I do not dig soil. I do not advise others to dig either. All you have to do is pick up any garden manual, or go to any garden course, and the first chapter or hour will be on “digging”, and so called “experts” will tell you how important it is to dig the soil in order to aerate it and fill it with nutrients and so on.
I have really good steel Burgon and Ball garden tools from Sheffield, made in Great Britain, and they are possibly some of the finest garden tools in the land. But I only use them constructively, not to damage the existing eco-system, but to enhance it.
With fifteen years of professional gardening experience now under my belt, I can assure you that it is very important to aerate soil, particularly hard, compacted clay soil, and, of course, it is extremely important to introduce humus or compost matter as well. But God has sent creatures to do all the digging work for you, and they are called worms, bacteria and funghi. You need to encourage all these living organisms which are present, in abundance, in the soil structure to do the digging for you, because they ingest, digest and excrete soil, feed off it, dig holes in it, turn it around and generally create a healthy habitat for more organisms to join them, breed and repeat the cycle. In order to do this you need to increase the fertility of the soil.
What I do each autumn is I fork a good layer, at least 5 cm. of well rotted farmhouse or stableyard manure, or leaf mould, or compost, or all of the above on my bare borders or vegetable garden. In the autumn I always collect the leaves I have raked from the garden and place them in sacks. They then rot away and decompose into compost.
I also add other things to my cocktail of goodness: ashes from the fire, moss that I scrape off the roof tiles or off the grass (making sure there are no grass roots there), some straw, some fish, blood and bone maybe or some other organic form of slow release fertiliser, as well as some horticultural grit to improve drainage. I then walk away. The frosts, the cold, the rain and all the organisms will break down the natural matter and all the nutrients will seep into the soil. Mother nature has worked this way for millennia. Who are we to dig up trouble?
Gardening is a patient art. You cannot expect good, rich soil in a year. It can take many years to achieve a good, loamy, crumbly, soft, dark, rich soil structure. The following year, in very early spring I repeat the process, so I am getting nearer to my goal every year. The seasons pass, but there is always that familiar twice yearly cycle of feeding the soil and leaving it. There is a very good website called Wiggly Wigglers, www.wigglywigglers.co.uk, if you want to read all about composting, earthworms and how to enhance the fertility of your soil.
In mid-spring I plant all my seeds on top of the manure or compost, and crumble a bit more compost on top of the seeds, and then walk on them with my work boots so that they adhere to the soil and germinate. I water the plot or bed, and of course the mulch helps to retain water. Not only will you save yourself back pain, but you will also enjoy gardening more. If you dig soil you create trauma within its structure, you will destroy the delicately balanced eco-system within it, weed seeds lurking within it will be exposed to the light and in no time at all you will have lots of unmentionables growing in your garden. You will be making a rod for your own back. The less you interfere with Mother Nature, the more your garden will prosper and flourish.
To dig or not to dig? Don’t even think it!