I have been gardening using no dig methods, or no till as it is also known, for around 12 years. I’ve worked in, created or advised many different kinds of edible growing spaces: market gardens, kitchen gardens on large private estates, pop up gardens for festivals, tiny gardens, urban gardens and in my home garden and allotment, where I have a small homestead.
**Since this blog was written I have moved to Wales where I am setting up a new no dig homestead on half an acre. **
Bruton where I live is a small ancient market town in England, with a population of around 3000. The local church was founded in the 7th Century and the town was listed in the Domesday Book in 1086 as “Briuuetone” – people have been living here and growing food for a long time. We are surrounded by verdant farmland and ancient sites including the Isle of Avalon, Stonehenge (45 minute drive away) and Cadbury Castle, said to be the site of King Arthur’s Camelot.
My house is a semi detached ex council house, built around 1930 as affordable housing for rural workers. The gardens are not very big, but I manage to grow a lot of food in my front and back garden, and at the allotment just up the road. This is rented from the local council for £17 a year, where I have eleven 4 ft x 16ft beds plus an area for composting. I do all of my growing and gardening mostly by myself. My three children are all university students with not much interest in growing but they will help out and are certainly interested in eating the veggies!
My main passion for growing is a connection with something that feels ‘real’, and feeding my family, knowing the source of what we eat. I know the food has been grown without chemicals, is seasonal and is as fresh as can be. It is also fantastic exercise, connects a person to nature and is great for mental health. I’ve been growing my own now for around 30 years, starting with just a few pots in a yard. Adopting no dig methods has transformed how I grow, making it so much easier and more productive.
Some no dig harvests
It is almost as simple as it sounds! I don’t turn over the soil to grow my food. Instead I spread an annual mulch of compost on the surface every year, around a centimetre or two. This encourages soil organisms to incorporate it into the soil, eating and excreting as they do so, which helps to improve soil structure and fertility. That’s once a year, usually in the winter months but it can be done at any time.
Gardeners use many different kinds of mulches worldwide. Here in our damp, temperate climate compost works well because it does not provide a habitat for slugs, snails and woodlice – all creatures that like to chomp on our veggies. In other climates compost is often topped with hay, straw, wood chips, grass clippings and such like, all cosy homes for these pests in the UK. so I only use them in areas such as under currant bushes, not annual veg beds.
The compost can be composted anything – garden waste, animal manures, wood chip – as long as it has lived at some stage it can be composted, even old jeans. Spread on the beds, it is a rich environment, supporting a wide range of wildlife including toads, black beetles, dung beetles and birds, as well as flora and fauna which can not be seen by the human eye. It is most definitely not “bare earth”!
The compost mulch helps to conserve moisture, meaning less watering and better plant growth. Not disturbing the soil by digging improves the soil structure, which means that it is less likely to become waterlogged in wet weather or rock hard in the summer. I grow on heavy clay, but this method works for all soil types including sandy soils.
No dig gardening also helps to reduce weeds, because you are not bringing up annual weed seeds by digging the soil. Of course weed seeds blow onto the beds, or creep in from the edges, but with a compost mulch these are easy to hoe and keep under control. Having weed free beds makes life so much easier. There are fewer places for slugs and other pests to hide, and it makes intercropping (growing other edibles in the spaces between plants) and replanting so much easier. You can harvest a bed of garlic, for example, and straight away plant out beans or squash or brassicas – it saves time, too.
This means more crops in a smaller space. It enables me to grow a (relatively!) huge amount of food which keeps my family supplied year round (I am enthusiastic about preserving the harvest, so I can, dehydrate, freeze and preserve my harvests in many different ways). It’s surprising how much can be grown in just one no dig bed. At the no dig market garden I helped to set up, Homeacres (owned by Charles Dowding), he produces food year round for family and friends, courses and sells around £25,000 (around $31,700) worth of veg locally a year – all from 1/4 acre of veg beds in a 3/4 acre plot.
Another benefit of not turning over the soil is that it ensures that the natural structure remains intact, open, alive and free draining. Mycorrhizae and other fungi thrive in undug soil; their role in soil health was not fully understood until relatively recently and we are learning more about the importance of fungi every year. They form a network in the soil which enables plants to feed better, access water and, according to research, is a form of communication – rather like a subterranean world wide web, connecting trees to plants to microscopic life. I wonder what they talk about…. what do you think?!
Sometimes people suggest that no dig gardening uses much more compost than digging methods. Certainly in the first year you can use a lot of compost (see my blog here about setting up a no dig garden – it’s about veganic methods but it’s the same with manure based composts too) depending on the kind of ground you are starting with, but for subsequent years it is the same as you’d use for digging methods, it’s just that with the compost on the surface it is more visible. After all, digging doesn’t make a soil fertile. All of the diggers at my allotment site dig compost in – either made themselves or bought from a local farmer. Because carbon retention is better for no dig soil rather than dug, you actually need less compost for the beds than you’d need for the same results if you’re digging. Not digging also helps to lock in carbon, because digging causes some oxidisation of carbon as CO2 – so it is better for the environment in this way, too.
No dig gardens enable more people to grow their own abundant crops. They are a boon for people who can only attend to their gardens for a few hours a week because they are easy to maintain. They enable people with different abilities and mobilities to grow their own, especially those for whom digging would be impossible or impractical. And they look beautiful.
I keep my beds as weed free as possible, but wildlife gardening and biodiversity is a key part of my gardening. I create wild edges with a wide range of habitats, flowers and other plants. This encourages bees, hoverflies, moths, bats, birds, wasps and other creatures to live in my garden. Many are beneficial predators of pests. I do not use any pesticides, instead the wild life – in particular predatory wasps – help to keep the populations of aphids and other bugs under control. It makes my garden and interesting and companionable place to be too – there’s always something to observe. I also use some crop protections, carefully secured down, including butterfly netting and enviromesh over some of my vegetables, especially the brassicas which are stripped by birds unless protected.
Some different ways to start no dig:
On very weedy ground, pread brown cardboard (tape and staples removed) or thick layers of damp newspaper (to stop it from flying off) over the weeds and cover with 2-6” (5 – 15 cm)of compost, as much as you have. Tamp down with the back of a rake or walk gently over the top and you can plant right away.
Another method for weedy ground is to spread less rotted compost and nutritious leaves (comfrey, nettle etc) over the grass and cover with a large sheet of pre-used polythene (ask around, there’s usually some to be had, I have a sheet that is 15 years old). If you do this in summer/autumn and leave until the following spring it should have rotted down into compost whilst killing the weeds. Another option is to do this in late spring, plant good sized squashes through holes into the soil beneath (if they are big they are less likely to be harmed by slugs) for a crop whilst sheet mulching. This method does create a habitat for slugs etc so it is worthwhile removing the polythene a few weeks before you want to plant to encourage the slugs to slither off.
If the beds are already mostly weed free, hoe off or trowel out any weeds and spread 1-2” (2-5cm) compost on the surface.
I prefer to have earth paths with a little compost on top. They are easy to hoe and the plants in the neighbouring beds can root into them, too. A very light sprinkling of partially rotted wood chip (think a few millimetres rather than centimetres) is good too. A deeper wood chip mulch can create a home for woodlice which, contrary to popular belief, do like to nibble on fresh plant matter as well as decaying wood.
This works even for plots which are full of bindweed, couch etc. During the first year you will need to be especially vigilant and remove any perennial weeds that pop through the mulch with a trowel or Hori Hori. After the first year or so, they have usually died off.