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.