No dig by Charles Dowding
Charles Dowding by Heather Edwards
What is the no dig method of gardening?
No dig is a simple and easy method, which perhaps is why it has struggled to be taken seriously, until recently.
Charles’ no dig market garden in September 2019, 1000 square metres of beds. Use the same approach for one bed or 100 beds
There are three key facets.
1 Soil is undisturbed so its organisms can work and multiply
Most soil already has structure for plant roots to grow, nutrients to feed plants, and is full of growth-enabling organisms. Billions of fungal threads, nematodes and earthworms, to name a few, are being helpful right under our feet, mostly out of sight. We need to help them to help us.
You have already started no dig without knowing! Since the last time you dug or tilled or forked your soil, it has been healing itself, with networks of fungi and recreation of a stable structure. With no dig you simply and literally build on that.
2 Organisms are fed with organic matter on the surface, as in nature but faster
Allow soil to work its magic. Nutrients become available when needed by plants, through a combination of air and soil temperatures being high enough for photosynthesis to happen. Roots ask fungi for food and moisture, and fungi work best when undisturbed, hence you see stronger growth in no dig soil.
Homeacres no dig garden 29th October, and no compost or feeds have been applied for ten months, showing how nutrients are available all the time without using fertilisers
3 Plant feeding is about biology (fungi etc) more than chemistry (nutrients/minerals)
No dig increases the ability of plants to find food. Compost mulches serve as a rapid source of food for soil organisms and enhance their activity, hence improving soil structure. In damp climates, compost is best for mulching as it affords no habitat for slugs.
Why is no dig beneficial?
In three words: speed, ease and productivity.
For example, you can plant into a new bed created on weeds, on the same day, see https://youtu.be/OIojWdJz0RE
Note that beds with new compost often want treading down to firm the compost.
Problems diminish and gardening becomes easier, in particular because weeds grow less, since their healing properties are not needed by healthy soil.
- Soil is lively, structured and does not stick to your boots
- You can walk on your beds, thanks to soil’s firm but open structure.
- No dig means no compaction layers caused by damage from cultivations: no compaction means no fermentations due to anaerobic conditions, no fermentation’s mean no alcohol produced, and no alcohol means fewer slugs – this explanation thanks to Elaine Ingham.
Feeding soil organisms by mulching with old cow manure (compost) on newly planted garlic Oct
Grow more from less – keep paths narrow and avoid wooden sides where possible
No dig uses less compost than an equivalent area dug, because no carbon is lost from cultivation, and active soil life increases fertility.
How can gardeners adopt the method organically without risk of invasive weeds?
In a word, mulch.
This means covering weeds to deprive them of light, so that new weed growth is futile because it happens in darkness and cannot feed existing weed roots. Eventually they die completely, see this video https://youtu.be/Mmv2zGfhG8w for more.
However only in the first year do you need to use light-excluding mulches such as cardboard and polythene, to kill perennial weeds. This saves much time, in all subsequent years.
By September, on ground that was full of weeds in April, these Uchiki Kuri squash have grown well through cardboard and a little manure on top
I have many times completely and easily eradicated couch/twitch grass (Elymus repens) within a year.
- If I cover weeds with polythene, how do I know when they are dead?
- Best method is to lift the polythene and check for recent growth: it will be white or pale yellow stems. If you see lots of them, best leave the polythene in place because weed roots still have sufficient reserves in their roots to continue growing.
Please click on the following link to watch a video about starting no dig
- Why does no dig mean less weeding?
- Less weeds germinate in undisturbed soil, and compost mulches on the surface make it easy to pull weeds or to run a hoe through the surface. Light hoeing and raking is fine, usually the top 3cm/1in which is your surface mulch of compost.
Use a dibber or trowel to create holes for new plants.
- Does no dig work to control marestail and other perennial weeds?
- From the many reports I hear, gardeners who don’t disturb soil have more success for less effort in reducing marestail (equisetum), compared to gardeners who dig.
Whatever weeds you have, mulching rather than attempting to dig out every root means soil grows it less. Why? If only soil could talk… like all organisms, it’s happier when not disturbed.
What are three small things you think all new gardeners should know?
1 Feed the soil not the plants
2 Simple, easy methods are not lazy but clever
3 Do your homework on best sowing and harvest times for all your food plants.
New summer planting of lettuce after clearing onions, with no bed preparation or compost added
What advice do you have for people with limited outdoor space but who want to get green fingers?
- Start with a pot or box on or in a window, sow a few salad seeds (fast to harvest), and buy a few plants as well for rapid results.
- Plant a potato in spring in a small bag or bucket of compost, it’s fun but the leaves need space to grow!
- Make one small bed, even say 1.2 square metres (4ft) and pack it full of say multipurpose compost. Sow or plant in that, and keep it full with new plants all the time, as soon as gaps appear.
1 Bed of 1.2×2.3m in May with first plantings of beetroot, lettuce, onions, fennel, carrots and peas for shoots
2 Same bed in October with harvests of second or third plantings: radish, celery, leek, radicchio, beetroot and chard
- Don’t use any synthetic fertilisers or chemicals, they are bad for soil life.
- Buy some mesh to keep pests off, perhaps also some fleece (30gsm thickness) to warm early plantings in spring.
- No dig is great for flowers and ornamental plants: fewer weeds, gorgeous blooms.
One of Charles’ no dig flower borders in July, Homeacres in Somerset
End result is you have more time for productive rather than routine work, plants are healthier, you harvest more food per square metre and your garden glows with health..