Monday, September 1, 2008
The best tools punish us as they break up horrible soil: Max prefers the mattock to the digging bar
If you are a gardener in the Washington area, or if you have had occasion to dig a hole even, then you know how awful most of our soil is. Now this isn't universally true; there are places with great soil; you are luckly if your garden is one of these places, but the odds are against you. I remember working at a Nursery and seeing happy young couples, beginning gardeners, headed out with carloads of plants never suspecting that their soil was like concrete. I tried not to imagine what they felt when they put their foot down on the shovel that first time and not only did it not plunge into the ground, it barely made an impression on the surface. I picture them looking nervously back at dozens of plants and wondering..... Wow. Not good. At this point the choices include hiring someone else to do the digging, which could be expensive but has obvious advantages. Explosives, not very practical. Or retooling.
Two tools work well to penetrate exposed subsoil or baked clay: a cutter mattock and a digging bar. As the years pass and your gardening improves the soil you may find that a spade will be an adequate tool for digging a hole, but likely not from the outset. A cutter mattock is a pick-like tool that has two flat blades, one end like an adze, the other set crosswise so that it can function as an axe. You swing it like a pick. A digging bar is a heavy iron bar about 1" in diameter and ~6' long with a chisel point at the end that penetrates the ground and a small disc at the top to protect your palm. It is a heavy brutal tool and it can beat you up. You use it by raising it vertically and bringing it down with force (the weight of the tool itself provides a good bit of force). It penetrates the soil nicely and exercises your arms even more.
As years go by, the addition of compost or other organic matter combined with repeated surface cultivation will make your soil better. Trust me it really will. Add organic matter at every opportunity. In the meantime, take solace in the knowledge that clay soil, for all its disadvantages, does hold water well, and also grabs minerals that might percolate through a sandy soil keeping them in position for your plants when they are needed.
Posted by ChrisU at 4:52 PM