To dig, to double dig or to not dig at all! – Improving your Soil.

Turning the soil (single dig method):
As my plot was covered in browning weeds after the spraying of weed killer I decided on a labour intensive strategy (but in my mind a key one) which was to remove the largest clumps of weeds and to dig the majority of the plot. I also had a Mares Tail issue so I had to comb out the black roots as I turned.


The easiest method to dig and turn over the soil manually is to dig a trench along one side of the plot. Start by digging a trench at least a spade wide and as deep as you can or at least a spade deep.


Keep the soil you have excavated in a wheelbarrow or move it up to the opposite end [the finish line] of the area you will be digging.
After which, stand facing the trench, take half a step back and dig down, turning the soil into the trench. Continue moving horizontally down the trench throwing the soil into the trench space until you have reached end. Move back a half a step and repeat the process moving yourself back along the trench the opposite way.
Eventually you will reach your initial removed soil from your first trench/the finish line and the whole area would have been turned. This is single digging and the hardest part will be the initial trench dig!
Double Digging:
To double dig an area, it is very similar to the above process. I found the only real difference is that you need to start with a larger initial trench.
After you have dug your trench, use a fork to dig down a further fork depth. Then when you are turning over, again turn your soil over and then go down another spade depth or fork depth to break up the sub-soil.
This is why this process is called “double digging”. It is about as labour intensive as the usual digging method but takes a fraction longer. It is mainly used when you have a really compact sub-level.
No-Dig:To implement a no-dig method into your garden/plot is a fairly simple process. You need to lay down a layer of cardboard (try to find the corrugated version – tear each sheet in half so that the corrugated sides are exposed). Then you cover the cardboard in the good stuff…compost.
To plant in a “no-dig” you just make small holes in the soil and try to disturb the sub-layers as little as possible.
You can also use a Lasagne method to cover your cardboard (which is cheaper than using the compost). Cover the cardboard in layers of green material, brown, minerals and compost and water well. This will naturally rot down over time and become a very good growing medium.
For my plot, I have a number of different areas where I will be trying different types of Dig, double dig and no-dig methods to see the differences.
Here is a list of the positives and negatives of each different method, I have experienced so far:

Single Dig:
Positives

  • Quick (once started)
  • No specialised soil or equipment (other than a spade)
  • Low costs for immediate result
  • Incorporates green organic material into the soil

Negatives

  • Disturbs soil ecosystem
  • Doesn’t touch the sub-soil
  • Doesn’t help with levelling
  • Leaves large clumps in clay soils which need breaking up

Double Dig:
Positives

  • Assists with drainage into sub-soil
  • Aerates the soil deep to allow roots to find new minerals
  • Not much more effort than single digging
  • Incorporates green organic material into the soil

Negatives

  • Greatly Disturbs soil ecosystem
  • Churns dormant weed seeds in the soil to the surface which causes a lot of weed sprouting a week later
  • Doesn’t help with levelling an area
  • Leaves large clumps in clay soils which need breaking up

No Dig (cardboard & compost)**:
Positives

  • Keeps the soil ecosystem and doesn’t disturb
  • Plants grow into the new material on top and cardboard helps keep weeds down
  • Easiest and lowest manual labour of all methods
  • Quickest to set up, (if you’ve got the materials/budget)

Negatives

  • Very large requirement for Compost/cardboard
  • Does not allow removal of perennial weeds with large roots like Mares Tail, so greater need to weed in the beginning to reduce these root weed strength.
  • Doesn’t amend existing soil (should you have drainage issues etc)
  • Some cardboards contain glues that you may not wish to introduce into your garden

**I have yet to try to No-dig method with layering green materials and compost, I can imagine it will have similar positives and negatives to the above.**


Whilst using both digging methods, it is a good time to include organic matter (if you have some to hand). If you are introducing more materials whilst digging, again make a larger starting trench as you will be introducing more material as you go. The top soil should form around 6 to 8 inches deep and this contains most of the organic material.


For my plot, I initially used a double dig method – left the soil for a few weeks to allow the weather to work its magic on the large clay lumps and turned about 3 times with single digging to open up the clay soil and allow oxygen into the soil. As more air is allowed into, the soil and vegetation turned in starts to compost very quickly. Before planting in spring I will likely turn the soil one more time introducing fresh compost, which will assist the plants in the growing season. This year [after the first full harvest], I may turn to using some cover crops in areas – I will write about this in the Cover Cropping later in the year.


For an area using a no-dig method, keeping on top of weeding is a priority. You can use cut and drop methods (pull the weeds gently and simply drop these on the surface). By doing this regularly you reduce the energy in any roots by constantly stopping new growth, eventually the roots should run out of energy and start to compost themselves. Another good layering of composting will assist before planting. There is no need to turn this into the soil, simply keep adding compost to the area over time.

First Steps: Tackling the Plot and Clay


Okay, plot acquired!
The chairman suggested I leave the plot for two weeks to “let the weed killer do its work” and as it had already been one week since I was supposed to view the plot, this meant that from the following weekend, I could start investigating the soil and tidying the plot.

 “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”

Benjamin Franklin

The first steps I took planning the plot:


1. Positioning:
Check the compass directions. Traditionally it is advised that for vegetable beds it is a good idea that you try to run (if you plant in rows) with the rows running North to South. This allows the maximum amount of shared sunlight on rows as the sun follows its East to West path.


2. Drainage:
My plot is on a slope, so I dug a number of holes around the plot at top and the bottom. I filled each hole with a few buckets of water to see how long it takes them to drain. This lets you figure out the drainage of the plot. If the water remains for more than a couple of hours, the soil is waterlogged with poor drainage. Waterlogged soil is generally not great. It causes conditions like root rot and will not be ideal for growing. To improve you will have to open the soil up and possibly dig in some rocks/stones or sand (be careful with sand as this could have the adverse effect). If the hole drains too quickly (like immediately), you have too much drainage and in summer, plants will dry out very quickly. To remedy, organic matter is your friend and possibly a surface mulching will help hold in moisture.


3. What is your Soil PH:
Next thing should be a simple PH and soil test. Depending on what you wish to grow, different plants do better in different PH levels. You can get a kit online for cheap – thank you Amazon! Ideally, for an all-round grower a neutral or slightly acidic soil suits most things (so around the 7PH mark is what you should be aiming for). You can add soil improvers or lime if you need raise your PH and rainwater is slightly acidic in nature. If you have a very alkaline soil, then some sulphates are a good way to raise it or regular doses of manure/watering with rain water is a good way to adjust over time.

4. Determining Soil type:
There was not a real need to see what kind of soil I had…it was obviously not sandy, it was very, very much clay. To test your soil, just dig up a bit and just squish some soil in your hand, if it falls apart it is sandy, if it rolls into a ball it is clay. If it easily forms a ball it is very clay like. Changing a heavy clay soil into something nicer to grow in or a sandy soil (into one which holds water better) is pretty much the same process. Add organic matter by the barrow! I would not advise mixing in sand to clay as this could simply result in turning your clay patch into something closer resembling cement! For the amount of sand needed to clear a clay area you need a lot more sand than clay and this is not generally economically viable. I will talk about changing your soil and soil care later in the blog in more detail.

5. Observing your Sun spots or Shady traps:
Next, just simply watch or take a time capture video. This will show you which areas which receive the most sunlight and which areas are shady. For me I figured about 100% of my plot received the morning sun and in summer at around noon, the southern side was in shade and only 30% of the plot had sun for the afternoon. So the North east side will be the best place to grow any sun-loving veg like cucumbers and tomatoes. The southern side will be better for plants, which appreciate a bit more shade or are sun sensitive like lettuce or garlic.

6. Plotting the area:
Lastly, measure your plot. I simply took a tape measure out and measured my plot areas. My plot was around 17m long and 7m wide, it was not quite square as it was wider at the top than it was at the bottom but at least this gave me the gist to be able to estimate the number of plants we would be able to grow in each ‘growing section’.

7. Designing your space:
Okay, so now I had a good idea about the directions, soil conditions, scale, drainage and light conditions. It was time to design the plot.On a simple piece of paper where 1cm = 1m I drew up a number of designs. Next was back to the research. It was time to find what I wanted to grow; looking at the soil types and number of plants to figure out what could go into each ‘growing plot’.

The Start of a journey…

In recent years, I have witnessed and come to appreciate, a wider acceptance and desire for home-grown produce and growing using organic sustainable methods. There is an infinite source of information now appearing online, concerning new techniques being trialled and tested to drive a “cleaner” and “greener” growing methods as well as reduce waste, heavy pesticides and commercially produced fertilisers to ‘protect our future’.


Most of these innovative ideas appear to be working to some degree on large scales globally as people revisit traditional practices and take ownership as well as responsibility to culture the soil. On large scales and with massive amounts of investment, organic and conscientious farming is becoming possible as consumers have a greater appreciation of where their food is coming from.However, for me, reading about/researching these new ideas and appreciating their success, this got me thinking about how to scale ideas and put into practice some suggestions on a much smaller (and affordable) scale.

Living in London there is not much room to grow your own and live like people who make their living running smallholdings and farms.My garden is small. It is very shady in spots. It is 99.99% concrete. However, one cold weekend in January looking at an aerial picture of my area around my house online (searching for somewhere to order some nice hot takeaway), I noticed a large green area just across the road. Zooming in an “interest pin” appeared and the word “Allotment” in the name.Hence, about 10 minutes later and some more research, I had come through a clunky website and subsequently sent a form in to the allotment association who appeared to have a range of plots across the road. This was January 2019.


Having an old-fashioned idea in my head had very little knowledge on Allotments, who knows what was in this mystery green area hidden just a few minutes from my house. To me an allotment is something rare in London and from what I had read about, they have ridiculously long waiting times spanning years before you even have the possibility to rent one – do you even rent it or do you have to buy it? I had no idea around sizes of plots, costs, possibilities, ownership or anything. The remainder of January came and went. So did February. As time moved on, my email form was nearly forgotten about, until I received a reply a few month later in May. It was the Allotment Association.

Apparently, it took a while for my form to reach them, as the website was not working as expected (based on the sites appearance – it took me back to nostalgic memories of websites in 1999). As they had received a number of applicants, they had already confirmed with a couple to meet on Saturday 11th May, however if they finish early, they will give me a ring and I could come and view a plot.


Excellent. Why not? Time to ask questions.


Unfortunately, they did not finish early and I did not receive a call. Later that day I did however receive a call from a lovely gentleman who agreed to arrange a meeting the following weekend. I was booked in!


“9am Saturday morning. Meet at the gate.”


This gave me a week to be thinking of the allotment. I had looked at the aerial picture again; planning my route for Saturday…but where is this gate? Trees are not an aerial pictures ‘friend’! I couldn’t see any obvious entrances to the site.This meant that is was time to do some reconnaissance…Embark! Ninja-mode! Aim was not to be caught and looking ‘too keen’ or reported for loitering.After work on-route home, I would try to find the mysterious fabled gate. I found a walkers path, which appeared to follow the boundary of the Allotments…perhaps it also had a gate. There was another option down a side road. In addition, there was a large mysteriously opening on a driveway. After all my ninja activities, – alas – I could not locate the front gate…or any entrance at all. Embarrassingly I penned an email to the Association. “Thank you for confirming our appointment on Saturday, however please could I have some instructions on where I shall be meeting you as I am unable to locate the gate. Many thanks.”


How embarrassing.


Shortly a response came…“Yes, the gate is well hidden. Please walk up X Road until you see a copse on the left. There is a small path on the left and the gate is there past the last house.”Hmm. At least they know the gate is “well hidden” but what mysterious instructions…luckily I knew what a copse is. Thinking back to my aerial scoping, there are groups of trees everywhere in my area. Especially it seems around this allotment site! I went full detective mode again. This time, I tried a different route. I was getting warm. I found a small road, which definitively lead to the boundary fence as I could see the allotments about 10 yards on the other side. I must be close. That was enough reconnaissance for now.


To cut a long story short, Saturday came and off I lead a group of my family members to see the potential historic allotment journey I was to start to embark on. Down the small road, I lead the merry band. Only it turned out to be completely wrong again and the small road only lead to a garage. Eventually, after one of my party asked a friendly neighbour out cleaning his car (who lived with their garden backing onto the allotment) where the gate is…and they didn’t even know, I decided to phone the Allotment people for assistance. Whilst on the phone I managed to locate my allotment guide and finally – the Mysterious gate. Surprisingly, the processes turned out simple. Greeted by the ‘Chairman’, ‘Treasurer’ and ‘Head Grounds Keeper’ I followed them around making small talk and viewing the other already in use plots.


Turns out that they have been using the grounds and maintaining these plots for over a quarter of a century (at least). As such, I received a full history on my plot. Shadowed by four large oaks the plot had been dark for the last decade or so. Hence, the previous user had only really used the plot to grow a staggering amount of potatoes for the last 5 years. However last year, one of the oak trees had come down due to having rot in a bad storm, narrowly missing a greenhouse was no longer on the plot, and now thankfully some light can come though around mid-day. The soil (like most of South London) is clay. Very Heavy Clay.The plot had grass walkways around it which were maintained, as and when. The previous owner had used “organic” growing methods…but due to the plot having been left for some time they had sprayed the whole plot with weed killer – not ideal, as I had no idea what sort of “weed killer” was used.


Either way, costs and plot were of a decent size so I did not need to think about it for too long and promptly agreed. They were a little cautious of me, warning me about the amount of “work” owning a plot takes – I was just turning 30 and work pretty much 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday, so this was going to be my weekend thing. I was undaunted by the prospect and after I had done some convincing, they all agreed to allow me to take the plot.


Therefore, the journey begins.

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