The Big Dig

Big Dig

This is not a post about the civil engineering megaproject to put a massive road underground in Boston. This is a post about spending a very satisfying day with a gang of friends and family ‘heaving hoe’ in our garden.

We commissioned our friend Amanda Dennis to come up with a design for our garden. As it was, the garden was almost completely paved over, with three lifeless beds and a couple of rampant but fruitless grape vines. Amanda took our rough notions of what we wanted where, and turned them into a beautiful pencil, ink and watercolour design, accompanied by a timetable for action. Number one on the agenda: lift those paving stones and give the soil some love.

Soil is fascinating stuff. It can tell so many stories; it is full of metaphorical meaning; full of things left behind – forgotten about. We dug a test pit a few weeks back and found compacted stony soil over patches of broken brick. Probably a load of construction waste covered over by a thin layer of soil, and then squashed by paving stones for twenty years.

Amanda’s proposed medicine for this sick patient: double dig the beds and single dig the area pegged out for grass. Recognising that this was going to be no easy job, we put out a call for volunteers among friends, family, and also Highbury Timebank, to spend a day digging in return or breakfast, cake, lunch, cake, tea and beer. This is a formula that works well down at Hazel Hill where we work on conservation weekends, and it seems to have worked well for us: in the end we were seven in total (see this previous post from Hazel Hill)

Double-digging is apparently character-building. Now I know why. It starts with digging a trench along the edge of a bed to two spades’ depth. Then, you dig another trench adjacent to the first, putting the soil from the second trench into the first, and incorporating any additional materials (sand, grit, compost) as you go. And so on with the third trench. Effectively you are turning the soil over to two spades’ depth, breaking it up, incorporating air and nutrients.

Not so easy in our rubble-filled garden. Every trench needed to be worked at with a mattock (a terrifying tool at first wield) and the soil, when it is dug out, needs to have the largest stones removed before going back in. This was hard work, and yet it was immensely satisfying. I think there was a collective sense that we were literally breathing life into the soil, and ultimately into the garden.

I’ve been recently inspired by Kevin McCloud’s series ‘Man Made Home‘. His whole project seems to be one of discovery, learning about materials, about techniques and the environment he inhabits. In one day of digging I’ve learned a lot about our little patch of ground already. And I have relearned the great pleasure of team work and physical exertion, especially after a week in front of the office. I look forward to inviting everyone back in the summer so that to see where plants are thriving, benefiting from the toil of our winder big dig