This week began with the Autumn Equinox, the festival of Mabon, which starts on September 21st
We are often asked to start no dig gardens and so Charles, the admin team of our Facebook group and I have come up with the Top Ten Most Frequently Asked Questions.
If we haven’t covered your questions, please ask them in the comments here (or on the Facebook group if you are a member) and we will answer them as soon as we can.
My first real introduction to no dig gardening was when I started working with Charles in his market garden at Lower Farm nine years or so ago. He lived in a nearby village, so I had heard of Charles and his methods (local shops sold his mixed salad leaves too) and borrowed his book Organic Gardening, the Natural No Dig Way from the library but didn’t see it in action until I visited his farm for the job interview – it looked amazing! Learning about Charles’ method through experiencing it, his way of working with the soil and nature felt natural and I was soon wanting to apply the methods to my allotment and garden.
For myself, no dig enabled me to create a really productive allotment and home garden which was very easy to maintain, especially important at that time as I was looking after young children as a lone working parent so anything that saved time was really useful! (I still am a single mum, but my youngest is now almost 18). Growing all that food really helped my budget too. I’ve always used organic methods, so no dig fits with my desire to work with and support nature.
Recently I asked members of our no dig Facebook group why they decided to garden using no dig methods. There are many different reasons: wanting to save time, a deeper connection with nature, physical mobility, it makes sense…. Here are some of the replies:
Flexibility as to growing all year and wide period in which I can apply compost. Labour saving. To fit with my busy life!
Growing healthy biodiverse soil, which means healthy nutrient rich plants and healthy people.
I was convinced by the arguments for preserving and building soil structure rather than starting over again every year. It goes hand in hand with the attraction of growing perennial vegetables.
Initially it was the labour saving element as we took on a plot on pasture with a 3&1 year old in tow!! When I looked into the benefits of maintaining the soil diversity etc there was an “aha!” Moment as it aligned with many of our other values about nature and not messing about with stuff for the sake of it.
Bad back = no digging for me. It’s easier to prepare, plant and manage. Almost always have something edible growing in the food garden (mostly because we changed our attitude to what we could achieve and also added a very small no-dig polytunnel
It was the avoidance of the annual destruction of soil structure that initially attracted me, the fact that after digging, soil needed to re-establish itself before it became an efficient growing medium.
Absolutely building soil structure and protecting soil flora and fauna was the initial impetus. Huge plus is that my site remains unwaterlogged, unlike my neighbouring allotments, throughout the winter!
Likewise on my heavy clay, helps to maintain soil structure.
Simplicity! Plus all the other benefits of keeping soil structure good and looking after nature.
Firstly it was the thought of not having to dig (for my back’s sake) and the time saved in not doing so. Then learnt about benefits to soil health. And then the bonus of time to keep on top of weeds and pests. Plus with Charles’ books the organisation factor of timing and spacing.
Labour saving initially but I’ve seen a great improvement in the soil structure ,would never go back to digging now
Thanks for adding me to this lively and friendly group 🙂 The thing that lured me into No Dig was the promise of a way of making organic food production more productive than conventional farming.
Poor health and a desperate desire to create a new garden nevertheless. More recently an opportunity to show people, via my front garden on a housing trust estate that no dig is possible and productive.
It’s the way nature does it 🙂
Microorganisms! Pure & simple
Weed suppressant with vibrant growth, without the use of petrochemical fuelled machinery. Also potential of a viable business which we now have!
It’s a gentler more graceful way to approach the land. Leaving soil untouched, undisturbed and planting into that life is a respectful way to engage with natures power, beauty and poetry.
Coming from a science background it makes perfect sense if you want a high quality product.
Less weeding and no tilling!!!
When does ‘Mother Nature’ regularly turn the soil upside down. destroying it’s structure and killing many of its inhabitants?
Had been on the allotment list for 3 years and in the meantime did my back in (not gardening) and still wanted to take up the allotment when I got to the top of the list. No-dig is still a lot of work to get established but not such a strain on the old back. It also allows you to potter instead of labour. Plus of course all the benefits of better food.
It promotes healthy soils and in return we benefit in many different ways. it is also sustainable.
Mine was researching how to improve my knowledge and increase my yields. It’s been a learning journey, from just starting to garden, to understanding how to garden. I have become so much more aware of the full growing cycle and what it represents,
Our group is called No Dig Gardening – Undug. There’s a link to it in the sidebar, under no dig links.
Why did you start adopting no dig methods? If you are not no dig, what most appeals to you about it?
I’ve mostly been concentrating on my at home garden, so it was a real pleasure to be able to spend some time at my allotment, getting ready for everything that will be planted there over the next week or so.
I’d let the brassicas go to flower for the wildlife, but now needed most of the space for new plantings.
At the back, you can see the untidy part of my plot – cloche hoops and sticks waiting in a heap on top of the plastic mulch* to be put to use.
(*the plastic mulch is there to kill off invasive horseradish, which was trying to take over. It will be there all year.)
Bees and other beneficial insects are loving the brassica flowers. Small birds are feeding on the many insects flying about there. Some of the stems are covered in aphids, useful food for all kinds of beneficial predators – fine on these as they are going to be composted soon but I wouldn’t be quite as happy if they were on my food crops.
Most of the plants needed removing; I left just some flowering kale (seen above in the photo with the blue sky).
Even though it has been so dry for weeks, these mulched beds have retained moisture so I was able to simply pull out the large plants. Using my very sharp copper spade*, I chopped them into 6 inch pieces, then added them to the compost heap. Allowing the plants to flower has another advantage – it helps to create more material for compost making. To the heap I also added ripped up cardboard and chopped comfrey leaves; there’s a lot of comfrey in the hedgerows at this site.
(* the spade has an alloy so it is really bronze)
After clearing, I walked over the bed to level it off and break down any lumps of composted manure that remained, then using my dibber made holes for the module sown peas. The moisture conserving properties of the mulch made the job easy, even though we have had the driest April here for 30 odd years. It was more difficult where the brassicas had been, as one would expect.
I had meant to add a picture of the module peas but forgot to put it in my media files before going away – I am in Sussex, at Sarah Raven’s where Charles is giving a day course. This is a photo of my view as I type!
Back on the allotment, here are the peas after planting. I also planted module sown beetroot and spring onions down the sides of the beds – you can just about see the small leaves.
The self sown borage is huge now and full of bees.
The allotment after clearing – the garlic in the foreground is looking a little yellow due to lack of rain. I am hoping there’ll be some on Monday; if not, I will water them. It’s looking quite bare but will be full within 2-3 weeks! Most of the plants are ready to go out next week, I was holding them back a bit because of the cooler temperatures last week.
At home, I’ve been clearing much of the polytunnel too. It was looking quite jungly, rather lovely really with all of those flowers, but I need the space for the tomatoes.
After clearing I watered using a hose with the sprinkler attached, for a long time, avoiding the back of the tunnel where I have a store of compost and the apricot. I avoid drenching that, preferring to water the soil.
You can see how some of the garlic has suffered from dryness and growing amongst large brassica plants, something to remember for next year. I’m hoping it will perk up after a few days.
I’ve left some kale, chard, dill and turnip greens for a final pick. I harvest the green seeds of the coriander before clearing, delicious sprinkled on hummus.
Harvests included calabrese, carrots, spring onions and cabbages.
Then the tomatoes went in, with the string placed at the bottom of the hole. This helps to secure the string, which is fastened to the crop bars. I’m using baler twine as I have a huge quantity of it. Each piece is reused for years, not biodegradable unfortunately but as I have some, it seems sensible to use it up.
These tomatoes are mostly much smaller than I would usually plant, late sowing (due to the Italian trip) and so planted from module to tunnel without being potted on. An interesting experiment!
I also harvested the scrapes from the elephant garlic. These have gone into the fridge, I’ll cook them on Monday.
Next week, the aubergines will be planted and soon, cucumbers and melons – also, the edible flower companions and basil soon, too. An exciting transformation from spring to summer.
Friday 21st April was uniquely special for Charles and myself. Two very exciting events happened quite by chance on the same day: our book arrived at the publishers and Charles was featured on BBC Gardeners’ World. Life has been so busy since that it has taken a week to be able to find the time write this post 🙂
Our publishers, Permanent Press, released gorgeous photos on social media of our book. It was quite a challenge focusing on other tasks over the weekend, with the anticipation of delivery on Monday, wondering what it would look like ‘in real life’ and looking forward to holding a copy.
Meanwhile, Gardeners’ World were busy promoting the evening’s programme on Twitter, with the help of Monty’s dog Nigel. We were delighted to read the BBC describing Charles as “legendary”!
Neither Charles not myself own a tv, so we had arranged to visit a friend to watch the programme. Charles’ part was filmed at Homeacres on 10th August 2016; we were looking forward to seeing how they had edited a whole day’s filming into around 6 minutes.
We thought it was great – loved Monty’s introduction, calling Charles a “guru” (!!) and afterwards, explaining that he has been convinced by Charles’ work. The programme included footage of Charles with Geoff Hamilton back in the 1980s, when a whole episode of Gardeners’ World was filmed from his then garden, an 8 acre organic no dig market garden. Fun to see Charles as a young man, too! You can see the programme on You Tube here.
The feedback has been fantastic: lots of discussion and a massive increase in people wanting to find out more about no dig. I had the briefest appearance on the programme too, captured here in a screenshot by my daughter. There’s been a lot of interest in this little bed, people wondering whether it was made just for the programme and then removed. I’m happy to say that it cropped until mid-winter and recently we planted potatoes in it. Charles and Ed made a video about creating and planting the bed here.
We were thrilled when the courier arrived on Monday afternoon and we could finally see the result of all of the work done by ourselves, the editors, proofreader, designer, indexer, etc. The book was much bigger than we’d anticipated (it is so full of information, photos, ideas…) and looks lovely.
There were a lot of boxes, we were so glad it was a dry day!
After carrying all of these boxes into the conservatory for storage with the help of Finn, Charles’ helper who took these photos, it was time to start signing copies for all of the pre-orders and package them, ready for the post office the following morning. The envelopes Charles had bought were a fraction too small which created a bit of a problem initially, solved when we worked out a way if making larger envelopes using the existing ones and packing tape. (Larger envelopes have arrived now!)
By 6 pm, our hands were getting tired and the champagne was calling us – also, we hadn’t properly looked through the book yet! So we drank champagne and have a first real look at our new book. We love it 🙂
No Dig Organic Home and Garden has received some really wonderful feedback, I’ve hardly stopped smiling all week thanks to the many kind, enthusiastic responses to our book. It was a best seller on a certain online store one day after being published and today is also #2 in Organic Gardening (#1 is Charles’ Diary) Copies has gone to the distributor in America, we have been sending them worldwide too. We are so delighted with the sales, it is fantastic.
The best way to support authors is to buy direct so if you would like a copy, please consider buying from Charles’ website here. We can sign it for you, too! Alternatively, the book can be bought from the publishers. Both ways support everyone who has worked to produce the book. (Some online retailers have policies which means that they get most of the proceeds.)
We have had some hard frosts here in Bruton, with temperatures falling well below zero (that’s cold for for Somerset, I appreciate that elsewhere it would be considered rather mild weather!) Although not frost free, the polytunnel offers a lot of protection from the winter weather, in particular icy winds and rain, enabling me to grow a far wider range of food year round.
I love tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers, peppers and chillis – having a polytunnel gives me the opportunity to grow these in abundance. Last Monday morning (23rd May) the polytunnel looked like this:
so I brought the laundry in and cleared the last of the winter lettuce, moved most of the pots outside and removed any emerging bindweed which creeps in from the right hand side. Having base rails was the best solution for the space I have in my back garden, it meant that I was able to have an additional 2 feet or more width to the tunnel, but the disadvantage of base rails over digging the polythene in is that the latter method also acts as a barrier to creeping weeds.
At the back are tomato and tomatillo plants waiting to be planted. Beside the rear door is a grapevine, in front are some overwintered garlic – on the left is elephant garlic. In the middle of the tunnel you can see two Grenoble Red lettuces which I am growing in order to save their seed, to the right are Rocket new potatoes. I left the self sown night scented stock because the scent it so gorgeous – here I had just begun sprinkling rock dust.
Remaining in the tunnel are some young plants in module trays which are remaining here until ready to plant. I grow a lot of beans because I’m also supplying some clients. These are climbing and dwarf French beans, runners, borlotti and Czar.
There were two compost heaps ready to mulch the tunnel: one plastic ‘dalek’ type with year old compost and a larger heap made from pallets and old wood. This heap had 3 year old compost on the bottom, two year old on top. Neither heap have ever been turned. The compost is beautifully rich, dark and crumbly. The ‘dalek’ composter simply pulls up, revealing a neat pile of compost. It also revealed some unwanted inhabitants, the ants were very alarmed!
Charles came to help with the mulching. The polytunnel wasn’t mulched last year so I thought I would give the soil extra treats – powdered seaweed meal and rock dust – to add minerals and zing to the soil. It looks a bit strange at first, as if I have spread concrete dust! Here Charles had added the first wheelbarrow load of ‘dalek’ compost.
Strangely, no matter how careful I think I am being with my composting, I always find unwelcome bits of plastic in the resulting compost. So we had two buckets when loading the wheelbarrows – one for anything that needs to continue composting such as sticks (these go in one of the current heaps) and another for rubbish – and checked the compost thoroughly before using it. We spread a good two inches of compost on the wider middle bed and the two narrower side beds, using my copper rake.
There was enough compost left to do the parts which we couldn’t mulch because they had pots on them. I was amazed that one big and one small heap could produce enough compost to cover all of the beds in here. This makes me feel confident that I can produce enough at home for the spring mulch next year – one of my plans for the garden is to try to make it as closed-loop and self sufficient as possible.
The mulched polytunnel!
I planted most of the tomatoes. I grow them up strings (made from baler twine) put under the tomato when I plant it and attached to more baler twine stretched across the crop bars – the same string that I hang my washing from. Most of these tomatoes are not tied up yet because I want to replace the top twine with fresh string.
Then we celebrated by sharing a cider.
Over the week I have continued planting the tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatillo, some aubergines and cape gooseberries. There are still more aubergines, sweet and chilli peppers, melons, basil, other herbs and edible flowers to plant tomorrow and Thursday. The garlic here is a bit thin, I think because I planted it amongst the cabbage plants and it has got too dry – a lesson learned there. Some annual weeds are popping up, so I’ll hoe those tomorrow morning too. It’s good to hoe off weeds before they get too big, or even before you even see them. Charles was told this old gardeners’ saying: “If you hoe when you have no weeds, you’ll have no weeds.”
Here is the polytunnel this evening, a view from each door.
And inside the tunnel…
I’ve harvested the potatoes too, looking forward to some of these for tea.