Soil: Digging is the best method of primary cultivation

Question: I have a good load of short old muck. I have always dug it in by hand, but am now wondering if I should spread it over the land and hire a rotavator to get it into the soil. In your opinion, what would be the most beneficial as far as feeding the plants and the fertility of the soil. Also, any points for or against either method. We grow potatoes, parsnips, carrots, red beet, leeks, onion sets, peas, broad beans, radish, lettuce, runner beans and courgettes. This is also to help with my query about spreading ground chalk. My land is very light. Thank you. (G Appleton, via email)


Soil cultivation or digging may be hard work but, if taken slowly, it need not be back-breaking. Digging is very good for improving the structure of the soil, by alleviating compaction and allowing the incorporation of manure and other fertilisers.

The best organic gardeners practice the no-dig methods which is a method of applying layers of compost and mulch to the soil and encouraging worm activity to pull this material into the soil and do the digging for you. In tests this has yielded much better results than either digging or rotavating.

Digging is the best method of primary cultivation and could also be carried out by a mechanical rotavator.

Light sandy soils are best dug in spring. However, digging can be carried out from autumn to spring, as long as the soil is not waterlogged or frozen.

Because digging leads to moisture loss, complete it before the warm spring weather arrives.

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Although I would always favour hand digging over the use of a rotavator, if you have a large plot you could consider hiring a mechanical rotavator to do the cultivation for you if time runs short. Light soils can be handled by a two to five horse power model, but hard or heavy soil needs a larger model. Rotavating wet soil is extremely damaging and can cause pans (hard layers under the soil); wait for drier conditions.

Rotavators are often seen by new allotment holders as a marvellous way of clearing the plot. They do have their advantages but not as many as you might think. To use one, you have to pull and push it backwards and forwards, which is very painful on the shoulders, even if it saves backache from normal digging. It will not dig as deep as traditional spade digging (especially if you double-dig) and, more annoyingly, will chop up the roots of any plant it meets.

For normal grass this is probably fine, but for couch grass, anything that can regenerate from tiny root sections like thistles, bindweed, dandelions, docks and ground elder, it simply makes the problem many times worse.

So unless you are sure you don't have any of the above or are willing to go through the ground after rotavation to hand-remove all roots, beware!

•This article was first published on February 18, 2012.