We be diggers here.

Rain after the drought

It is raining here which is a relief, for once. North Taranaki, where we live, is not known for droughts so over two months without significant rain was heading to critical territory. Mark was worrying about fire potential because we have chosen to leave grazing pasture long and also in the meadow with all its very dry material. Taranaki is better known for flooding than fire.

We have been lucky to have fairly gentle rain to soften the ground first. The problem with drought-hardened ground is that torrential rain just flows across it like a sheet of water, without being absorbed. It has been interesting looking at the absorption of the rain so far. Where the ground is compacted, yesterday’s rain had only soaked the top centimetre or so. But the areas of garden that are extremely well cultivated and friable have absorbed the water right down.

We are diggers here and still like to work the soil. I have always been a bit suspicious that the current craze for no-dig gardening might have more to do with people not wanting to exert themselves on the end of a spade or shovel. I am particularly dubious about those who use the death toll of worms cut by the spade as an excuse not to dig when all the while, they will sit down to a dinner of tasty steak. Chances are that it was more traumatic for the beef beast, lamb, pig or even chicken to be brought to the dining table than for the occasional worm that had its tail cut off or met its end for the digging of the garden.

The other reason I often read is that digging should be avoided because it ‘destroys the structure of the soil’. Certainly you don’t want to be bringing the substrata and clay layers to the top, but you can dig without doing that.

Rotary hoeing one of the new borders to break up heavily compacted ground

Mark has always dug his vegetable gardens, on the principle that vegetables need to be able to get their roots out as easily and quickly as possible in order to grow well. We have applied the same principle to the new gardens we are making. They are on ground that had been heavily compacted over the years, covered by weed mat and nursery plants for about three decades with every centimetre tramped over repeatedly by heavy-footed humans. Mark rotary hoed it for me first. I then raked and contoured the beds, digging yet again when it came to planting. We mulched some of it after planting but ran out of both compost and wood mulch so some areas missed out.

In the time since, I have gone over and over the bare surfaces with my little Wolf-Garten cultivator, scuffing off the germinating weeds. The thing about thick layers of mulch is that they suppress germination but do nothing to kill the dormant seeds that can last a very long time in the ground. I like to think that every round I do that dislodges germinating weeds is another rash of unwanted seeds dealt to. It should save time and effort in the long term. Mark has been saying in encouraging terms that the layer of loose soil on top that I am constantly cultivating acts as something of a mulch layer, protecting the deeper layers from drying out so quickly.

Left to right: my excellent Joseph Bentley border spade with its oak handle, Mark’s prized Planet Junior that he uses to cultivate the soils in his vegetable patches and the smart Wolf-Garten cultivator

The rains have also demonstrated clearly that the very well cultivated and friable areas have benefited the most with their capacity to absorb far more moisture. We will remain diggers here in areas where we are growing perennials, biennials and vegetables and some of the areas with bulbs. Established trees and shrubs do not benefit from having the ground beneath cultivated, but many other plants will reward you with increased vigour and improved performance.

Treat yourself to a decent spade, is my advice.

Earlier related posts include ‘The answer, as they say, lies in the soil’ on the importance of getting your soils right for healthy gardens and ‘Raised beds and to dig or not to dig, that is the question’ which I wrote before it even occurred to me that digging has the added benefit of enabling the ground to absorb a great deal more precipitation.

As a postscript, I googled ‘diggers’ and came up with this Wikipedia entry. “The Diggers were a group of Protestant in England, sometimes seen as forerunners of modern anarchism and also associated with agrarian socialism and Georgism.” Not that we are Protestant. Nor do we see ourselves as radicals, let alone anarchists but we have some sympathy for those early socialist principles and a belief in a more egalitarian society. Diggers we will remain.

5 thoughts on “We be diggers here.

  1. tonytomeo

    Were you the one who explained the inappropriateness of a racial term for Italian immigrants earlier? It think it was someone in England; but I do not remember. I got in some serious trouble years ago for using the term ‘digger’ too. It was in regard to the native ‘digger pine’, which is also known as the ‘gray pine’, or Pinus sabiniana. Apparently, ‘digger’ was a very derogatory term for people of the native Chumash Tribe and related Tribes who dug for roots and tubers. I seriously did not know that. Nor have I met anyone besides the person who complained who was offended by the term.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      No, I merely raised my eyebrows at the white supremacy bit! I thought diggers were something to do with some rather rough and ready Australian armed forces which is why I googled the term, only to find the original Diggers were way more radical an political. I guess it behoves all of us to be aware of terms that are deeply offensive to other groups but that can vary around the world.

      1. tonytomeo

        Oh, I forgot about the ‘white supremacy’ thing. Oh my! I did not know about Australian diggers. I am quite aware of the Italian immigrant term. After all, my name is Tony Tomeo. I just never found it to be offensive. I never worried about the ‘digger’ pine either, although I do now refer to it as the ‘gray’ pine, only because it happens to be an optional name.

  2. Peter Martin

    Abbie very interesting as always. In your recent blog you mentioned Monty Don -I think his Gardeners World on Choice is terrific and I am currently reading his book ‘Down to Earth’ which I bought through the RHS – it is very well written and highly informative – his introduction summarises his philosophy beautifully and I have reread it several times! I would highly recommend to everyone.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      We have terrific admiration for Monty Don’s skills as a presenter and identify with his gardening philosophy. We have never seen him in person or indeed read any of his writing, though. He is not always that strong on his technical stuff but it must be very hard to be put in a position where one is expected to be an expert on everything garden-related!


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