Digging soil can be a pain. Weather and environmental changes can sometimes make digging so time-consuming that you want to give up. Because of this problem, many people add water to the soil before they dig but does watering really make it easier to dig?
Watering soil does not make it easier to dig. Although it can slightly loosen up the dirt for digging, it will also turn to mush, making it far more difficult to scoop it up and out of the hole. Along with this, watering the soil causes long-term problems due to compacting.
Most times, excessively wet soil causes more harm than good when gardening. Digging is no different. In this post, I’ll give you more information on why avoiding wet soil when digging is the best option and how to work with ground that’s difficult to dig.
How Water Changes Soil Composition
Water can significantly influence the composition of soil in your garden. When water penetrates the ground, it can dislodge and carry away smaller particles, a process known as erosion. This erosion can have a substantial impact on soil composition, often leaving behind a coarser structure that may affect both fertility and stability.
On a smaller scale, water causes clay particles, which are the smallest and most tightly bound particles, to swell. This phenomenon occurs as water molecules infiltrate the spaces between individual clay particles, causing them to separate and expand in volume.
This process, called clay dispersion, can result in a denser and more compacted structure when the water eventually evaporates, making the soil harder and more challenging to work with.
The Effect of Water on the Ease of Digging
Water plays a significant role in the ease of digging by acting as a natural lubricant between soil particles. This lubricating effect reduces the friction that binds the particles together, making it initially easier to dig, particularly in harder and more compacted soils.
When the soil is watered, it softens, allowing gardening tools to penetrate more easily and reducing the physical effort required to break the ground. However, adding too much water will eventually make the particles stick together and make it more challenging to dig.
Overall, I don’t recommend digging in damp soil as it can cause several problems. Soggy soil can lead to compacting, which reduces the availability of oxygen in the ground and makes it harder for plant roots to anchor themselves, affecting overall plant health.
Other issues associated with wet soil further support the avoidance of working with it. A better understanding of these problems underlines why it is advisable to avoid digging in wet soil in general.
Compaction and Consolidation
Compaction happens when particles of soil clump together due to stress. This clumping increases density, essentially removing the soil’s pores that occur naturally.
Although soil looks like it’s ‘together’ because of how much of it is at any given location, it is actually pretty loosely packed naturally. Because of this, there’s usually space between individual grains.
These spaces are called pores and are extremely important to the ecosystem. Soil pores provide space for oxygen, roots, and microorganisms to exist, so once the soil starts to compact, all of these take a hit.
Starting with oxygen, the reduction in pores essentially forces the air in the ground out, reducing the total amount of oxygen available for plant use. It would be nearly impossible to compact soil to where all the pores are gone so you can still grow plants.
However, wetting your soil and digging it up after will cause enough compaction that it can significantly affect plant growth. This problem can persist for months or years depending on the humidity, season, soil type, and a variety of other features.
Erosion is another problem that comes up when you dig up wet soil. Although it’s indirectly caused when the soil compacts, it’s enough of a problem that it deserves a separate explanation.
Erosion is the gradual wearing away of the top layer of soil. This wearing away can happen for many reasons, and one of the major ones is compaction.
There is a delicate balance between erosion, permeability, and compaction. When rain falls, the raindrops can either make their way into the ground or can wash away the particles. How much of the rain gets into the ground is affected by how heavy the rain is (precipitation rate) and how tight the soil is.
The tighter the soil, the less water flows through it. The less water that flows through it, the higher the run-off. With this, it’s easier to see how compaction leads to erosion.
Erosion is a significant problem for anyone looking to maintain optimal growth for their plants because as the topsoil erodes, it carries a lot of the nutrients present in the soil. This reduction will eventually lead to reduced yield.
How to Make Digging Easier
Out of the many activities you can get up to in your garden or field, digging is by far one of the least liked. It is stressful and time-consuming work which leads many people to do it just to get it over with. However, like many things in life, if you’re going to do it, it’s important to make sure you do it the right way.
Here are a few ways to make your soil easier to work with:
Sharpen Your Tools
Before you go into anything too complicated, the first thing you need to do if you’re having problems digging is to sharpen your tools. Considering how intensive digging is and how much dirt and rocks your tools come in contact with, the edge of your tools can get dull pretty quickly.
Because of this, sharpening the edge of your tools from time to time will make it far easier for you when digging. The best way to do this is with a tool file.
Pay Attention to the Moisture Content
The moisture content of your soil is one of the most important things to pay attention to, and skipping this step will likely do more harm than good. In terms of moisture, there are two possibilities, and you need to account for both of them.
Manage the Excess Moisture
First, it’s possible to have an excessive amount of moisture in your soil. I don’t mean the type of moisture you get after a good watering session, as that kind of moisture is healthy for your plants. However, excessive moisture in the soil will make it visibly watery and muddy.
In this situation, your best bet is almost always going to be patience. It’s nearly impossible to immediately dry large stretches of soil, so waiting it out will likely be the best thing you can do. With time, excess moisture will gradually drain, leaving you with soil that is much easier to handle.
However, while time is key here and patience will serve you well, being proactive about the problem can save you a lot of time and effort. The best example of this is using compost and mixing it into the soil over time.
However, this method is not a quick fix and will take a few years, but it is a great way to make digging easier to handle with time.
A faster but far more expensive method is to take drainage into your hands and install a drain tile. This method is extremely capital-intensive and will require you to excavate, so make sure you exhaust your other options first if you’d like to save some money.
How to Handle Hard Soil
In some cases, the ground might be too dry. Usually, this isn’t as big a problem for looser particles like sand. However, if your soil is predominantly clay or something similar, dry spells in your location can make digging into it a nightmare.
With this problem, the best solution is to introduce moisture. I know this might sound counterintuitive, considering I’ve spent paragraphs advising against digging wet soil, but the key here is in the amount of water you use.
Use just enough water to moisten the soil but not so much that it gets waterlogged. Essentially, you’ll want to water the area you plan to dig with more water than it needs to loosen up, then wait a day or two for the soil to reach its normal texture.
This method might make the ground wet in the short term, but once you’ve waited for some of the excess water to drain and evaporate, you’ll be left with soil that is much easier to work with.
Invest in a Mattock and Digging Bar
If you’re digging by hand, then a mattock is by far one of the best things you can invest in. Spades, hoes, and shovels are usually fine, but if your soil is particularly hard, then you’ll need a mattock.
Specifically, you’ll want a ‘pick mattock’ instead of its partner, the cutting mattock, which is more suitable for clearing land.
So what makes the mattock so good? The pick mattock essentially combines the features of a pick and an adze, making it particularly versatile.
You’ll majorly be using the adze end to excavate the soil. However, the pick end is also very useful for removing rocks and breaking up particularly hard clumps.
Howcast on YouTube has a particularly helpful video on using a mattock properly:
Along with a mattock, digging bars are also wonderful for breaking up particularly hard patches of dirt.
Digging your soil while it’s wet will do nothing but create problems for you. Working wet soil causes it to compact, which reduces the amount of oxygen it can hold. Because of this problem, it’s a lot better to work with dry soil when you can.