While many of us will soon be out and about like a human rototiller—turning vegetable beds in the name of what we’ve been taught to “prepare the soil”— Charles Dowding takes a different direction.
With bow or swinging hoe in hand, he begins the new season with a quick sweep over each bed, “tickle the surface of the soil,” he said, instead of turning it over, “to disturb any weed seeds that might germinate. .”
No tilling, thanks — or “no digging,” as he calls the method he popularized.
It is not the only subject on which Mr Dowding, a long-time gardener in Somerset, south-west England, and a no-dig practitioner for 40 years, deviates from conventional wisdom.
Does not sow cover crops. (His beds are too busy with repeated plantings, one after the other.) And he doesn’t rotate crops in the traditional way, which requires not growing the same thing in the same place in consecutive years. (Last year marked the eighth year of successfully growing potatoes in one bed and cabbage and fava beans in others.)
Some vegetables, including beetroot, turnips and onions, defy conventional spacing advice. Instead, he “propagates” small clusters of seeds together in cells in his greenhouse, and later transplants the small clusters into the garden.
And his ready hand tool? No, not pruning shears – a pocketknife.
But from a third of an acre of active growing beds on his property, known as Homeacres, he harvests £25,000 worth of organic food a year, which he sells to local restaurants and shops. Additional revenue: More than a dozen books, online and face-to-face courses, and YouTube channel with over 600,000 subscribers and Instagram account with nearly 400,000 followers.
People really don’t dig any digs. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that sentence.)
Mr. Dowding finds arrogance in humanity’s insistence that we must intervene to improve the soil. In plant communities, from forests to grasslands, he points out that leaves and other plant parts wither, fall and decay to keep the soil free of any loosening.
Tillage does not build soil structure, he argues; it ruins it. He advises that we follow nature’s example and “leave the soil alone as much as possible and feed the surface with compost so that soil life does the work for us.”
And perhaps best of all: It’s an incredible labor saver. (Though Mr. Dowding is no slouch.)
In his recent book, No Dig: Nourture Your Soil to Grow Better Vegetables with Low Effort, he puts it this way: “Simple is best, and using simpler approaches that work well is smart rather than lazy.”
Savvy gardeners—and those prepared for fewer weeds, another major benefit of his approach—might not find a match in any digging.
Making the bed, No-Dig style
There is nothing complicated about this system, which depends on regular late fall exercise mulching with the good old ones compost. A deeper layer is applied at the beginning, followed by an application every year to a depth of about one centimeter (and “tickling” as spring approaches).
Converting an existing bed or other mostly weed-free area to no-dig usually requires nothing more than raking the surface and spreading a two-inch layer of compost.
To turn a piece of lawn into a bed, first mow it and then spread overlapping sheets of brown cardboard. Wet the cardboard and place about three inches of compost on top.
Where the soil is poor or weed pressure is higher, go a little deeper and spread six inches of compost over the cardboard.
To ensure the depth of the material in the first season – and to keep the depth of the compost intact, even at the edges where weeds will try to penetrate – Mr Dowding recommends temporarily framing the bed with pieces of lumber that hold heavy stones in place.
“You can make a bed like this in the morning and put in plants in the afternoon,” he said. “You don’t have to wait for the weeds underneath to die because your new plants or seeds will start growing in the surface compost.”
Before they take root deeper, the cardboard will decompose along with the lawn or weeds underneath. “And the soil will open to receive the roots of your new plants,” he said.
A common objection they hear is that people don’t have enough compost for this initial application. Buying a pile of well-matured compost is your best investment, he suggested, adding this reminder: A gardener who doesn’t dig won’t buy any extras — and that means no extra fertilizers.
“Weed Exhaustion” and Multiseting
When Mr. Dowding sees a weed popping up, he doesn’t climb in with a big tool to try to uncover what he calls the “parent root.” He aims to “deplete the weed” by removing the photosynthetic part, over and over again, “with a trowel, but doing it in a gentle way, going down pretty vertically close to the new shoot and prying off as much of the stem as it comes out. .”
Yes, it may take six months to discourage a persistent dandelion, but the soil isn’t damaged or significantly opened up, giving the weeds easier passage up.
Have you ever had large seeds like peas stolen by mice or chipmunks from direct sown rows outside? To defy them and get a head start on the season, Mr. Dowding sows a few seeds per cell indoors in cells about an inch in diameter, then transplants each newly rooted clump two or three weeks later.
He calls it multi-seeding, and he also does it with beets — and radishes, turnips, spring onions, onions, leeks, spinach and many salad plants if he plans to harvest the smaller leaves rather than the whole heads.
“I transplant small ones, the idea is that there is less transplant shock,” he said. “And it’s really not much longer or harder work than direct seeding.
But transplanting in clumps?
“I think it’s like a kind of companion planting,” he said. “They go into the ground with their species; they are the same little seedlings we grew up with, to use human parlance. Think of the greenhouse as your nursery, and then you release them into the world.”
Sowing is pretty much never-ending at Homeacres, where there are always places to fill and seeds to fill them: savoy cabbage seedlings ready to follow before the onions or leeks are harvested after the potatoes, or a row of carrots tucked in between those of the lettuce.
“For me, the golden rule is always to have plants ready,” Mr Dowding said. “So I keep breeding all year round.
And he added: “It is better to prepare a smaller area and do it more intensively.” I find that one inch of compost a year on this soil provides enough fertility for two, even three crops a year. There is literally no growing time for a cover crop, and we don’t need it.”
One potato, two potatoes
Mr. Dowding takes a unique approach to potatoes as well, ignoring the conventional advice to plant in trenches and gradually mound the plants as they grow. (Hilling, as it’s called, is normally done by first filling in the trenches and then piling up more loose soil to mound around the vines so the potatoes can develop underneath.)
At Homeacres, each seed potato is tucked into a slot carefully created by pushing a trowel straight down into the soil and then pulling it towards you, placing the potato with at least two inches of soil on top.
At the usual time of the first pile, Mr. Dowding will spread some compost from the neighborhood around each plant in the mini-pile, and later add more from the pile as the plants need mounds again.
“Potatoes require a little more compost than other vegetables,” he said. “It’s a long-term benefit, though, because subsequent crops grow stronger.”
Composting with common sense
The compost Mr Dowding’s system relies on can be broken down into “anything”, from leaves to wood chips. Perfection is not the goal.
A recent student lamented that he couldn’t make compost and hoped to learn.
“After he saw my compost piles, which weren’t perfect, he said, ‘I’m fine,'” Mr. Dowding recalled. “It can be slightly lumpy, a little woody, whatever. Don’t worry about setting the bar too high.’
But there are a few principles that guide them.
Because the active pile that makes good compost comes from a mix of brown and green materials—carbon-rich fibrous materials and fresher nitrogen-rich materials—collect some brown along the pile in the fall when there’s plenty of it. Dried leaves, twig clippings and even paper or cardboard will do.
“You’re going to put a lot of green all summer long,” he said. “So make sure you stock up on brown to balance it out.
Turn the pile once a year—that’s enough, he said.
Also important: Do not pile everything into a pile or a mountain. “For me, one golden rule is to keep the pile level,” he said. Otherwise, layering browns and greens can be challenging.
It had taken many years for these long-held ideas, which made so much sense to him, to take hold as they had recently. And they wonder why.
So that the next generations are not so slow to adopt, the latest project of this ultra-productive vegetable grower is a no digging book for children. Get them out early and they grow, he says, like those young peas.
Margaret Roach is a website and podcast creator The way to the gardenand the book of the same name.
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