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The No-dig Novice

02/05/2020

Jill Kaye


Having gardened for over half my life, digging the soil has always seemed an essential way of removing weeds, breaking up heavy soil and incorporating organic matter to improve it. I had until recently viewed no-dig gardening like a new age religion – something a bit waffly that I couldn’t really believe in. Then last year I did two separate short courses which started to open my eyes to different ways of growing: an introduction to Permaculture and a weekend course in Forest Gardening. 

At the heart of both these approaches is the idea that if we garden in a way that mimics the natural world, we will grow healthier, stronger plants with less input. The soil is a teeming mass of interconnected life, from earthworms and beetles down to bacteria and fungi which all work in symphony in breaking down organic matter and creating a self-supporting system. The result is a healthy soil structure which is well-drained but can hold moisture and supply nutrients as and when plants require them. When gardeners dig the soil, they break up this complex structure and destroy the eco-system which has evolved, which then has to build up all over again. Digging can also create more of a weed problem by breaking up the roots of perennial weeds which rapidly re-grow, and bringing weed seeds to the surface where they germinate and romp away merrily in the newly bare soil. In fact, the soil is recovering – literally re-covering – itself, by quickly re-establishing growth, which is its natural state. 

Although all this made sense in theory, I found it very hard at first to start putting these methods into practice, still finding myself reaching for my garden fork when clearing a patch of weeds, in the belief that I must remove their roots by digging.  Last year I cleared one bed by digging over in the spring, then got busy with other things and overlooked it. By the time I wanted to plant out my winter brassicas in July, it was overrun with bindweed and couch grass again – I might as well not have bothered.

I started to read more about no-dig gardening, especially the information on Charles Dowding’s website: https://charlesdowding.co.uk/charles-story/ He has been growing vegetables on a no-dig system since 1981 with prolific harvests, saving time and energy and with fewer weed problems than conventional gardening, and he never needs to add fertilisers. By adding plenty of rotted organic matter on the surface and planting into that, the soil beneath is undisturbed, plant roots work their way into the soil and over time the soil starts to build up a stable structure which supports the plants.

Like all new ways of doing things, it takes time to adapt but this year I decided to try it for myself, and I thought it would be interesting to share my experiences with you. So here goes.

I almost fell down at the first hurdle, having failed to get a large quantity of organic matter onto my beds over the winter. I had organised a delivery of good quality well-rotted horse manure from a stables near Rye, but the rain in February meant the suppliers couldn’t get their trailer across the saturated field; then came Covid-19 which put a stop to everything. I hadn’t produced enough usable compost from my own heap and didn’t want the expense of ordering bags of manure from a garden centre in the quantity that I’d need. Confession time: it was now mid-March and my first earlies needed to go in - I did break my resolve and dug two bags of horse manure into one patch, so I could plant them. But what to do for the rest of my veg beds? Then I realised the wood chip I had put down on my paths a year before had half rotted down and looked usable. I raked the big chunks from the surface, then scraped up the rest and had enough to pile onto two of my raised beds, where I would grow my second early potatoes and my legumes. 

It felt very weird planting my potatoes into a dry mulch: it is a decent enough depth – up to 15cm – but is only half composted, containing many small chunky pieces of bark and wood. Everything I had been taught said that the bark would be ‘robbing’ the Nitrogen and depriving the plants, but I have decided that if they start looking yellow I’ll just give them an organic feed. I set the potatoes about 10cm under the surface, which means they are only a few centimetres above the soil itself which is reasonably good – last year I spread some fine old compost made by the previous tenant and grew a green manure crop of field beans which will be providing some nitrogen as they rot, and I imagine the roots of the potatoes will start working their way down and tapping into it. At this point, the foliage of the second earlies looks as healthy as the ones in the dug section. Watch this space.

Jill's potatoes - the second earlies are the smaller plants in the foreground, and the firsts are bigger in the background. You can see the rough bark mulch.

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