Wednesday, 6 February 2008


Don't tell anyone, but I'm rubbish at finishing things. My life is littered with the carcasses of projects that started well and... that was it. Sadly, the allotment is increasingly the venue for my incompletion problem.

Regular readers will know that I've got soil problems. It's very clay-like, which means it doesn't drain, and plant roots can't get a foothold. Last year I planted 25 seed potatoes, and none survived. Not one.

Something had to be done. That something was double-digging (not to be confused with 'double the discount' or 'Double Dragon'). Here's how it works: You dig a trench. You're quite pleased: it looks impressive. Then you roll up your sleeves, mosey right into the trench and keep digging, turning over the soil at the bottom of the trench.

At this point you have to be careful not to stand on the soil you've already turned over. If you're like me you end up hopping from foot to foot, looking like a solitary morris dancer. It's not conducive with the gruff allotment reputation I was hoping to cultivate.

When I double-dig I add sharp sand, because someone told me it was the cheapest way to break up clay soil. It seems to work, but you need a lot. I've got through 40 bags so far.

So, you've got your trench and its base has been turned over. You're knackered by now. Next you dig a second trench alongside the first. And, here's the clever bit, the soil you remove gets put into the first trench. The old switcheroo. As trench two gets deeper, so trench one gets filled in.

Soil - after double diggingThe spell is broken, the water drains properly, the plant roots have space to stretch and all is right with the world. Or it would be, if I was good at finishing things off.

I was doing ok. I'd double-dug three beds successfully. I started the fourth. Then it rained. The trench filled with water. I waited for the water to drain. And waited. Two months later, the trench is still full with water. You see, the soil's too compacted and clay-like, so the trench won't drain, and because it won't drain I can't dig it, which would help it drain...

Last weekend I decided it was time to right what once went wrong (I watched too much Quantum Leap as a kid). Armed with a bucket, an ice cream tub and a yoghurt pot, I bailed out the trench. Daughter was mystified. Six buckets, 8 ice cream tubs and countless yoghurt pots later, the paddling pool was reduced to a muddy puddle.

I went home a happy man. On Sunday I returned, armed with a spade and renewed optimism. I was confronted with a half-full trench. Had it rained? I didn't see any rain. Maybe someone is watering the hole to test my character.

I've had enough. I'm going to bail it out again. Then I'm going to fill it in. Then I'm to pretend this never happened. You see I've developed a new survival strategy for starting too many things: denial.


  1. I so relate to this one.. Bed 3 never got finished last year, its half dug, half bordered, with a blackcurrant and a redcurrant plant in.. and lots and lots of weeds. Still. I'm determined this year i'm going to do better. this is encouraged by me pulling my sleeves up today to fork over an existing bed to plant some garlic - the soil was so lose and workable that i could almost have forked it over one handed!!!


  2. James, you poor man. I had no idea your soil was so crap.
    Would love to come up with a genius suggestion for solving the problem, but there isn't one. You're already doing the only thing that will work, ie digging and adding sand/grit. It's a bastard, but hey; you WILL see the difference when it's done.

    And there is some good news; clay soil is much better at holding on to water in drought conditions. So you at least will be laughing when I'm breaking my arse watering every day in July...
    Best of luck.

  3. Kethry - You're a lucky lady, I have soil envy. Don't sweat the weeds, I like to think they're the mark of a realist.

    Nice blog by the way. You've got some nice design going on.

  4. Thanks for the empathy Soilman. I'm pressing on, hoping the labour will build character.

    Every day in July? Blimey. I think I watered weekly last year. Don't feel quite so hard done by now.

  5. As the double-trench digger's mother I can vouch for the character analysis and the fact that 2 spades were broken in one afternoon - is this a record??
    But this allotment business is definitely character-building and needs lots of encouragement. As Mum I want to creep in there in the night and, with a band of angels, dig till dawn to surprise son with crumbly friable heavenly earth (if that's not an oxymoron!)


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