The no-dig garden

No digging? Sounds appealing. Once you’ve read this post by professional gardener Charles Dowding, you’ll put your spade into permanent retirement.

I grow vegetables to sell on an acre of undug beds, shaped out of heavy clay on a north facing slope in south Somerset.

The soil is never dug or tilled, just composted and manured every autumn with an inch or two of well rotted – animal manure I buy and compost I make, of which there is never enough!

This is one of my three gardens, closest to the house and probably used for growing vegetables for a long time, so the soil is dark and crumbly on top. I dug it over fourteen years ago as I was in a hurry to plant garlic and broad beans. That was the last time I turned over any soil here, except in the two beds of my dig, no dig experiment.

Above the old garden is a field corner which I took on in September 1999, at which time the soil had been seriously compacted by tractors tilling some organic wheat during two wet summers. I dug out docks, weeded the sticky soil, shaped up beds and spread manure on top but results were poor in the first year. However, the worms have been busy ever since and growth is now sensational.

Alongside this field edge is another triangular plot which I took over in 2006, and the fruit trees are now in their fifth summer, mostly apples which I have espaliered since 2008. There are over twenty varieties of which my favourite is Laxton’s Fortune (eating now) and Kidd’s Orange for late autumn. In between the trees I have mulched the weedy pasture with compost, manure and cardboard to grow even more vegetables. Also there is the experiment.

The experiment has two pairs of beds, an undug one (on right) alongside a dug one (on left), with the same amount of compost on the surface or incorporated respectively. All harvests are weighed and this photo taken 22 August 2011 shows little difference in growth. These are already second plantings: french beans after potato and carrot, kale after lettuce, and whole season parsnip behind. Each of these beds had yielded over 23kg of vegetables so far this year.

Here you can see how parsnips enjoy themselves in the undug clay. This was my last parsnip harvest of the winter in March 2011 and I followed it with Charlotte potatoes that were earthed up with some extra compost. Also in this picture you can see a bed on the left which we spread with cow manure in December, in time for frost to break it down into a tilth, ready for sowing and planting in spring.

This cut away of my soil shows the darker layer top right and clay below. Although dense, plants root well into it; roots like firm soil! The lack of disturbance means fewer weeds. allowing me to crop a relatively large area with much saving of time. Extra help comes from my wife Susie, 20 hours weekly, and one person helping to pick salad leaves two mornings a week.

The main ingredient of salad in summer months is lettuce and these beds are picked weekly, currently in their sixth week of cropping. Extra flavour for the salad bags comes from basil at the moment, growing undercover with tomatoes and other summer vegetables.

Here I am showing winter salad plants which survived the cold of last winter in an unheated polytunnel. We pick them weekly , a little in late autumn, mostly from mid February to late April, and the leaves are extremely popular! Then as the salad plants rise to flower in late April I spread manure and com post on top of cleared soil and plant tomatoes, cucumber, basil through it into the undisturbed soil below. Hardly any weeds grow.

Here are some tomatoes already planted in late April 2011, each one has a string buried under the rootball and stems are twisted around as they grow, and sideshooted too.
For more information about Charles’ work, visit his website. He also writes a regular column for Amateur Gardening.

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2 Responses

  1. Jan

    I enjoy reading Amateur Gardening every week and have found Charles Dowding’s articles really interesting. I now have a no dig bed on my allotment after struggling with double digging the first bed-just covered the turf with compost and cardboard and planted pumpkins-they are the best pumpkins I have ever grown! I’ve just bought his book “How to grow Winter Vegetables” from Amazon and finding it to be an excellent read, giving me lots of ideas for the winter. Loved this article, great to see the photos to prove that his methods produce fantastic results.

  2. Helen

    Interesting – but how does this deal with soil borne pests? I just found a couple of nasties from turning over my carrot plot to clear stones which would otherwise have caused problems.


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