If being able to see what is happening underground is the gateway to great management of your plants, then the humble shovel is the key. Don’t leave home without one!


If you’re only looking above the ground, you’re only looking at half the story.

We have a patch of really lush clover just outside our greenhouse. You’d be proud if it were yours. Thing is, looks are deceiving because this clover isn’t fixing any nitrogen like it ought to be. How do we know? We dug up a patch and looked at its roots, to find that there were no nodules on them (the nodules encapsulate the nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which are anaerobic!). [We filmed it too – check out the first video below.] 

Knowing what’s happening in the roots and soil around your plants allows you really manage for success. Are the roots big and strong? Do they have access to water, air, and minerals? Do you have a living, healthy soil working for you? What kind of resilience will you have to things like extreme weather and pest pressure? Is what you see above the ground the full expression of how great that plant could be? These are all questions that can easily be answered by getting out your shovel!

What you’re looking for is anything and everything that is there to see.

Before you get any fancy gear or send off for expensive soil tests, there are really simple things to have a look for armed only with your shovel. You want to look at the soil itself and physical features like how compact it is and where the moisture is; you want to look at the roots, including what form they take and whether there are any signs of disease or deficiency; and you want to look at biological aspects such as what critters are in the ground and any signs of microbial activity such as dreadlocks on the roots. With practice, you will come to know what good soil looks like on your place, and how your soil and plants respond in different conditions. The more complex tests become an extra layer of information should you feel you need them, and sit within the context of the whole plant and its growing environment.

Here’s a list of some of the basic things you can look for:

  • How easy is it to get the shovel in?
  • Is there any soil structure?
  • Where does the soil moisture sit?
  • Are there any compaction or clay layers?
  • How far down does the topsoil [i.e. the dark, humus-rich layer] extend?
  • How deep do the roots go?
  • What is the root morphology?
  • Are there any nodules on the legumes?
  • Are there any root diseases?
  • Do the roots have a rhizosheath – better known as dreadlocks? (a layer of soil and microbes stuck to the root)
  • What does the soil smell like?
  • Do you see any earthworms?
  • Do you see any other critters?
  • Do you see any tunnels in the soil from insects, animals or old roots?
  • Is there any material which hasn’t broken down, like fertiliser pellets, straw, or manure?

How does your soil measure up?

To help you start thinking about what’s going on below the ground we made you a pressie: a pretty PDF table showing what would be most desirable, OKish, and least desirable for all the questions listed above. Dig some holes. Is there room for improvement? We hope that you can use these questions as starting points for thinking about different ways you can manage your land to see it come alive.

As for our clover? It’s a biological problem so we’re going for a biological solution with some Biocast+. That said, we don’t want things getting too pumped there because it just means more mowing for Lee!


← Click here to download our cheat sheet on what to look for when you bring your shovel.

Download PDF

“If your roots are only two inches deep,
you’re only two inches from a drought.”

Nicole Masters

Get started!

Digging a hole is easy. To kick you off we made some videos looking under clover (L), dock weed (C), and setaria (R). Our tip: start with the setaria one which has an introduction to the topic, and if you have a deep curiosity for digging or nothing better to do than watch cute babies playing in dirt by all means keep going :p