Double Digging

The Method, and a Quick History

Author: Barbara Bamberger Scott

First, some history...

Click to skip down to The Method

Alan Chadwick in the garden
Alan Chadwick

Strange to tell, but true...   One of the most successful methods of basic gardening, a method that can be practiced in the poorest places, that sprang from basic necessity and at times genuine desperation, was brought to America by an aristocratic English actor and artist, Alan Chadwick, in 1967. He observed, codified, and inculcated in the spirits of many young back-to-the-landers the gardening technique known as double digging.


Double digging was an intensive gardening method that had been practiced for hundreds of years by hearty Gallic market farmers on the outskirts of Paris. They were vying for small strips of land, even along the sides of the crowded streets, to cultivate their wares. The double digging method (aka intensive, French intensive, or raised beds) is organic, surprisingly simple, and space efficient.


Chadwick saw its potential in the 60's and took his fertile innovative gardening ideas across the ocean to a hip, eco-conscious cadre. He established a training center at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was "organic" long before that word entered the mainstream. The education that Chadwick gave to starry-eyed young gardeners through lectures and his charismatic presence was transmuted by American student gardener John Jeavons into a practical, illustrated book with charts and statistics. That book was How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. The title says it all.


The double digging strategy enriches and revitalizes soil by cutting into the earth two "spits" (spade depths) down and systematically inserting composting materials. It rebuilds and energizes soil. If you respect the earth and love to work outdoors, with your hands, avoiding gas and electric powered equipment, double digging is a rewarding method with immediate and long-term, positive, visible results.


My Personal Experience

Garden Spade and Garden Fork drawing

In the early 1980s I enrolled in the Rural Development / Farming and Gardening Program at Emerson College in Sussex, England. It was an institution based around the teachings of the modern mystic, Rudolf Steiner. Chadwick was an admirer of Steiner. Our instructor, Mark Feedman, had studied with Chadwick in Santa Cruz, and through his position at Emerson’s bio-dynamic agriculture program, Feedman prepared us to teach bio-sustainable gardening practices in third world villages, as he had done, using only basic tools and organic materials. 

At Emerson, I learned about two ways to garden: the right way, and the wrong way.

The wrong way was obvious...   Industrialized farming, chemical fertilizers and poisonous pesticides - leading to the denaturing of the precious soil. 

It was a given that a better method, a Right Way, was needed. Chadwick delivered it, and men like Jeavons spread the word. Feedman, the dynamic American who had worked in the Peace Corps in Latin America, believed fervently that small-scale solutions are always the best. He taught me that when we cultivate the soil, we are cultivating ourselves. The root of that cultivation is double digging.

Double digging specifically enables the elements of water, soil, heat and light to work their ancient harmony. It is labor intensive - and that is part of why it works. It impacts the muscles, the mind, and the will of the gardener as intensively as it works on soil and plant life.


The Method of Double Digging

Double digging entails cutting into the earth two "spits" (spade depths) down and systematically inserting layers of compost materials to rebuild the soil. As Jeavons's statistics indicate, the double digging method promises enhanced soil vigor and greater yield per area with less watering - starting in the first season.  It saves our precious land, and requires no poisons. It allows many different kinds of plants to be "companions" and can produce many varied yields per year.


Because opinions, terminology and methodologies vary, I have created this guide to the process of double digging as it was taught to me at Emerson College in 1980.


DOUBLE DIGGING

1. MARK THE BED WITH CORNER STAKES
A width of three feet is used as the model for these instructions. Four feet is the maximum suggested width for intensive beds. Length is dependent on your garden space. Uproot all grass and weeds from the marked area.

2. COVER THE AREA TO BE DUG
Spread a 2 to 3 inch layer of fine compost.

Four steps of double digging a garden bed
Image Credit "How To Grow More Vegetables..." by John Jeavons

3. USE YOUR SPADE AS A GUIDE TO DEPTH
At the end of your bed, dig a trench 12 inches wide across the three foot width of the bed. Dig it only to the depth of your garden spade, about 9" deep. The soil from this trench should be put in a wheelbarrow or on a tarp where it will stay clean. It will be used in Step 7.

4. THEN, USING A DIGGING FORK..
Push it into the soil at the bottom of your first trench. You can stand on the garden fork to get it as deep in the earth as possible. Lever the fork back and forth to loosen and aerate the soil. But do NOT pull the soil out of place, or upend it or spread it.

5. PUT COMPOST IN THE BOTTOM OF THE TRENCH
Spread a two inch layer of compost over the bottom of the trench. Gently work it into the bottom soil with your garden fork. Take care NOT to stir, mix or upheave the soil. Think of these layers as lovers who will gladly unite when they have sufficient privacy.

6. DIG A 12-INCH WIDE TRENCH NEXT TO THE FIRST
Use that soil to cover and bury the compost in the first strip. Again, do not mix the newly dug soil with the compost - just lay it on. Work gently and smoothly at each stage.

7. REPEAT STEPS 4 - 5 - 6
As you move along the bed, keep repeating Steps 4, 5, and 6. They are: Loosen the sub-soil  /  Add compost  /  Dig the next trench. You will add back the saved soil from the first trench to top off the very last trench.

8. SPREAD COMPOST OVER THE NEW BED
Add a 1 TO 2 inch layer of compost over the top of the newly created bed. Use your spading fork, rocking it gently, to intermix the compost into the top layer of soil. Then gently rake and smooth the top of the raised bed to prepare it for planting.   Do not walk on the bed after this step is complete, to prevent compacting the soil.


The bed will remain active for replanting for 2-3 years, or 6-8 planting cycles. Then it should be re-dug.

My advice: Pick up that spade and fork and double dig like our planet depends on it!