December no dig gardening at Homeacres

Last week (December 6th) I took some photos of another of my work places, so here is a mini-tour of  Charles Dowding‘s no dig market garden at Homeacres.

One of the key elements of this beautiful, abundant garden is an annual mulch of well rotted compost, either homemade or cow manure (bought from a local farmer).  This year, Charles has produced most of the compost he will use on the 1/4 acre of intensively cropped beds (1/3 acre if you include the compost heaps; the overall garden is around 2/3 acre).

Homemade compost, a gorgeous sight for any gardener; rich, dark and crumbly! An annual dressing of an inch or two will feed the soil and the plants for a whole year, no other feeds are necessary – saving a lot of time.

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After spreading, the compost is raked level. This also breaks up any large lumps.

The beds are made with no wooden sides, except for some experimental ones. This is the dig/no dig experiment – each bed is 5ft x 16 ft (1.5x5m). Exactly the same amount of compost is added to the beds annually. It is spread on the surface of the bed for the no dig and dug in for the dig bed. It took 10 minutes to prepare the undug bed for the year: the dug one took 80 minutes.

Charles keeps meticulous records, planting and sowing identical crops at the same time in each and weighing everything we harvest. During 2016, the dug bed produced an impressive 99kg of vegetables: the undug an even more spectacular 109kg. Around 100 kg of healthy vegetables from just one bed shows how much food can be produced with some planning, sowing and planting at the right time, and care. Just think what could be achieved if everyone could have access to a few beds like this, to feed their family.

So, the dug bed takes an extra 70 minutes of unnecessary work in order to produce less food!

Another problem we have discovered with this experiment is that we need to harvest everything before the annual dig. Some perfectly good kale plants were removed – we used every leaf we could, but it was still a shame to remove plants which would have cropped for much longer.

The rest of the garden is still producing a lot of food as the year draws to a close. When beds are cleared of final harvests, they are mulched with the beautiful compost.

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This side of the garden is a mixture of annual and perennial fruit and vegetables, including brussel sprouts, an especial winter favourite of both of us. I can eat huge piles of sprouts. When I was a little girl, I was delighted that my sister hated sprouts because I got to eat her’s too!

People often comment about how tidy Charles’ garden looks. It was created on a weedy pasture full of perennial weeds including bindweed, creeping buttercup and couch grass four years ago, entirely using mulches without digging out any of the weeds. As you can see, the garden is weed free, kept this way through regular hoeing, removing any weeds that appear when they are tiny.

A visitor in a group from a PDC course said that it looked ‘sterile’. Another asked, “So you don’t mulch then?” Strange comments from permaculture students because a key component of permaculture is to observe! The beds are all mulched with a living compost rich with soil flora and fauna, the plants are healthy and vibrant. It is a lovely balance of the needs of a market gardener and those of wildlife.

Just a few feet away from the vegetable beds, surrounding the whole garden, are wild edges rich with a variety of habitats and forage.
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Including – seasonally! – this beautiful mistletoe in an old apple tree.

Here in the foreground is Taunton Deane perennial kale, with annual winter vegetables and the wonderful compost heaps behind.

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The concrete area behind the small shed is where Charles mixes the salad we sell to local shops and restaurants. (The broken chair is a sad casualty of recent bad weather!) The nettles here provide food for butterflies, we add them to the compost heaps and also to our soups and smoothies.

When Charles moved here, the small metal shed had been used as a chicken coop. The area in front was the first part of the garden to be planted – it was late November, garlic and broadbeans were put in. We love the colour of the paintwork. The small wooden sided bed is a demonstration bed, showing how one can quickly make a no dig bed in a smaller space.

Attached to the house, the old brick shed is an invaluable resource. It is where we pack the salad and veg boxes and store veg over winter in boxes and crates. I bought the wooden carving above the door for Charles when I visited Myanmar. Charles made the coldframe using a combination of new and recycled materials for a magazine article; it has proved to be very useful.

During the winter months, the polytunnel and greenhouse are used to grow a lot of salad, our main cash crop here, and also to raise and overwinter some plants. We are still picking some of the salad leaves outside including radicchio, chicories, spinach, chervil, rocket, some orientals and coriander. The covered spaces however are very much appreciated on cold or damp picking days! The salad includes orientals, mustards, rockets and Grenoble Red lettuce (this is grown from home saved seed).

Towards the front of the property are fruit trees and  willows, to provide some privacy for the compost loo inside this shed.

These fruit trees were planted as maidens when Charles moved here. The compost here under the polythene is mostly municipal waste from the local recycling centre.

To finish this little tour, during the summer Charles decided to have a roof made for his compost heaps, which are mostly made out of pallets. Mark, a builder who lives opposite, made it according to a drawing on a scrap of paper! It is a versatile space which is used to not only make excellent compost but also to dry vegetables, store firewood and harvest water from the roof into the water butts. I made a shop in two of the bays to sell books and veg for our open day in September, too. I think we have barely touched upon the possibilities for this useful space.

6 thoughts on “December no dig gardening at Homeacres

  1. All looks fabulous. You are both a great inspiration to us all. Thanks for the tour really good to see how everything is arranged on your market garden.

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  2. This is remarkable!! Thank you for sharing. Charles is an inspiration. . . and you are also. My garden which I always thought was large and hard to manage whilst working full time (as a woman, doing this alone) now seems easier to manage with all that I’m learning from you both. I am so grateful. . . truly grateful. Blessings,

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