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My Special Stick

Spring is the season for dibbling.

The earth thaws, releasing the scent of humus; worm orgies beneath quiet sheets of mulched leaves proceed without notice; swelling buds of naked deciduous tree branches afford little cover for recently returned bird life, and tiny clusters of yellow crocuses line the walk up to my door: These are among the early signs of spring’s advance around my house. As the sun begins to arc higher across the sky, the land and air warm and much of the vegetation that vanished last fall begins to stir toward a dramatic resurrection. This is the time that I begin to prepare for the coming growing season. My dibble becomes central to these preparations.

A dibble is a simple hand tool used to poke holes into the earth for planting seeds, bulbs or young plants. It is most likely among the oldest agricultural tools of human invention. Sometimes called a “dibble stick” or a “dibbler,” the earliest versions of this tool were probably nothing more than a stick picked up in the environment that could be easily applied to the task of punching holes in the dirt.

The dibble is essentially a specialized extension for the hand that saves wear on fingers, which also serve well as dibbles in some soils. Contemporary dibbles generally have a handle attached to a straight shaft with a pointed end and are made from wood, metal or some combination of the two. Commercial dibbles can be purchased from seed and garden supply companies and generally cost in the range of $15 to $20.

The dibble is a tool that converts human energy into the work of making holes in the earth for planting crops. It does this task more efficiently than poking a finger into the ground and provides a means to standardize the width and depth of holes while reducing wear and tear on one’s hands. The tool provides a means for safely planting seeds.

Most seeds won’t start to grow if they are left sitting on top of the soil where they’re more likely to become snacks for passing wildlife than take root. The dibble provides a means to get seeds into the ground, away from hungry seed-eaters and into an environment more conducive to germination and plant growth. It also allows for more organization of gardens by providing more control over how closely and deeply seeds are planted. Instead of being broadcasted to the wind, seeds can be placed in pre-punched dibble holes.

For many years, the dibbles I used in my gardens were just sticks I’d temporarily employ for the effort. They’d inevitably end up in a compost heap or as kindling in the wood stove. But last summer I encountered a stick amid the biomass of backyard debris that was just too good to burn or compost.

When I first noticed the hardwood stick, I remember thinking how it looked like the preferred shape for ginseng roots: It appeared to have a pair of legs and a trunk that roughly mimicked the human form. The stick included a branching that gave the suggestion of two legs, one longer and thinner than the other. The longer one branched off at almost a 90-degree angle, resulting in the other, shorter and thicker branch looking like part of a crude handle. When I picked the piece up by this “handle,” I was impressed with how well it seemed to fit my hand.

Using my trusty Swiss army knife, I whittled down the stick, removing bark remains and graduating the longer leg down to a dull point. After this, I smoothed it down with some sandpaper. The stick was about an inch in diameter at its thickest end. The longer branch was about 8 inches long, terminating in a point about one quarter of an inch across. I tested it out and it easily slid into the garden soils around my house, making holes in a wide range of diameters and depths.

At the point in last year’s growing season when I whittled this dibble, I was in the process of transplanting plants into my vegetable garden. The strange looking stick proved particularly adept at punching the holes I needed to get the roots of young plants securely into the raised garden beds. For the larger plants, like tomatoes and chilies, I would push the dibble deeply into the soil and rotate its handle in a circle to create a wider funnel-shaped hole that could better accommodate their more extensive root systems. These larger holes also made it easier to add organic fertilizers to each plant for a growth boost.

I have subsequently found my little dibble to be useful in making holes for seeds in the seed-starter trays I use to initiate germination. Once the plants have sprouted and grown too confined in these trays, I transplant them to used yogurt containers that have holes punched in their bottoms for drainage. Here again, my dibble helps make the transition easier by providing a good-sized hole in the growth medium for the transplants. With a pinch of organic fertilizer added to the mix, the plants are minimally shocked and off to more growing in no time.

This modified stick also helped me last weekend to densely plant a coldframe I have in my garden with greens that hopefully will provide some early spring salads. Last fall this found tool was particularly helpful with a substantial planting of bulbs I carried out in my front yard that is just now starting to rise from the ground and bloom.

During the winter my dibble hung on a hook near the back door, a constant reminder that spring would eventually come. Today the tool is often absent from its place by the door as my demands for planting-holes rise with the temperatures, and I just keep dibbling my way through spring driven by garden fantasies sprouting from punched holes.

—Tom Nattell

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