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How to Improve Garden Yields With Double Digging

When it comes to home gardening, we’ve probably hit “peak raised beds.” It seems almost everyone (except those stubborn old-fashioned farmers) has ditched row gardening and big spaces for tight little controlled boxes of heavily irrigated plants in perfect soil. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially considering how many people live in tight spaces without access to heavy equipment and lots of ground.

However, making a wood box isn’t the only way to grow crops in a small space. There’s another way that’s cheaper, requires almost nothing in terms of materials, and can yield a highly productive 4-foot x 8-foot bed in an hour or so (if you have a good back).

What is this magical Third Way?

Double dug “biointensive” gardening, baby. Get ready to bust some sod.

The complete biointensive approach is perfect for getting a productive garden going on the cheap. In fact, it’s been used in Kenya and elsewhere for that very reason. Based on the pioneering work of English master gardener Alan Chadwick and improved upon by John Jeavons, this method relies on double-digging, compost, and close planting of veggies to keep the soil loose, fertile, and moist. John Jeavons’ book Grow More Vegetables is a wealth of information on this method.

However, you don’t have to buy into the whole biointensive thing in order to learn a lot from it. Some of its tenets—like super-close planting, frequent watering, 5-foot wide beds, and novel approaches to spacing and fertilization—are not part of my routine. But there is one aspect that really, really impressed me when I tested it out, and that was double digging. Double digging is powerful stuff.

Why Double Digging Works

When we look at our garden plants, we tend to think about only what we see. If the growth aboveground is green and happy, great! Unfortunately—that’s only half the picture. Root growth is very important to the health of a plant and its ability to withstand drought stress, find nutrients, and keep itself supported.

When you use a tiller, you’re really only ripping up the top 6 inches or so of the ground. Beneath that, the soil might remain hard and unyielding to plant roots. The deep mulch method (also known as lasagna gardening or the “Ruth Stout” method) can loosen soil over time by attracting worms that aerate for you—but if you really want to get your gardens going in a hurry, double digging is the way to put food on the table ASAP. It also doesn’t require you to find great big piles of organic matter.

Did you realize that some veggie roots will penetrate as deeply into the ground as you are tall? You’d never know when you yank up a little plant, but the complete collection of its roots were much more impressive than just what you see. Loosen the soil deeply and much more water and nutrients become available to the ever-searching roots of your veggies. Plus, having air in the soil is a good thing—roots need to breathe, as well.

With moderate watering and weeding, double dug gardens do very well. I was quite pleased with the results the first time I tried the method, especially since I wasn’t sure how well double digging would work in my sandy yard. Six months after I double dug my initial beds and three months after I harvested them, the soil, though weedy, was still fluffy and loose. A year later, and they were still softer than the surrounding ground. A bit of weeding and raking, and I planted them again.

How to Double Dig

Haven’t double dug before? You’re in for a good workout. Here’s how to go about it:

  1. Attack and remove the weeds from a patch of ground. I usually shoot for beds that are 4′ wide and as long as is convenient. Clear the ground and toss aside nutsedge roots, rocks, old boots, beer cans, and other debris.
  2. Make a foot-deep trench across your prospective bed’s width and put the dirt in buckets or in a wheelbarrow.
  3. Loosen the dirt in the bottom of that trench with a spading fork or turn it over with your shovel to the depth of another 12 inches or so.
  4. After that, dig up the adjoining strip of virgin ground and turn it into the first trench as you go, continuing to dig and loosen to a depth of 24 inches all the way until you get to the last row.
  5. At that last row, dump in the extra dirt from the first one and—voilà!—you have a beautiful, loose patch of soil, all ready for seeds or transplants.
  6. If you want to add compost (which is always a good idea) or well-rotted manure, do so by pitching some into each trench before covering with soil from the next strip.
  7. With proper double digging, the patch ends up about 6 inches higher than the ground around it. The fluffiness and tilth beats the living daylights out of anything you can do with a rototiller. After this work, don’t step on it! Avoiding soil compaction is key to higher yields. When roots grow easily, plants thrive.

Another method that I find even easier is to use my Meadow Creature to break the sod and loosen the soil at the same time. Then I pull the weeds from the cracked soil and use a grub hoe to shape my beds. Like this:

It’s not “true” double digging, but it’s much easier and still gets the soil loosened to 14 inches, which is much better than a tiller.

Once your bed is prepped, go ahead and plant it. Your plants will appreciate your hard work—and reward you with some darn good yields.

No carpentry required!

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This post was written by David The Good

COMMENTS(5)

  • Scott Sexton says:

    The Meadow Creature is amazing. Now I can grow weeds twice as tall and twice as fast.

  • deejcve says:

    I’m going to try this. I remember the first year when we moved to our current home I dug deep to get the soil really loosened up. That year we had good results from our garden. The past 2 years I have had more physical limitations and haven’t been able to get out and dig as much. At the end of the first year my brother-in-law had used his rototiller and gone over the garden after the produce had all been harvested, but I haven’t really been able to accomplish much since. As a result, the past 2 years of gardening has been very sparse, regardless of how much attention, water, weeding, etc., I’ve been doing.

  • bmaverick says:

    David, a good write up. However, the old adage is location location location. Some parts of the country, DD will just get you solid clay. Typical of this is in most of the states in the north around the Great Lakes. 4-6 inches and that is all you get before it’s solid clay. Out in the northern mid-west, you get sand sand sand. Sand pulls the soil nutrients way down into the water table. This is a big reason why commercial farming each year spreads the chemicals onto the land as a quick fix for Ag. They didn’t call the mid-west Dust Bowl for nothing.

    Soil is a funny thing from location to location. It’s best to understand what is there and how to analyze to right approach.

    As we get closer to leaves falling soon, it would be great to read the leaves and know how to change the soil for good vs. chemicals.

    1. T. Michael Smith says:

      Originally I am from The Mississippi Delta Region where the soil is rich and black. It really is the best dirt I have ever worked with. Nutrient Rich and it required little watering. It didn’t matter how we planted there plants just flourished. Today I live in an area with soil that has been ruined by Mega Farming. It is mostly Red Clay as far deep as you can get. So I am having to amend the soil. It was probably cotton fields before it grew corn and soybean. Because of this I know, I can’t grow corn on this farm. GMO corn and soybean is grown around here.
      The Double digging metho

      1. T. Michael Smith says:

        The Double digging Method I believe will be the best way to grow in this new environment. I will obviously need to add lots of compost to the soil to create a soil suitable for growing without the use of commercial fertilizers. Turning this farm into a sustainable homestead is going to take incorporating every bit of knowledge I have and that I glean through others. I too, prefer not to overwork my weld. I am looking forward to not using a tiller anymore. It just beats the crap out my body. A digging fork or the Meadow Creature instead.

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