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Charles Dowding © Jonathan Buckley
© Jonathan Buckley

Charles Dowding on no dig gardening

Published: August 22, 2022 at 9:00 am
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Generations of gardeners have been told that digging is the best way to prepare soil for planting – but that’s a myth, according to grower Charles Dowding, who practises no dig gardening. Charles explains what no dig is and how it works

No dig gardening is becoming increasingly popular, largely thanks to one man: Charles Dowding.

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Charles started experimenting with no dig gardening back in the early 1980s, inspired by Ruth Stout’s No-Work Garden Book and the pioneering work of F.C. King, Arthur Guest and Shewell Cooper, which had received little attention in the gardening world.

The results Charles achieved from initial trials – healthier plants and soil, improved harvests, fewer weeds and pests and much less labour – encouraged him to keep going. At his current market garden, Homeacres in Somerset, he uses the no-dig method of growing veg over 1,300 square metres, involving just 10 hours of his own labour per week, plus 10 hours of part time help, mostly with harvesting.

Charles also runs no dig courses online and in person and has written 12 books on no dig gardening, including his latest 'bible', No Dig: Nurture Your Soil to Grow Better Soil with Less Effort (Dorling Kindersley, September 2022), which sums up his ethos and years of experience and gives detailed growing advice for a myriad of individual crops.

We asked Charles Dowding to explain the principles and benefits of no dig gardening in more detail.

What is no dig gardening? Charles Dowding explains

What is no dig gardening?

No dig is about two things: minimal soil disturbance, and feeding the soil by adding organic matter to the surface.

No dig is basically about copying nature, where you don't have soil disturbance and and debris falls on top, from old leaves and so on. Soil organisms come up to the surface, eat it, take it down, excrete it as food for other soil organisms – so you get a whole network building up in the undisturbed soil.

The embellishment, if you like, for growing veg is to get your soil more fertile than it would be in nature – I always say, you don't walk in a forest and see carrots growing! It's not a natural thing to have beautiful vegetables, so you need to feed the soil more than nature would. So putting compost on top of the soil is a short circuit of the decomposition process – it enables a rapid build up of soil fertility and rapid success, basically. You can make a no dig bed in the morning and plant it up in the afternoon, if it's the right time of year.

When you get your soil healthy by leaving it alone, and feeding it on top, you're building health in the soil. That translates to health in your plants and frees you up to do other things.

No dig is not the slog that we had before of digging and weeding and a four-year crop rotation, which actually comes from 18th century farming and somehow made its way into gardening.It's actually cheaper in the end – people worry about the initial cost of the compost and I get that, but it's a long term investment.

Read Charles's advice on how to improve your soil.

Charles Dowding
© Jonathan Buckley

Tell us about the dig vs no dig trial beds that you run.

The no dig beds highlight the problems with digging!

I get much more weeds on the beds where the soil has been dug and disturbed.

It's also harder to water the dug beds as the water tends to smear on top and then runs off. You've got to water carefully, in stages. On the no dig bed, the compost mulch acts like a sponge and soaks the water up.

And there are big differences in yield. I've been at Homeacres for 10 years now and every year we get 10 per cent more yield from the no dig beds. And that's for the same amount of compost being added each year. People say, "I can't do no dig because of all the compost you need," but you actually need less compost year on year.

I've also been doing some work with a soil scientist, and her initial findings show that there's a significant increase in carbon in the no dig bed. So for anyone concerned about climate change, it's a winning argument.

Read the Land Gardeners' guide to improving soil health.

How big does a no dig bed need to be?

A bed of 1.2m x 2.4m can grow a sizeable amount of food. If you're starting out, that's the size bed I'd recommend. I'm always saying don't take on too much. I like to think that people feel in charge of what they're doing and not feeling daunted. The beauty of no dig is that you can scale up or down very easily.

How do you create a no dig bed?

If you're starting on lawn, put cardboard on top as that smothers the weeds – enough to stop them growing. Only woody plants, such as brambles, need to be dug out. Then put compost on top of that, around 10cm deep.

You can plant into the compost straightaway. The plants will root into the compost and eventually into the soil, once the cardboard has decomposed after around 10 weeks.

From then on, I add a mulch of compost in late autumn or early winter, ready for planting in spring.

Read Charles' advice on growing winter vegetables.

What type of compost can you use?

When I say compost, I mean anything that is decomposing. I'm not setting the bar too high here, as I think people believe they have to use 'perfect' compost. But actually, especially if you're making a new bed, you can put quite lumpy stuff at the bottom as long as you have 3-5cm of fine compost on top.

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The origin of your compost can be anything from old manure to leaf mould, home made compost, the stuff you can buy like green waste compost or spent mushroom compost. You can even use really old wood chip if you can sieve out the biggest bits.

Read about 15 of the best compost bins.

Can you use bagged compost?

Yes, if that's what you can get your hands on. And it's actually fine to use an old bag of compost.

One thing you don't read about is that there's a shortage of compost at the moment as so many people are gardening. And it's a bit too fresh and is still decomposing in the bag – one sign of this is that it feels warm. It's not really ready to use for plants as it's still fermenting and is going to take nutrients for its own decomposition. I've had quite a few people reporting this year that they've made a new bed and their plants aren't growing. Then about eight weeks later, they grow – once the fresh compost has decomposed.

No dig involves less weeding - can you explain why?

If you disturb the soil, it needs to recover and it will 'recover' itself with weeds. Farmers around here in Somerset say "chickweed follows the rotavator" but in no dig gardens you very rarely see chickweed. There are obviously still some weeds, but far fewer. You can remove them by hand very quickly, before they set seed, and then you're free to do other things.

What about slugs and snails?

Pests are a massive discouragement for people wanting to grow veg. No dig gardening doesn't damage the soil flora and fauna, and so allows the system of pest predators to flourish.

We've always been told that we dig the soil to expose pests to birds. But if you think about that, it makes zero sense – it implies you're only exposing the pests. What about the earthworms, centipedes and spiders that are exposed too, and the myccorrhizal network, which has been damaged?

With no dig, you get fewer slugs, but it's really important to maintain the tidiness of your garden. It's something I'm really big on. For example, removing the lower leaves of brassicas.

Find the area in your garden that doesn't have much habitat around it, if possible – if you plant veg next to your herbaceous border, they probably will be slugged. I realise this can be a challenge in a small garden.

It's also better to not have sides on your raised beds. If they're new, fine, but once the wood starts to decay where it meets the soil, it creates cavities in the wood that slugs live in – the perfect habitat for them on a sunny day. They then they come out at night and eat your plants. I'm always looking for the places where they hide by day to reduce their population – not to get rid of them, though, as we want the toads and blackbirds that might eat them.

Read about the best plants to feed birds.

You often advise against sowing too early. Why is that?

I'm always advising people to not sow seeds too early! I got an email this year from a seed company on 20 February, saying it was time to sow cucumbers. I actually recommend mid April, because the plants won't get checked by cold conditions then and they'll grow fast once you get them in the ground in May. In my new book, I lay out the best sowing times for each vegetable. There is a lot of misinformation out there.

You also tend to sow seeds under cover, instead of direct in the ground. Why?

Sowing seeds in a warm, protected environment such as a greenhouse means they have a better chance of germinating successfully and are less likely to be eaten by pests. As a greenhouse can still be cold at night in spring, I often start my seeds off in the house. I grow them on in the greenhouse and transplant outside after three to five weeks.

The exceptions are carrots and parsnips as they have long tap roots and don't transplant well, and potatoes, onion sets and garlic.

Can no dig work anywhere in the world?

I've had positive feedback from veg growers in very different climates. No dig is working brilliantly for a man in a tropical rainforest environment in the Philippines. He says he gets less erosion in the heavy rain and better moisture retention when it's not raining. I've also had good feedback from the high desert of Utah, where they have very little rain. In really hot sun, I'd advise putting dry grass or hay on top, to protect the compost a bit. I've had lots of positive feedback from south India and Bangalore, and a lot from Canada and the USA. A lady running a rooftop garden on an office block in Singapore told me she couldn't believe how much fewer weeds she had.

Can no dig be applied to growing flowers?

Totally. I think something like 80 per cent of British cut flower growers are no dig now. If you've got a problem with couch grass or ground elder in a border, cardboard is a useful way to tame it. You can cut cardboard like a jigsaw and butt it right up to a shrub or tree, then put a little bit of compost on top to hold it down. The later regrowth won't be as strong and easier to remove. Weeds give up more easily when you don't disturb them.

Do you think no dig gardening is becoming more mainstream?

For years, veg growing was all about crop rotation and artificial fertilisers and chemicals, and looking back now, that just seems crazy and old fashioned. People find it easier to change the way they look at things if a lot of other people have done it. There has been a growing environmental awareness. I noticed a big shift in 2015, which was the International Year of Soils. People started looking at soil as an entity in itself. When I was going to lectures in the 1980s, lecturers would say that soil was like a bank balance – nutrients in, nutrients out, like it was a holding mechanism with no properties of its own. A lot of people have heard about the mycorrhizal network now.

You've embraced social media and have a popular YouTube channel. How did that come about?

I felt frustrated by the lack of media exposure from the mainstream media, so I embraced social media. There's a lot of bad information out there, and I wanted to correct it. I can now go direct to gardeners with a beautiful image of a harvest and an explanation of how I've done it, and they can embrace that and try it out. It works, and they tell a friend. It's actually building a strong worldwide movement.

What's next?

I'm writing a no dig book for children, coming out in 2023. A lot of youngsters have a strong environmental awareness and a strong interest in gardening. We're also meeting a huge demand for courses here, with people are coming from all over the world. I'm also writing and speaking a lot. No dig is a really strong, positive news story at a time when the world really needs it.

No Dig by Charles Dowding
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You can find out more about the no dig method at Charles's website.

Authors

Veronica Peerless is a trained horticulturalist and garden designer.

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