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To dig or not to dig


One summer, I had a compost heap at the back of the garden. I watered it occasionally, but neglected to turn it. One day I noticed large weeds sprouting. They were too large to ignore so I pushed my fork into the pile, to root them out, jumping when I found the pile wriggling with worms. Returning the worms to their home as best I could, I started to pull the weeds up by hand. ‘Hang on,’ I said, talking to myself, and I bent closer to look. Little white marbles were clinging to the weed’s roots, and the weed itself bore an uncanny resemblance to a potato plant. Straightening up, I saw in wonder that my compost heap was full of potato plants.

I had not dug a compost-rich trench for them. I had not hoed soil up around the stems to keep the top crop of potatoes from turning green. With no help from me, bits of uncooked potatoes, thrown on the heap last fall, had rooted and sprouted. My accidental contribution had been topping them up with fresh grass clippings, carrot shreds, and eggshells.

Now I knew what I had, I watered my potato plants diligently and propped them when they sagged. When their green leaves faded, I dug into the compost for their big, white, smooth-skinned potatoes as if I were digging for gold. They were profoundly delicious, and I ate them hot with butter and cold with olive oil.

This experience made me wonder what I knew about gardening. Still, if I had tried to plant potatoes again, I would probably have followed the rules and dug a trench, etc, etc. Now the Telegraph reports that Brits are looking more closely at the question of whether to dig or not to dig:

At Green, the Garden for Research, Experiential Education and Nutrition, in Stroud, Gloucestershire, three charities are reassessing centuries of practice by examining the effect of digging on nutrient levels in crops.

. . . The theory behind the research is that digging disrupts the relationship between soil micro-organisms and plants. This then reduces the flow of nutrients between them, resulting in lower levels of minerals reaching your vegetables.

. . .Among the micro-organisms under examination, special attention is paid to mycorrhiza, the invisible fungal network that penetrates plant roots and allows them better access to nutrients, while also conferring a degree of drought and pest resistance. "Modern gardening methods destroy mycorrhiza by turning its world upside down, drying it out and ripping it apart. . .”

Some plants may benefit from no-dig; others may not. Results are expected in 2009. I hope there is advice about planting as well as digging, unless the idea is to make our gardens compost heaps.

A few of the Brits who made radical contributions to agriculture can be found here in the Ingenious Timeline >

For more on English gardens >