My no dig allotment is approximately 75 ft x 14 ft and provides vegetables, fruit, herbs and some flowers year round. I love the simplicity and abundance of my plot: gardening there is a real pleasure. It is one of 20 at a site on the edge of Bruton, just a few minutes’ walk from my house. I have had it since they were first offered to local people, 11 or 12 years ago.
During the first year of allotmenting, I happily implemented many of the ideas I’d seen in permaculture gardens at festivals plus general gardening advice from books, including digging the beds! Straight lines were not for me: my paths curved, I made a herb spiral using glass bottles. I spent a lot of time working out companion planting and filled the plot with flowers to benefit wildlife, I planted comfrey to make plant food. It all looked very lovely, for a while.
Although the herb spiral was gorgeous, especially as I had used almost entirely blue bottles (thanks to knowing some people who worked in the pub trade and could source them for me) it was nigh on impossible to maintain. The perennial weeds in the plot – couch, bindweed, tormentil – quickly took over requiring hours of weeding, time that as a mum with young children I simply didn’t have, and the soil within it quickly dried out too. It was also tricky harvesting the herbs.
The planting within the beds was very influenced by some polycultures I had seen in other gardens. Again, this looked beautiful for a while but I soon found that the beneficial predators couldn’t cope with the number of slugs, woodlice etc that lived happily under all of the companion plants. It was difficult to weed – perennials and annuals soon dominated – and I couldn’t protect brassicas easily from cabbage white butterflies so they got stripped. Most of the flowers I put in for the bees and hoverflies self seed amazingly well – phacelia, borage, poached egg plant. This looked stunning but over the summer I soon had more flowers than food, which wasn’t helpful. At the time, my then husband had lost his job and we were incredibly hard up – we needed food for our growing family but I was struggling to produce it using these methods.
So that winter I removed all of the bottles and recycled them, weeded the plot and made beds in straight lines. I still wanted to include wild flowers, which were moved mostly to the edges of the allotment and radically reduced the companion planting – I had got a bit carried away and was growing more companions than dinner ingredients! This method worked a lot better, producing food for my family but the soil wasn’t in very good shape and the annual digging meant that I wasn’t growing much in the winter and I had a lot of annual weeds in addition to the perennials to deal with. Also it is a heavy clay soil, so in wet weather I couldn’t go on the plot because it stuck to my boots in huge clumps. I loved working on my allotment but was disappointed by how much time I had to spend doing the same tasks over and over again.
In February 2009 with the help of Charles Dowding, I transformed the allotment to no dig. You can see the poor quality of the soil in the photograph above. First of all, I weeded out anything that I didn’t want to keep, including the comfrey – I had planted the invasive sort by mistake, there is plenty at the allotment site in the wilder areas and also at the very top of my plot, where the compost bins are.
We covered the whole plot, including the paths, with municipal waste compost. A few days after we had mulched with municipal waste compost, a local farmer delivered some well rotted manure which I spread across the top of each bed. The depth on the path was a couple of inches: on the beds it was around 6 inches, with the manure. This method attracted a lot of interest from fellow allotment holders who were surprised that I wasn’t going to dig it all in.
That year I grew more food than ever before which helped our budget enormously and had more time to do the really pleasurable tasks because there were no annual weeds to deal with (save for a few which blew on) and it was simple to trowel out the odd perennial. I could walk on the plot in all weathers too.
The whole transformation cost under £100 in compost, a one-off expense and worthwhile investment as I have reaped the benefits ever since in time saved and big harvests. Now the plot receives an annual mulch of an inch or so of well rotted manure or homemade compost.
The allotment beds are mostly 4 ft wide with an earth path of a 15 inches or thereabouts. It is very easy to hoe and keep weed free, even during the peak growing season. Last year a new allotment neighbour totally neglected the plot, so it resembles a field now. Fortunately someone else has taken it on so hopefully it will become productive soon. There is a long waiting list for allotments here.
At the top of the plot I have a compost area and storage for watering cans, etc behind which I have comfrey and nettles for compost and plant food. In front of the compost area is where I grow some perennials including rhubarb and globe artichokes. This year I am trying to remove the horseradish there which is far too invasive. When I planted it 11 years ago I didn’t realise how bad it was – I should have checked before planting! I’m going to dig out what I can and use it, then cover that area with cardboard for a year, growing squash over the top to make use of the space. I have another horseradish plant growing in a large concrete container in the back garden which is plenty for my needs.