“To dig one’s own spade into one’s own earth! Has life anything better to offer than this?” (Beverley Nichols)
January is the digging month, or so the saying goes. But why has it got that reputation? Why do we try and dig the soil in a cold, wet, snowy month?
Perhaps the digging, working in and on the garden, is a celebration in itself, an acknowledgment that the days are getting longer now the Winter Solstice has passed (in the northern hemisphere anyway). Any small ray of sunshine, especially when it’s frosty, is a greater pleasure than in the summer, when we expect warmth.
The sun, casting low shadows through bare branches, shows us a different aspect of the garden, so long as we take the time to stop and look. Gardeners have time to stop and look when it’s January. Come March, unfinished digging takes on a manic bent as indoor seedlings grow apace, threatening to be ready for transplanting before the soil has become a fine tilth. But in January, there’s time a plenty to watch the Robin hopping ever nearer, wondering if a worm has been brought to the surface by the spade. There’s time to do the digging that you didn’t have time for in the late autumn.
Ideally the flower borders and vegetable beds were covered with organic mulch in the autumn so there was no bare soil. But if your soil isn’t perfect yet, then leaving that heavy clay exposed to the winter elements may be useful. In January the clods of clay soil can be roughly turned, knowing there will be a frost in a day or two, helping to break down the lumps into more manageable, friable soil. Add plenty of organic matter (OM), and if the soil is very heavy clay, add some grit as well, to help open it out and improve drainage. Too much wet is not so good for clay, as it soaks up the water like a sponge. Certainly if you have clay soil so wet it sticks to your spade like glue and looks like the stuff you used in pottery class then digging is forbidden until its drier.
Of course you may garden on a sandy soil. The winter rains will wash through your soil without any problem but they’re washing away precious nutrients at the same time. Adding lots of homemade compost will help with water retention. Sandier soils are often dug in the spring, but sometimes you run out of time with seeds to sow as well, so winter digging to incorporate organic matter is a worthwhile activity. Adding homemade or bought compost (both of these are OM) to the soil adds nutrients and increases worm & micro-organism activity. As well as facilitating water retention compost helps to lock the nutrients in to the soil so the plants can more easily access them. The options are to dig the OM into the soil at root level or to lightly fork it into the top layer of soil and let the worms and micro-organisms do the work for you.
Too much water and most plants will drown and die (unless they’re specially adapted like water lilies, for example). Plant death has been one result of the havoc caused by the many floods in 2012. Major flooding aside, you may, like some of our clients, garden in a high water table area, where the normal winter rains bring a period of standing water to your garden. This is where the ground has become so sodden that the water is unable to drain away.
A frequent problem in gardens with heavy clay soil, it can be resolved. A heavy clay soil will stick to your wellies when it’s wet and in a dry spring and summer it cracks. Add lots of OM and grit as an absolute minimum. We also suggest raised beds as being useful in these situations, as can terracing the garden if you’re on a slope. Extreme measures may mean incorporating land drains. Another solution is to grow plants which cope with and thrive in these conditions, although, truth be told, we find most clients prefer us to improve the growing conditions so they can enjoy a range of plants.
On a more prosaic note, may be digging in the garden has more to do with needing exercise to keep warm, if you have to be outside anyway; pruning is a more stationary task. Or perhaps in these modern times perhaps the digging is to use up calories we gained over the recent festivities. How many calories you burn depends, among other things, on your weight and whether the digging is ‘heavy’ or light’. As an example, at Plews, in an hour’s heavy digging, lightweight Marie would burn about 400 calories, whereas as larger, weight-training Nathan would use over 800. Both the workers would require chocolate biscuits from our nice clients though…
Resolving your gardening issues: Plews Garden Design: inspirational ideas; flexible solutions