Stop Digging

A slice down through a garden bed reveals the thin, and fragile, top organic layer. Photo: Lise Jenkins


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

“Your garden’s so pretty! How do you do that?” my neighbor gushed. She: stylishly dressed, walking her dog; me: wet and muddy squatting down with my hands in the soil. I was about to explain that I enjoy tending my garden and that, with a little effort, her garden could be attractive too. But a neighborly spirit moved me and I mumbled something about it being a simple matter of putting the right plant in the right place.

When a gardener says, “It’s just putting the right plant in the right place,” that’s the gardening equivalent of saying, “Bless your heart.” It translates as, “There’s just too much to tell you. So, let’s just leave it at selecting the right plant for your location and all will be well.”

If only.

Sometimes, I visualize the wrong plant inhabiting a spot in my garden and sometimes I get the assessment of the site wrong. It’s actually too hot, too dry, too cold, or just not as perfect as I had imagined it being. Wrong plant, wrong place.

The best thing I can do to make my garden locations increasingly “the right place” is to take care of my soil. I use compost and mulch and make my own vermicompost — more about that another time. I do all this in an effort to amend my heavy clay soil. I’m working toward that magical combination of loose, well-drained soil that also retains moisture during dry periods.

One of the best things we can do for our soil is to be gentler. Every time we dig, chop, and break up the soil we damage the mycorrhizal fungi network that supports our plants. These fungi live on and around plant roots and help their plant partners absorb nutrients, fight off pathogens, and improve their ability to take up moisture in the soil.

These microscopic fungi sometimes link together to form structures, which are visible as white threads or webs in the soil. This mycorrhizal network helps create the soil food web without which plants would not likely survive. Alien and unseen, microbes transform the clay and rock beneath my feet from dirt into soil. I need to care for this invisible world as much as I tend to my plants, so I’ve adopted two practices:

First, I’m trying to limit my use of garden chemicals, synthetic or organic. I did a soil test; now I know what nutrients my soil lacks and only add what’s needed. You can visit the NC State Extension publication on soil testing ( for more information.

My second change is that I’m now loath to dig deep and break up my garden soil. While I don’t have the upper-body strength to dig vast holes for new plants, I did a fair amount of digging to loosen and amend the soil surrounding my new introductions. All this digging disrupts the mycorrhizal fungi in my garden beds. So now I just open up the smallest space necessary to tuck a new plant into its home.

So far, these modifications seem to be producing better results. My plants fared well during last summer’s hot, dry period with minimal supplemental irrigation. I’m anxious to see what happens this year.

Good gardening does not entail trying to outsmart nature with chemicals and fancy practices. Rather, it’s about minimizing our impact on the land. If we can get out of her way, Mother Nature will take care of herself, and of us too.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email:

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