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rehabilitating depleted beds – to dig or not to dig?

This week, I took advantage of the absolutely GORGEOUS weather we’ve been having and decided it was time to re-dig my “reclamation” bed from last year.

"reclaimed" bed

A little background – my first year gardening, I didn’t want to get in over my head by adding new beds so I just used the “mystery” bed already in my backyard.  I didn’t know what had been grown in it.  I didn’t know if it had ever been tested, fertilized, or supplemented in any way.  And I didn’t know enough about what I was doing to be able to wrap my mind around improving my soil health :P  So I plowed ahead, added a little top soil, planted my seeds, and everything did alright.  Granted, my tomatoes tasted a little acidic and I lost about a fourth of my zucchini’s to bloom rot, but all in all, it wasn’t bad for a first try.  This year, however, I’m trying to amp up the soil in the bed and figure out what nutrients it’s lacking so I don’t make the same mistakes.

My first step was to manure the bed last Fall and let it rest over the winter.  It mulched and weathered nicely so come Spring, I was forced to ask myself the age old question – “To dig, or not to dig.”

Here are some things to take in to account when deciding whether or not you need to redig/ double-dig your beds…

1) Type of New Bed Being Made
If you are making a raised bed from scratch, you have the ability to layer in the soil and organic material to make digging less desirable (click HERE for more info on how to prep raised beds).

If you are making a “traditional,” in-ground garden, double-digging is the way to go.  Click HERE for a link to a basic how-to guide on double digging fresh beds.

2) Soil Health of Existing Bed
If you are like me and having to “reclaim” a depleted bed without much organic matter to speak of, your risk of hastening decomposition by digging isn’t really a factor.  Granted, digging hastens this process less than say rototilling (just say no!), but either way, overly-disturbing your soil causes organisms living in the soil to work faster which means that nutrients are depleted more rapidly.  This in turn means more work for you and forces you to artificially try and maintain a healthy soil balance by additives.  Point, digging to incorporate nutrients might be the way to go in this situation.

If unlike me, your soil is already in a good state from previous years, the better option is to aerate/ loosen the soil using a garden fork (dig the fork down in to the bed and wiggle it back and forth a few times) while still maintaining the general “layers” of soil.  If you have questions about incorporating mulch, please see below…

3) What is Being Added to the Existing Bed
If you are adding new soil to a needy, raised bed, go ahead and dig lightly to mix in the new soil.

If you are wanting to add some sort of meal, most varieties can simply be racked in to the top 1/4 inch of the soil before seeds are planted.  No need to disturb the deeper soil levels – the nutrients will get there I promise!

If you added mulch the previous Fall and have a healthy bed, don’t worry about having to incorporate organic matter like leaves in to your soil per se.  Better to let incorporation happen organically as you garden.  If you are worried about the mulch being too deep for your starts, simply clear the mulch away from the rows until your plants are big enough for you to fill the mulch back in around them.

If you are wanting to to add compost, you have some options.  If your beds are needing quite a boost, go ahead and mix in the compost through double-digging BUT there are other options that don’t require you to dig such as broadcasting or raking.  The latter methods allow you to add nutrients to your soil without disturbing what’s already there.

Given my circumstances, digging to incorporate the manure deeper into the soil was the way to go.  So dig I did :)  I am still going to get the soil tested to see if I need to rake in any extra nutrients, meals, etc..  Stay tuned for more on soil testing in future posts!

P.S. While I was re-digging, I uncovered some perennial strawberries thriving under the mulch. I wanted to use the bed for other things so I just transplanted them to a new home! Hopefully they'll like it :)

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One comment on “rehabilitating depleted beds – to dig or not to dig?

  1. Marilyn Bailey
    March 23, 2012

    Thanks for the good ideas & info about digging/preparing beds. I’m in a rental that had 6 foot weeds in the back yard when we moved in. When they were finally cleared, I discovered two large raised beds and two small, the wood frames look very old. It’s been many years since anything has been planted in them, but I’m interested in filling them up with herbs, flowers & a few veggies. I’ll let you know how it turns out. xo

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This entry was posted on March 23, 2012 by in montana gardening journal and tagged , , , , .

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