I do learn, slowly. Here’s the first lesson I learned when digging the first garden bed: water is my friend. Well, sort of. While digging the first bed, I noticed how much easier it was to chip out the dirt after it had rained. So I began watering the hole at the end of a day of digging, hoping to soften it up for the next day. Unfortunately, by the time I figured that out, some parts of the hole were much deeper than other parts, so the water would all run into those spots, and I ended up with deep soft spots alternating with hard mounds where the water just ran off.
And I really don’t know why it took me so long to buy a caliche bar either. “Caliche bar” is the local, modern name for a tool that is only a tool in the most basic sense of that word. An alternate name for this tool is “digging stick”, and I’m pretty sure the design of the tool hasn’t changed much in about twelve thousand years. The modern digging stick is a 6′ iron pole that has a square blade on one end for chipping and a sort of flattened knob on the other end for tamping. It weighs somewhere between 10 and 800 pounds. (It becomes heavier as you use it: ✨Magic!✨) The idea is that you pick it up vertically, then let it fall, blade end down (and hopefully with some directional control), and it embeds itself a tiny way into the dirt. You then repeat that several thousand times, or until your arms fall off. Next: go inside and have a nice cold drink. Or three. Take a shower. Read a book. Or three. Have dinner. Watch several hours of TV. Go to bed.
I’m kidding: I don’t have TV.
The next day (or whenever the arms have been reattached), it’s time to scrape out the dirt that has been chipped up. Unless, of course, it has rained since you stopped chipping, in which case there is now an inch of mud in the hole. Do Not dig up that mud! Mud is much heavier than dirt, and you’ll end up going in for that drink way sooner than you had planned. Moreover, it’s very messy trying to sift the stones out of mud, and that mud will form a nice, thick, hard crust wherever you temporarily put it, making it more difficult to deal with later. So really what I’m saying is that if it rained after you chipped up the dirt, you should just find something else to do today. Like laundry or something. Once the dirt is dried out, you can go chip it all again. It’s easier the second time, honest!
And it eventually took a bit over four months to dig out the first garden bed, mostly with just the spade: 4’x6’x2′, or 48 cubic feet of dirt.
The next lesson is also about those deep soft pockets among hard mounds of dirt: the whole project will go easier if you don’t let that happen. I started the tree moat at the highest edge, hoping to make it an even depth all around. It was a good plan, and mostly worked. that hole is now 17′ in diameter, and about 8″ deep. That took about a year, and I find that the higher edge is still higher than the rest, and so there is some continuing effort to level the bottom. I had to wait for a good rain to find that out, because I am reluctant to flood the moat with the hose to find the high spots — seems like a waste of good water. Anyway, I think I mentioned before, the dirt from the tree moat has been moved out to shore up the walking paths through the back 40 (well, the back 6 as it happens).
All those lessons for this:
Once the new bed was marked out, I tied a string around the corner stakes and chipped out the edge of the bed, and then chipped out reasonably-sized blocks within the bed that will allow me to track progress every day (or week, whatevs — I don’t stress myself much about schedule). As it turned out, it took three days to get the first layer of dirt out:
Nice, eh? OK, a little too nice: that’s my slight case of OCD showing, I think. I’ll accept that and move on. And just for added entertainment, you can see that I tripped over the marker string and broke it along the back edge. Harrumph.
Ha! I can already see big rocks lying in wait. Anyway, one last lesson from the first garden bed: sift the dirt as you go. It was a little distressing that when I finally got that hole big enough, the resulting dirt pile was full of rocks and stones that still needed to be removed before putting the dirt back in the hole. I think the whole last month-and-a-half of digging the first bed was taken up with sifting the dirt. I’m better prepared this time.
There’s my first pile of dirt, sifted and ready to mix with soil amender and put back in the hole, probably around Yule. I hope it doesn’t take that long, although the hole is bigger this time: 4.5’x2’x8′ or 56 cubic feet. I have to keep that number in mind when I buy the soil amendment, which should be a third of that, or ~19 cubic feet.