No Dig gardening is a wonderful way to grow abundant crops all year round in a way that saves time and money, with fewer weeds and healthier soil. I have used this method in my own garden, at the allotment and in the gardens I have created for clients.
I converted my allotment to no dig in early 2009. The allotment was reasonably well maintained with not too many weeds, but the soil fertility was not good – it looked tired and undernourished. We mulched it completely, paths included, with a few inches of municipal waste compost then added a couple of inches of well rotted manure to the beds. It looked amazing, like chocolate cake!
Since then, my allotment has been productive all year round and I have set up no dig beds and a polytunnel at home. Food production increased enormously. When I transformed the allotment I was in quite a lot of debt after my marriage had broken up: being able to produce so much food for my family certainly helped with our budget and my ability to gradually clear those debts.
The allotments are on heavy clay and so in the winter the ‘diggers’ can find it difficult to access their plots, which become sticky during wet weather. A no dig plot is accessible all year round, I can walk all over the allotment without damaging the soil or getting sticky boots.
The best place to find out about what no dig is and how to use these methods in your own gardens is Charles Dowding’s website.
Here is an extract from Charles’ website about why no dig is the way to go for a beautiful, productive garden.
Why No Dig
Many gardeners are discovering the benefits of growing healthy food without any soil cultivation. As well as saving the effort of digging, rotovating, ‘forking through’ or whatever, you will find that weeds eventually grow much less, that vegetables grow just as well, or better, and that soil sticks less to your boots – which may seem a small point but it makes a big difference to the pleasure of being out in the plot.
There a many great reasons to take the No Dig approach to vegetable growing:
- No Dig, with compost spread annually on the surface, makes soil more fertile, plants more healthy and helps reduce weed problems
- Fertility building from compost and manure on top is a copy of natural processes (forest floor, animal excretion on pastures) and works really well for vegetable growing.
- Worms and soil fauna are encouraged, then as they increase the soil becomes better aerated, without the disadvantages of digging (loss of moisture & tilth, extra weeds, expense of time and labour).
- In time, the soil surface, even on sticky clay, becomes darker and crumbly with a consistently good tilth of fine but stable soil crumbs.
- Throughout the soil, there is a proliferation of beneficial fungi, such as mycorrhizae, and bacteria. These help plant roots to find the nutrients they need, which may often be present already, but can remain unavailable to roots because of a lack of biological activity.
- Growth of plants in undisturbed soil with a mulch of compost is generally healthy and vigorous, and the healthy topsoil becomes easy to sow and plant into.
- Time is saved, moisture is conserved, and weed growth diminishes – once perennial weeds are removed (by initial mulching or digging) and providing annual weeds are not allowed to spread their seeds.
- My Dig/No Dig experiments at Homeacresand Lower Farm have found that vegetables often grow more strongly and more healthily on the un-dug beds. Total yields are similar but the quality of harvests is noticeably and intriguingly different. This photo shows the four experimental beds, of which each pair are fed the same compost/manure and cropped the same.
- In summary, soil has its own life and structure, it benefits us to encourage and respect it.
After a year or so of no dig, your beds will have a more stable soil structure than if you were regularly loosening them. From this point onwards, you can walk on them when needed. Occasionally to take a short cut I even push a heavy wheelbarrow across my beds and there is no sinking in or ill effect.
So is No Dig Easy?
Yes, because of not needing to dig, and having less weeds; but no dig does not mean no work! The input of time is in other ways that lead to higher fertility and less weeds. No dig can be practiced without spreading much organic matter, but an annual dressing of compost helps accelerate the improvement in soil structure and is definitely worthwhile for growing good vegetable crops.
I aim to spread an inch or two of my own compost, or composted animal manure, or purchased compost every autumn, so that winter weather can break its lumps into a tilth by spring, with some help from my rake. The organic matter is placed on beds only, about three fifths of the total area.