + friends’ food supply, and to contribute to crop swaps, if we get a glut.
It’s beginning to feel like home around here.