Digging and weeding

Growing(Last edited )

I only dig when putting in new plants (many have been produced from cuttings). I weed by running the hoe over ground between shrub plants. This only removes top growth not roots so has to be done fairly often (about once a month).I try not to stand on the soil too much when doing this, but reach out standing on the paths. In herb areas I don't weed at all (don't know how successful this will be in the long term). I mulch about once a year with home produced compost.

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I have gone over everything with a large rotavator just once, to reduce compaction. Now I try and do minimum disturbance cultivation. Between plants I use a Dutch Hoe. Deep rooted weeds (brambles) get dug out.

I have planted long lived green manures to conserve soil and add body to the soil. Around the new fruit trees they get a mulch of shredded material - I have an industrial size shredder :-)

I'm unable to get manure but am doing my own composting, but it will never be enough. What I have noticed is that there are almost no worms anywhere. When I dug the 50 x50 x 50cm pit last week, I found just one, single solitary worm in a quarter cubic meter of soil!

Hi Norman, whether or not you find worms depends on lots of things:

1 - Soil texture: worms prefer loamy soil with good organic matter. Sandy or heavy clay soil may have fewer worms.

2 - Soil temperature and moisture; was it very dry or sopping wet? If so, expect fewer worms.

3 - Regular food - a regular input of organic material that can decompose is needed for good worm populations. This might be leaf-litter, or plant roots which die-back a bit when you trim the plants (e.g. mowing grass), or non-invasive weeds that you put back on the soil surface as mulch, or digging in that green manure (perhaps in patches so you do a bit at a time if you want to retain some green?).

4 - Disturbances like digging/flooding can also disrupt them. How long since you rotivated? They should recover in a few months if you have a supply nearby (e.g. some undisturbed ground).

5 - time of year. They can "hibernate" (aestivation) in the summer to avoid hot dry spells.

More info here https://medium.com/grow-observatory-blog/the-soil-jungle-beneath-your-feet-8564da2d15d6 and here https://medium.com/grow-observatory-blog/glorious-earthworms-7c0aed1a6f80.

That is quite a low number of earthworms but as Naomi says there are lots of reasons why that might be.

Numbers can also vary a lot over a small area, sometimes I might find 100 in a 25cm x 25cm soil pit and then a few meters away none at all. Have you seen any other signs of earthworm activity? Like casting on the surface or burrows.

I find worm casts but rarely see worms apart from in my compost .I have few endogeous worms (the pale almost colourless one that make horizontal burrows and I occasionally see the anecic lombric which are always impressive in size (In fact in looking for the English translation came across an interesting fact Lombricus terristris montepllieris - the local variiety can be as long as one metre!!) In my case i think it is the dryness of the soil which accounts for the scarcity of the endogenous ones

I have a real issue with docks and can only deal with them by excavating out. Refuse to use a weed killer as I don’t want the residue where I’m growing food. I’ve not yet used a green manure over winter but would welcome thoughts from people that do. Because our season starts late for veg, I likely won’t plant out till end of May (all starts in greenhouses )so am I too late to sew a green manure now and dig in late April ?

Hi Jane,

I sowed some green manure (Phacelia stala from Tamar Organics) in the polytunnel a couple of weeks ago and am planning to sow into my beds outside in the next week. It takes 4 weeks to be ready to dig in (or just before it flowers), so you should have plenty of time if you're not planning to plant until end of April.

You can also dig in patches where you're ready to plant so you don't have to dig it all in at once. I tend to dig in a week or so before I plan to plant so that it can start to breakdown and release nutrients.

I also always leave some to flower - it's so pretty, the pollinators love it, and it's easy to collect seeds for next year too.

I do not till but I do dig. As well as digging planting holes and testing holes I also use a garden fork to open compacted soil. However, I do not turn the soil over, as sunlight will kill the soil life and you will have to start from scratch to rebuild it, so when I open compacted soil I simply rock the fork back and forth for minor compactions and whack the ground with the back of it for major ones. As for weeding, I try to keep weeds at bay with mulching and with dense plantings (buckwheat is great for this) and I simply walk around the garden regularly and observe. This way I can pick weeds before they become a major hassle. It should be noted, however, that in many cases weeds are what the soil actually wants and you can learn much by observing what weeds grow on your site.

Weeds can be a problem if over invasive but so many of them have their importance .I have a lot of false rocket (diplotaxis erucoides) growing at the moment, the bees love it .When other plants come into flower I'll whip them up .I also have soft spot for thistles (silybum marianum) and always let a few of them grow - they are home to a cute little weevil called lixus angustatus(algirus). I look forward to the flush of poppies( papaver rhoeas )that really do invade but only for a short time . Weeds can be defined as the wrong plant growing in the wrong place .

I love the way you work, Robert!

Digging/no-digging is a balance between maintaining the soil structure for good root penetration (and air, water, nutrients) and not disrupting the soil microbiota, pore channels and so on. Turning over the soil also brings weed seeds to the surface which can result in more effort in the long run.

How much you might need to open up compacted soil will depend on your soil texture (e.g. clay soils more prone to compaction) and how you treat it - try to avoid walking on your beds or placing heavy objects on them. I try to have beds that I can reach all of without standing on. Where I can't, I'll put a flat stone in to stand on that and reach around.

For anyone not sure about soil structure and compaction, it's worth having a look at a few different soils to get a feel for it. Woodland soils tend to have a lovely crumbly structure (this is what you're aiming for) where they get a regular input of leaf litter, aren't trampled on, and have good worm activity. A heavily walked path will be compacted - it will break up into large lumps rather than finer crumbs. Agricultural soils which are ploughed will often have a reasonable structure up to the depth of the plough and then be very compacted - a "hard-pan." Allotment soils are often very lovely - a dark loam with good structure.

At this time of year, you can also make observations from the soil surface - plots that are left bare over winter are likely to have cracks in the surface and be more prone to erosion and leaching. Sometimes growers use the frost to help break up big clumps of soil, but there will be some losses from exposing it.

Happy observing and interacting everyone!

My first attempts at growing vegetables have been on a small plot in the local community allotments where I was learning by observing what others were doing. All my neighbors were digging and turning the soil over in autumn with spades. At the end of winter they'd break the bigger lumps till the soil was nice and crumbly. They'd weed using a two points tool which is especially effective with couch-grass as it helps pulling it away without breaking the roots. They'd leave the soil bare for the whole winter. I could never do such a neat job as those retired people, having a full time job and 2 little kids, so my plot was the one mostly covered in weeds and with big lumps of earth just dug over at the beginning of spring just in time to plant my crops. Now I left the allotment and work in our backgarden which I dug once to remove the lawn of couch-grass and I weed it as a meditation exercise as often as I can (never often enought). I'm interested in learning more about green manure too keep the soil covered and to add nutrients.