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Last week I had a chat with the wonderful Charles Dowding a gardening guru who has been pioneering the practice of ‘no dig’ organic gardening since the 1980s. Having been a lone voice promoting this method for decades, suddenly he’s now a rock-star gardener with a massive social-media following. I was hugely curious as his methods have been introduced to a huge audience during lockdown. People rave about Charles but what’s his craft all about?
It’s a philosophy and way of gardening which does what it says on the tin — it’s about putting aside your spade and leaving the soil undisturbed as much as possible, therefore allowing all soil life, including microbes and earthworms, to proliferate. It protects the delicate matrix that is soil structure.
Every time we rotavate or dig, we are breaking down that structure. So before we rush out to dig over our plots as the growing season commences, let’s take some time to consider this hands-off method of gardening.
Charles became interested in growing his own veg when he became a vegetarian at university. He started an organic market garden and was always interested in the connection between the soil, plants and our own nutritional health. He eschewed the chemicals and fertilisers so predominant in gardening in the 1970s and 1980s, believing that if you get the biology of the soil right, your plants will be able to access the nutrients they require.
Charles observed that other market gardeners were overrun with weeds such as chickweed and fat hen, which took up a lot of time to dig up. Moreover, he noted that bare soil cleared of weeds will soon be covered with weeds again. As he puts it: “I think of soil as a living organism. When the soil is disturbed, weeds are part of the ‘recovery’ process. Leave the soil alone and it becomes calmer.” And when we dig over soil, we also bring seeds to the surface which germinate in the light.
So, instead of digging, he buries weeds with a thick mulch of compost or layers of cardboard. This can be anything from 2 to 6 inches deep, enough to exclude light from weeds, which in turn suppresses their growth.
In the case of really difficult and invasive weeds such as bindweed which will grow through the cardboard, he advises to keep pulling the plant out and your persistence will pay off. Mulches he uses include garden compost, spent hops, coffee grounds, mushroom compost, and horse manure.
As well as blanketing the weeds, this organic material creates a hive of activity in the soil, such as the earthworm which moves through the soil digesting organic matter and creating air particles. By doing this, you have not only left original soil structure intact but are enriching it as well. This helps with drainage as well as water retention during dry periods.
How can you implement this ‘no dig’ regime in your garden? Charles advises starting off small. You can build a raised bed over your soil or lawn and fill with compost and you are ready to plant. Small weed seedlings can be lightly hoed off in spring but just skim the surface with a light touch. This is best done on a dry day when weeds will shrivel up. Other weeds can be pulled by hand as they emerge.
The first year is the hardest with a proliferation of slugs but as things improve and the weeds disappear, your veg patch will actually become less work as you completely ditch that back-breaking digging.
I was hugely enthused by our chat — his certainties are persuasive and his knowledge and experience is truly impressive. It simply makes sense to me, so much so that I’d like to embrace the concept and restrict digging to when it’s essential — for example when creating a planting hole. We have to respect the soil — it’s our connection to the earth and is essential to our survival. To find out more, see my chat with Charles on Instagram.
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