WIN, WIN Thanks to compost, the no-dig approach produces equivalent or better results, while the labour is radically reduced.
Walking with Charles Dowding through the gardens and polytunnels at The Organic Centre recently was not only educational, it was highly inspirational.
“Do you dig?” he asked. “Not really”, I answered vaguely, “we bring in compost and farmyard manure and work it into the soil.” “So you do dig,” he stated firmly.
And we probably do, even if spades are not much used and we are definitely not double digging. But we use digging forks and rakes to incorporate compost into the top layer of the soil, we sometimes rake the top soil to one side, spread manure and rake the top soil back on top. In short we are not doing what he was here for: To talk and teach and demonstrate his way of organic gardening – the natural no-dig way.
No-dig gardening is a method used by some organic gardeners. When I moved to Ireland in the mid-80s, Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka’s ‘Do Nothing Farming’ was a must read for everyone in the developing organic movement.
For Charles, he drew inspiration from British gardener FC King’s ‘Is Digging Necessary?’ (1946) and American gardener Ruth Stout, who advocated a ‘permanent’ garden mulching technique in ‘Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent’ in the 1950s and 1960s.
Charles has not dug his own garden for over 25 years. He crops almost an acre of land, selling vegetable boxes and salad bags from his farm, Homeacres in Somerset, England. He is absolutely passionate about developing a better understanding of our soil, plants and seasons.
What is no-dig gardening?
Standing in front of 30 course participants at The Organic Centre on a cold but sunny weekend in early November, Charles said: “I want you all to understand the simplicity of the process, which is to add organic matter to the soil or, in other words, mulch with well-rotted compost or manure. That’s it, that is the basic principle!”
And he explained further that he applies a top dressing of compost or well-rotted manure about 2 inches deep once a year, preferably in autumn or winter, but it could be done any time really. Add the organic matter to the top and let the worms, microorganisms and fungi mix the compost into the soil. So in other words he makes composting, the recycling of waste material from the garden and the kitchen, the upper most priority. “Compost is not just a fertiliser,” he said, “it’s gold dust and the nutrients are release slowly.”
Over the course of the day he showed many examples that his way of gardening can easily deal with weeds, prevent pests and diseases and leads to an abundance of vegetables all year round.
How to get started
The first step is the initial soil feeding and mulching of weedy plots. Any organic matter can be applied on top at this stage and used as both soil food and to increase the light deprivation of weeds below. Cover with sheets of cardboard or black plastic or old carpets. The worms will get busy under those dark mulches.
Then apply patience. The time needed for the weed roots to become exhausted by trying to grow in darkness under whatever mulch is used depends on the compost depth and weeds coverage. Annuals need two to three months, and many perennials take from six months to a year. Once the appropriate time has passed, remove the polythene or membrane.
Now you’ll have a clean surface to sow and grow. All sowing and planting is into the dark surface layer, with plants then rooting into undisturbed soil below.
Charles has carried out experiments over many years, comparing yields from dig and no-dig plots. The no-dig approach consistently produces equivalent or better results and the labour input is radically reduced. The pictures he showed us from his trials spoke for themselves.
So if you are re-thinking your garden for 2016, think about the no-dig approach. I for one will definitely give it a go in my own garden, and hopefully can convince some of my fellow gardeners at The Organic Centre too.
Organic Gardening: The Natural No-Dig Way’, by Charles Dowding, is available online at www.theorganiccentre.ie.
Hans Wieland is training manager at The Organic Centre, Rossinver, Co Leitrim, which offers courses, training and information on organic growing and cooking, and runs an Eco Shop and an online gardening store. For more information, visit www.theorganiccentre.ie. Gardening questions or comments? Contact Hans at firstname.lastname@example.org.