Why a fine “tilth” – though it may be hard to define – is essential for successful seed sowing

Gardening instructions can often get lost in translation – and none is harder to interpret than “create a good tilth”.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman\'s Morning Call email.

From time to time my attempts to explain to gardeners the technology and science of their hobby have been thwarted by horticulture’s language; a kind of “lost in translation” situation. And few words have thwarted me more often than “tilth”, a challenge to the most lexicographic of minds but one of critical significance at this time of the year.

By “this time of the year” I mean the season for starting to sow seeds outdoors. And even the most inexperienced of gardeners will appreciate that the smaller the seed, the easier they can become lost among the clods and lumps of seedbed soil; and the harder it then is for the young seedling to fight its way to the surface. That is where the problem word enters: we blithely tell folk that to ensure successful germination, they must first have a good or fine tilth.

My standby, the Oxford English Dictionary, does not help much on this occasion. Under “tilth” it offers: “The condition of being under tillage; hence (good or bad) condition (of land under tillage).” Hmm! From there, one can progress to “tillage”: “The act, operation, or art of tilling or cultivating land so as to fit it for raising crops.” Hmm again!

I shall spare you the meaning of tilling and instead offer my own “tilth” definition: “The condition of the soil that supports and/or encourages the germination of seeds and growth of (young) plants.”

So far, I hope, so good. But how do you create this good or fine tilth? My first choice is a spring-tine rake, used alternately in its normal way to rake, and then on its back to break down large lumps. You will thereby produce a small pile of raked material at the end of the plot. But do not waste it – because, treated properly, it is this that will give you the perfect final finish. And to achieve it, you need to sieve or riddle it, taking out the remaining large lumps, stones and rubbish while scattering the resulting fine soil over the bed, as you would flour into a mixing bowl.

[see also: How to grow early variety potatoes that will provide a crop until Christmas]

By the end of last season, however, my lovely old sieve, inherited from my father, had finally succumbed to decades of use and woodworm. My wife, most generously, offered to buy me a new one for my birthday. However, I certainly did not want something churned out from a Chinese factory, so, as a long-time admirer and supporter of British craftsmanship, I sought a home-grown source of supply.

It was then I realised that for a long time I have been incorrectly interchanging the words sieve and riddle. In one of the few bright moments in a grim last year, I discovered the wonderfully named Steve Overthrow, now the only person in the country making these tools by hand, using traditional methods (sievesandriddles.co.uk). He offers mail order, but in the brief break from lockdown last year, we opted to visit his neat and charming workshop in a delightful craft complex by the River Parrett in Langport, Somerset.

It was there that he demonstrated his skills, steam-bending the wood before fitting the metal centre; and it was then that he enlightened me by explaining that, while a sieve has a pre-made metal mesh, a riddle’s mesh is hand-woven, and from copper wire in the finest riddles. Whether it is for gardening, baking or any other purpose, Steve will craft a beautiful custom-made appliance, and mine is already giving me that perfect tilth I need.

[see also: Gardening brings a momentum that is otherwise absent from my life right now]

This article appears in the 24 February 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks

Free trial CSS