Digging soil can be a pain. Weather and environmental changes can sometimes make digging up soil for planting 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 soil 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 soil that’s difficult to dig.
Why Is Wet Soil Harder To Dig?
Naturally, it might seem like wet soil should be easier to dig, so the fact that it isn’t, seems a little counterintuitive. However, understanding why this is the way it is will make it a lot easier to manage your soil when it’s wet and could also make digging when it’s time to plant a lot easier.
Wet soil is harder to dig because it is muddy and sticky, making excessive watering a bad idea. Soil also compacts a lot easier when it’s wet than otherwise. Because of this, digging wet soil can be more difficult even though the soil is technically easier to move.
Wet soil has its place in the ecosystem, and there is some use for it. However, it’s a lot better to avoid working on it when it’s wet because you’re more likely to create more problems than you’ll solve.
Should You Dig Wet Soil?
Now that you understand why wet soil cannot make digging any easier, a follow-up question you might be thinking is if you should even dig wet soil at all. Once you start to understand how wet soil works and the underlying mechanisms, a clearer picture begins to form.
You should not dig wet soil. Not only is it more difficult to dig, but it also causes so many problems that the trade-off is simply not worth it. Soil compacting due to wet soil can reduce the available oxygen in the ground and make it more difficult for the roots to anchor the plant.
Although compacting is the biggest problem with wet soil, there are also a few other problems. Understanding each will paint a much clearer picture of why you should avoid generally working on overly wet soil.
Soil Compaction and Consolidation
Soil compacting happens when particles of soil clump together due to stress. This clumping increases soil density, essentially removing the pores in the soil 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 soil 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 soil 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 soil compaction.
There is a delicate balance between erosion, permeability, and soil compaction. When rain falls, the raindrops can either make their way into the soil or can wash away the soil. How much of the rain gets into the soil 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, which tightens the soil, 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 Soil Easier To Dig
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.
How To Handle Wet Soil
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. That kind of moisture is healthy for soil. Excessive moisture in the soil will make it visibly watery and muddy.
With soil like this, 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, waterlogged soil 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 the soil 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
Next, your soil might be too dry. Usually, this isn’t as big a problem for looser soils 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 to the soil. 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 your soil wet in the short term, but once you’ve waited for some of the excess water to drain and evaporate from the soil, 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 soil. 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 soil.
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.