Dig this!

Croqueurs 162 Once upon a time there was a rather overweight 31-year-old female gardener who worked in a large English botanic garden. Each winter we (yes – it was me!) had to double-dig the order beds.

For those unaccustomed to botanic gardens, the order beds are the area lingering from the original botanic garden purpose – the place where the living specimens of plants are laid out according to someone’s botanical system – I think ours was laid out according to Bentham & Hooker’s scheme.

One January I decided to go on a diet, but I was also double-digging the order beds for about six hours each day and cycling 6 miles to work – then back again.

This is not my favourite winter on record.

I remember going back into the mess room for tea break one day. One of my colleagues suddenly said, ‘Will someone please hit me over the head with a spade?’ We were all stunned, our chatter silenced – Malcolm never said anything at all (and I mean, not a word). Suddenly here it was, the awful elephant, trunk raised in protest … We all earned our living doing something that would devastate our bodies, earn very little money and bore us to death in the process. Why?

Malcolm lived in a very tiny bedsit – he was probably about my age now when he made that comment. Worth, perhaps, giving to Perennial, the Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society for retired gardeners? Out with the romanticism and in with the reality, I say.Tree Following February 062

So I don’t really like digging – that’s the point, in case you’re slow on the uptake.

When I moved to a lovely little cottage in Suffolk a few years later, I remember admiring my neighbour’s grandfather. He was in his eighties and went out to dig her plot with great vigour and enjoyment. (Why wasn’t she doing it? She was in her twenties.) He’d been the head gardener at Grundisburgh Hall before he retired, and clearly relished digging, even if it was only for the sake of the veggies. The philosophy of ‘digging’ is complex, and I’ve had plenty of time to ponder it over the last thirty odd years.

Years later I was working as supervisor of the order beds in another botanic garden. That’s a working supervisor. Myself, one other female colleague, and a student had to dig the beds every winter. I will pass quickly over the terrible fantasies suffered by one schizophrenic student (clinically diagnosed, on medication) forced to do this. Unfortunately I had informed her (in my stupidity) that our beds lay over a medieval Jewish cemetery.Tree Following February 099

My full-time colleague and I used to laugh, because when she went home to her husband and two children every night she admitted (to me, at least) that she crept into the marital bed still wearing the dirty t-shirt she’d been wearing during the day because she was so exhausted.


Such are the joys of digging!

My husband will confirm to anyone interested that probably my worst ‘complaining day’ has been digging a bed for planting potatoes in our previous garden in Ireland. It was really difficult, I promise you, and given the number of tree roots we really shouldn’t have been planting potatoes anyway!

Fast forward to today’s digging on 5 March 2015. I had a ball. When I’m digging with pictures of beautiful plants in my head – this is a totally different experience. Visions of Hydrangea sargentiana var. villosa and Viburnum plicatum ‘Watanabe’ dance in my head tonight. And thank goodness someone taught me how to do it!

How do you feel about digging – or how do you avoid it?

Ok – yes, I haven’t been ‘following you’, as promised in my last post. This last fortnight has been truly horrendous, but we’ll pass quickly over the details. The nicest thing that came out of it all is that a friend taught me a French country motto, which is kind of the equivalent to ‘it’s not the end of the world’. ‘C’est pas la fin des haricots’ [‘It’s not the end of the French beans’], she said to me one night, when I was recounting my woes (her own family situation is many times worse).Tree Following February 066

I love things like that – things that remind of us of how hard life used to be and how lucky we are now. Everyone still bottles French beans in brine furiously at the end of summer around here. Just imagine coming to the end of those precious summer treasures, laid by in the sunny days, and imagine living for at least a month, maybe two, without anything green to eat at all? You’ll feel better, I promise! (If you don’t, it may be time to consider eating more healthily?)

Meanwhile – here are parting shots of the ‘simples’ garden belonging to the museum at Châtillon-sur-Saône. In a way ‘simples’ gardens (for useful culinary and medicinal herbs) are the early relatives of the order beds.

Jardin des Simples 015


Jardin des Simples 013
Come visit next year? We are currently renovating, and it should be lovely when we’ve all done our bit.

17 thoughts on “Dig this!

  1. Adrian Moerman

    Lovely blog Cathy, and can I book a H. aspera cutting when it grows big enough? Lovely plant, would look great at the end of the back garden at the mill! Adrian.

  2. AnnetteM

    I don’t mind digging, but then I have never had to do much of it. A few years ago, though, my husband and I had to dig and dig the ground where we were making a new border in order to eradicate all the bluebell bulbs that of course just spread themselves around as soon as they are disturbed. Miraculously we got most of them.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Gosh Annette – wish you could have sent some of those bluebells my way! There are so many in the woods around where I come from in Perthshire, and I catch them when I’m home in May. But we’ve none here, in this corner of France – I actually bought some bulbs in the autumn!

      1. AnnetteM

        Happy to send if it is allowed. Not sure you would really want this variety though, they seem to seed all over the garden in the most difficult places where you can’t get at them to remove the bulbs. Some of them seem to be turning pink too! I do leave some of them at the back of the border though as they do look lovely for a short while.

  3. Chloris

    Oh no please don’t plant Spanish bluebell; Hyacinthoides hispanica. Horrible invasive things.
    What an interesting post. I hate digging. I have a very old gardening book which tells you how to do something called ‘ bastard trenching’. A very good name for it in my opinion. Perhaps it is a generation thing. I remember my grandmother, when she was in her 90s, telling my father who was in his 70s, that he should leave the veg garden digging over for her to do, as she thought it was too hard for him.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks Chloris. You are quite right (of course!) about the Spanish bluebells. In that job that I mentioned at the beginning of the post, my supervisor taught me to hate them – we spent hours digging them out (while he swore quietly in the background). I bought Hyacinthoides non-scripta because I couldn’t legally dig them up at home. But I did have reservations about introducing them to an area of France where they don’t currently exist. It still worries me a little; however sentiment overcame my reservations – I want a little bit of ‘home’ right here.
      So funny about your grandmother & father! We have few grannies like that here … and I wish I was as determined! Yes, bastard trenching … hmm.

  4. Helen Johnstone

    My parents loved to dig. When I got my allotment which was a virgin plot, essentially a plouged field full of couch grass, they begged me to let them dig it over. I agreed in the end and it kept them busy for weeks. It was a difficult time as my sister had died some months before and I think it was a distraction for them. I felt guilty when I gave up the allotment but only because of all the hard work they had put into it.

    I do like to dig but not as much as I used to – there are more aches and pains now.

    I like the French expression. I went to a talk on veg the other day, wasted on me, but it was interesting because she was saying the French eat the young French Beans, they dry the mature beans but also eat them at an in between stage when we would consider them past their best. Saying all that I dont like beans – as I said wasted on me but interesting:)

    Hope next week is better for you.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Hi Helen – I remember reading about you giving up your allotment, but I didn’t understand the details. It must have been a sad time for you all. But digging can be very cathartic if undertaken in the right spirit. I’ve had that experience at work – at home it’s always been for love because it’s not my favourite activity.
      Interesting about the veg talk. Yes – the French are passionate, and I’m catching it too (although, it has to be said, they are a bit conservative in their use of veggies). But haricots are a very useful vegetable (particularly if you are, like me, a vegetarian). I find them very easy to grow and I have started drying the mature beans as well for use in winter stews. I’m always a bit embarrassed amongst my neighbours because I don’t seem to catch them in the ideal ‘baby’ state, as everyone else likes to do. I eat them when they are grown up. But such a versatile veggie – I love runner beans (flavour different) but there is more you can do with haricots at every stage.

  5. bittster

    I have to say this is a very entertaining post (and not implying anything about your other posts!) I feel like there are about another half dozen stories to add to this one, maybe over a glass of wine or two.
    I’m not a big fan of digging. Perhaps if it were a root-free, easily raked, loose loam I would enjoy it, but as it is I’m left with thin, dense, rooty and turf which is far less fun.
    Will you be keeping us up to date on the simples garden? I feel like it will be just as fun as watching your own garden develop.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks Bittster. I like to think about what I’m doing – and after so many years there’s a lot to think about. I will certainly be posting more about the ‘simples garden’ at Châtillon. Everyone here was pleased to see the pictures of our little garden on Twitter and we are moving on with it. It’s a special little village, but tiny and fairly unrecognised in the massive cultural experience that is France. I hope to post a bit more about gardening in France and our village in particular, since the differences between what I’m used to and what happens here fascinate me no end.

    1. Cathy Post author

      So do I – my husband and myself have started almost repeating it as a mantra in the midst of a tricky time! Unfortunately I’ve finished my own haricots, so dreaming of more.

  6. Jacqueline Winterborn

    Cathy…on Gardener’s Question Time recently, one of the panel said it is now considered wrong to double-dig as it disturbs the ecology of the top- soil…so maybe that’s all the get- out you need?

    1. Cathy Post author

      You are so right, Jackie. I learnt that from a colleague when I worked in a hort college in England. He told me of the statistics re worms in a soil that has been ‘dug’, and one that has not been dug. Unfortunately if you are making a new garden and not using (much) herbicide, you’ve little choice but to at least try and dig the aggressive weeds out before you plant. That’s the only reason I dig now.

  7. gardeninacity

    I like digging. It’s very satisfying, a good way to vent frustration or aggression. I especially like digging up turf for new beds! Very interested to hear about your professional background – I had no idea you were such an accomplished and experienced gardener. I would love to see your village some day – is it in Lorraine? – we dream of taking another trip to France.


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