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Preparing the soil

Digging the soil

Improving the quality of your soil will make cultivation easier. Heavy clay can be made lighter by digging in manure or compost. Adding sharp sand or grit lets air into the soil, making it easier for roots to bed in. It also makes it easier to dig in the future. Turning the soil over in autumn exposes it to winter frosts and makes it easier to break down, ready for sowing the following season.

When you do need to dig, bear in mind the following:

  • A border spade is lighter and easier to handle than a digging spade. The blade is smaller so you won’t be tempted to dig large spadefuls.
  • Soil tends to cling to ordinary carbon steel spades, which adds weight, so stainless steel is a better choice. It’s also easier to clean afterwards.
  • Spades with extra-long handles make it easier to move the soil and reduce the need to bend.
  • If your soil is light and crumbly, use a border fork instead of a spade – it’s lighter and moves through the soil more easily.
  • Clamping an extra handle part-way down the shaft of your spade or fork saves bending too far and provides a comfortable grip for your lower hand without twisting your wrist.

A border spade is lighter and easier to handle.

If the soil is light and sandy, you may not need to dig at all. A soil miller is a tool with star-shaped wheels that break down the soil into fine particles as you move it backwards and forwards.

A soil miller

Well-rotted manure spread over the surface can be incorporated into the soil with the soil miller. This is a good tool for use with a deep-bed system.


You can reduce the number of weeds you have to deal with by covering the soil with a 5 cm (2 inch) layer of shredded bark. This stops the soil getting any light and makes it more difficult for weeds to grow. Alternatively, you can cover the bed with black polythene, cut slits into the sheet and plant seeds through the holes. Scatter a layer of gravel over the top to hold down the polythene and improve the border’s appearance.

Annual weeds should be hoed while they’re young and easy to deal with. We don’t recommend a draw hoe or a Dutch hoe because the blade has to be lifted and lowered over and over, which can strain your joints. A push-pull hoe skims the soil surface back and forth, chopping off the weeds at ground level with little effort. You can fit an extra-long handle to the hoe if you need to.

Weeding by hand is tiring if you can’t easily reach down to ground level. You can try a weed puller instead. A weed puller has a steel blade that you push into the ground alongside the weed. Closing the handle grips the weed and pulls it out. Although this only deals with one weed at a time, it saves raking together and picking the weeds up afterwards. It’s also easy to use sitting down.

If you don't want to use a weed puller, you can collect small amounts of weeds and leaves in a bucket or bag. You can buy tools to help you pick up garden rubbish without bending.


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