Ask a Master Gardener: Why is digging in your garden bad?

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 4, 2014 

garden shovel

Gardeners often make gardening more difficult than it needs to be. One way to take a lot of the hard work out is not to be so quick with the shovel.

MARK CROSSE — MCT

Question: : I've heard about not digging in your soil. I don't really understand why or why not. Can you help?

Answer: Gardeners often make gardening more difficult than it needs to be. One way to take a lot of the hard work out is not to be so quick with the shovel.

The annual addition of either rotted material or compost is highly beneficial to soils, as you've no doubt heard, but adding it doesn't have to entail digging it in. Think about the natural diggers: the earthworms, fungi, beetles and bacteria. Let them do the digging for you. Spread organic material on the soil's surface in the fall, and it will be almost gone in the spring. Earthworms alone actively pull huge amounts of organic matter into the soil, and then ingest and digest it up to six times!

So you aren't the only one digging in your garden. But you're the most destructive. Your digging often damages plant roots and disturbs and kills microorganisms that live in the upper 2 inches. Your digging brings to the surface huge numbers of weed seeds that will happily germinate thanks to your ministrations. As if that weren't enough, digging also destroys humus, resulting in loss of soil structure and poor nutrient retention.

So how to plant without digging? When sowing vegetables, add 4 inches or so of compost on top of your soil. Don't dig it in, but plant right into it.

Shrubs and trees need holes dug, but mulch adequately and you'll mitigate any damage you might have done by digging.

Hope this answers your questions about why not to dig. Isn't it nice to know that working less pays off on occasion?

Q: My strawberry plants produced well but are almost done. What care do I need to give them when they're all finished giving me fruit?

A: Many people breathe a sigh of relief when their strawberries have stopped producing and promptly ignore the plants until next year. This, however, isn't the time to quit.

Indeed, August and September are critical months for strawberry plants, as it's then that the cell size of the spring fruit bud is determined.

The more favorable the growing conditions are now, the bigger the cells this fall. That means bigger, better fruit next spring. Even a week without water can stress the plants. In a study done by the University of Missouri researchers found that it took only two late summer irrigations to hugely increase yields in the spring.

So keep watering your strawberries. You can also renovate them by mowing the foliage to about 2 inches above the top of the crown. Do not damage the crown, however. Remove the plant debris.

Fertilize strawberries in August. Apply 12 to 18 ounces of 10-10-10 fertilizer for a 25-foot row. Make sure the fertilizer gets to the root area. You will be happy with next year's crop of strawberries if you take care of your plants in August and September. Remember: water and food!

GARDENER ADVICE

Look locally for plant inspiration. And by that, I mean very locally. When you want to know what plants will do well in your yard, look at your neighbors' yards. Plants that flourish there will probably be happy in your garden, too. Checking out what grows well for your neighbors is the best rough guide to what will do well for you. If you don't want exactly the same plants, but maybe a different variety, you can check with books or enlist the help of a skilled nursery person.

I've found, too, that on occasion when I am driving I see some plant that just knocks my socks off. I've been known to stop, ring the doorbell and ask the homeowner about the plant. Every person whose doorbell I've rung (and there have been quite a few) has been flattered and helpful.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN

Master Gardener Kathleen Bander is a resident of Bellingham and life-long gardener. For more information on Whatcom County Master Gardeners, go to whatcom.wsu.edu/ch/mg.html. Ask a Master Gardener will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com.

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