Working the Soil

If plant roots are to perform their vital roles, providing physical support and taking in nutrients, moisture, and air, the soil must be hospitable to those roots. It should be friable, quick to crumble, and have good tilth, with a structure and texture that make it easy to cultivate.

Tilling generally refers to the deeper plowing and turning of soil, a process necessary for improving texture and working in amendments. Proper tilling incorporates amendments into the soil, improves structure, and eliminates weeds.

Cultivating—a term that refers to the whole process of preparing soils for crops—is often used more selectively to describe the hoeing or shallow turning of the soil surface to keep weeds from competing with desirable plants.

Selecting Tilling Tools

Small garden plots can be turned over by hand, using a shovel, spade, or garden fork. Larger plots require a rotarary tiller—or lots of time and energy. For more information, see Tools for Working the Soil.

Hand-Tilling Methods

If the soil is friable, just turn it in place. Push the shovel, spade, or garden fork into the soil with your foot, pull back to pry out a shovelful, then turn it over and drop it back in the hole with any weeds on the bottom. Prod or hit the clod to break it up before moving on to the next shovelful. A row of dug soil is called a spit.

If the soil is harder, dig a spit first by dumping the soil next to the spit, letting some spill back in. When you dig the next spit, it is easier to lift the soil because you’re taking it from the side of the spit. This method also breaks clods better as they tumble back down the slope.

Double-digging is digging two spits deep. It is more than twice as hard as digging one spit deep. Most gardeners only do it to one bed a year, or to the garden when they first establish it . . . or never at all!

To double-dig, load the soil from the first spit into a wheelbarrow and haul it to the far end of the garden, where it will be used to fill the last spit. Add amendments, if you wish, to the bottom of the spit, and turn it over to a spade-depth. Use the soil from the next spit to fill the first, and continue that way to the end of the garden, filling the last spit from the pile there.

Using a Rotary Tiller

Rotary tillers come in all sizes. The smaller ones are made for working in cultivated soil and won’t do a good job in soil that hasn’t been under cultivation before. To turn over soil for the first time, select a front-engine tiller as large as you can find. The larger the tiller, the easier the job for you. The weight of the tiller pushes it into the soil. All you do is steer.

If you’re not used to the tiller, make the first couple of passes where you have plenty of room, and the soil is level. Turns in corners and when the tiller is against an obstacle can be difficult, so plan well before going into a corner. The biggest tillers have reverse gears, which makes getting out of corners easy.