How I learned to dig the soil and not dig my vegetable plot
To a greater or lesser extent I’ve been growing my own fruit and vegetables for twenty years or more. The size of the plot has ebbed and flowed as the size of my garden has changed and as my children came to take up more (and then less) time, but in 2020 events took a turn that led me to increase my efforts and the amount of food I was growing. There was the looming fall-out of the B-word and the arrival of our new viral overlord, both of which made me feel that food prices would only be increasing over the next few years, but the decision was also driven by more personal reasons such as my family wanting to reduce the amount of meat we ate for both health and environmental reasons, and that my wife’s parents (who live with us in a “granny annexe”) have reached a time of life where they find growing any significant amount of their own food much more difficult.
So in March 2020 I broke out the rotovator and turned over enough new ground to increase my main veggie plot to about 150m², dividing the space into four to allow for rotation of crops in the manner that I’ve always known.
It was only several months later that the concept of “no dig” growing was raised by a few friends and acquaintances and as there’s very little about digging that excites me (I did once find a French coin from the 1850s when I was digging, but that’s about the limit of it), I decided to do a bit of research. My background is science and engineering, so just accepting the ideas of someone who says “this is the right way to do it” goes against the grain, but if I could understand the background and it made sense then perhaps I’d give it a try.
Whilst farming with minimal disturbance of the soil seems to be generating interest and research at the moment, there’s not so much covering “no dig” in a domestic environment. As far as I can determine the idea has been around for as much as one hundred years, though perhaps it was in the 1950’s that it started to become better known when it was being promoted by an American, Ruth Stout, and subsequently in the 1970’s by the Australian Esther Deans. Today many paths lead to the website and particularly the YouTube channel of Charles Dowding who makes a huge amount of very helpful information available based on his own experience of running a business producing salad leaves (and more) from a no-dig plot. Charles has, I think, extended the ideas of “no dig” to allow greater harvests to be produced in a given area which is clearly beneficial for his business, but also for people who are just trying to produce their own food in a limited space.
I’ve seen the footage of a clip that the BBC programme “Gardener’s World” showed, I think some time in the 1980s, when if memory serves it was Geoff Hamilton (who probably did as much as anyone to promote organic gardening at the time) that interviewed Charles Dowding, and it’s hard not to get the impression that “no dig” was considered something of a curiosity at that point, perhaps a bit like being a vegetarian used to be. Unlike being vegetarian however, even now, “mainstream” gardening still seems to be biased towards the view of “no dig” as something you do if you just can’t do the digging rather than a fundamentally different approach as to how gardeners might manage the soil.
I’d not be surprised if some of the early pioneers of “no dig” didn’t really have a clear idea of why it worked for them, but if my understanding is correct then it begins with viewing the soil not merely as a growing medium, but as a living entity. Of course it still contains all of that stuff that you might have seen in an early Biology class when soil is mixed with water and shaken up in a jam jar before being allowed to separate out into its component layers, but it also provides a home to huge numbers of animals, bacteria, plants and fungi that amongst other things ultimately break down organic matter into a form that our crops can use.
The belief is that by digging the soil we damage that beneficial network and reduce its effectiveness, potentially restricting the growth and productivity of our crops. The solution that not digging proposes to avoid this problem is to apply organic matter only to the surface of the soil as a mulch, allowing the organisms in the soil to move the nutrients into the ground and eventually make them available to the roots of the plants we wish to grow. Using a mulch also has other benefits such as helping to suppress weeds and retaining moisture within the soil and there are suggestions that it may help to control disease, though I’ve not seen any scientific evidence for the latter. The exact method of putting organic matter onto the soil surface seems to vary: Ruth Stout used hay I believe, whereas others just shred all their green waste and spread that directly on the soil. Charles Dowding uses compost, at least in part because in the UK climate it is less attractive to slugs and provides them with fewer places to hide.
There’s a parallel with the “natural” (by which I guess I mean “unmanaged by humans”) world here. Plant seeds haven’t evolved to fall onto a carefully managed seed bed to germinate. Many will have evolved to do well when they fall onto a bed of organic matter (leaves and dead plants generally, I’d assume) that is breaking down on top of the soil and that’s what “no dig” gives them. Of course there is the counter-argument that seeds for food crops have been selected by humans for those which do well when sown in carefully managed seed beds because that’s how they’ve been grown for many years. I admit that I’m not sure there’s a way to come to a meaningful conclusion in this regard.
On a topical note I have the impression that mulching this way also helps the soil to act as a sink for carbon which is probably a good thing given our rising CO2 levels, though I suspect it’s not going to have that much of an effect on a domestic level alone. When dug into the soil where oxygen is not so freely available the breakdown process doesn’t work the same way because much of it becomes anaerobic.
Whilst it’s not in the least scientific I happened came across a quote for which I unfortunately don’t have an attribution, but is along the lines of:
One group of plants have evolved to have seeds that remain viable in the soil for long periods and germinate when brought to the surface should the ground be disturbed. Mostly, we call those plants weeds.
I’m not going to debate the accuracy of such a statement, but it’s not inconsistent with my understanding of evolution that some plants would evolve to fill that niche and as a result of living and dying build up the levels of organic matter in disturbed soil to the point where other plants might find enough nourishment to grow, recolonising soil that had been exposed by the weather or natural catastrophes and rebuilding the ecosystem of the affected area.
That’s really as much as I was able to establish from a few evenings hunting on the Interwebs. Esther Deans wrote a book on the subject, but I couldn’t find a copy at the time so I wasn’t able to get any further insight into her ideas. I decided however that it couldn’t do any harm to give it a try so for 2021 I committed to going “no dig” and because I’m in the UK I’d largely follow Charles Dowding’s methods.
My plot is far from the worst, though also not the easiest to manage. It’s what used to be pasture on a fairly exposed hilltop at about 130m above sea level and slightly sloping downwards towards the east. As I’ve already said, the main plot is about 150m², but I also have a 30’x14′ polytunnel, a 12’x8′ greenhouse with a concrete floor and I’d promised my daughter that we’d put up a new 10’x10′ greenhouse that I happened to have sitting in a barn, for her to grow melons. As well as the main plot I decided that I might as well be in for a pound as much as a penny and to convert the polytunnel to “no dig” and go the same route with the new greenhouse.
When converting new ground a common “no dig” approach is to lay a biodegradable barrier layer (often cardboard) directly on the ground to stifle the growth of existing vegetation and then put compost on top. Because my plot and polytunnel were already cultivated I didn’t bother with the cardboard, but I did use it on the ground inside the new greenhouse. There are many online suppliers of cardboard, some of whom you’re no doubt familiar with, but unfortunately they do seem to insist that you buy something as well. I can’t deny that I haven’t looked at recycling boxes placed on the roadside for collection as I’ve driven past and considered stopping to grab cardboard to use myself. I am aware of the reports of shortages of cardboard for packaging, but on the other hand what could be more valuable than recycling it at home into food? When it goes into the compost or under a bed I prefer to use brown cardboard without any “shiny” inks on and I do my best to get rid of any plastic packing tape. Under paths I’m a bit less fussy.
More difficult than cardboard is obtaining sufficient compost. I had some compost remaining from a batch my father-in-law made a couple of years earlier, but he does have quite an unusual approach. He had never put any grass clippings on the compost heap “because they go slimy and smell”, but an entire Christmas tree was fair game, as were stones, baler twine, lumps of old clay plant pot, lengths of steel bar and even the occasional pair of secateurs. There was also another heap that I’d kind of taken over in the middle of the year which suffered from the same issues lower down in the heap. Looking at the two added together, it was clearly not going to be anywhere near enough to cover the area I intended to use to the suggested depth of at least 100mm. I had to face the necessity of buying some compost in and that’s where I felt as though I’d fallen down something of a rabbit hole.
To start with, many commercially-available composts appear to contain peat. The use of peat is generally frowned upon and whilst I have read arguments suggesting that the worldwide volume of peat bogs is actually increasing, I’m not sure it’s an environmentally sound idea to be shipping peat around the world for compost and I’d prefer not to deplete local sources. Coir seems to be a common alternative to peat, but I’m not convinced of the story there either. It’s touted as a “waste product”, but from what I’ve read it appears to require a lot of clean water and environmentally unsound use of chemicals to produce the coir in a form we want and even then I wonder why it isn’t going back into the ground to feed the soil to grow coconuts in the future. Are we just shipping coir over here to force those countries that supply it to buy in more industrially-produced chemicals to put into their own soil that is being degraded as a result? I don’t have an answer for that, but it’s not something that sits well with me.
More online research turned up the possibility of using compost made from the contents of people’s “green waste” bins that had been collected by the council. I guess it’s not just from people’s bins. I imagine quite a large proportion of it comes from the maintenance of public spaces and perhaps green areas belonging to schools or council buildings. Unfortunately it’s not a perfect solution either. Charles Dowding warns of the possible presence of highly-toxic pyralid weed killers (though I think they are now banned in the UK people may still be using up stuff they have in the back of the shed) and others suggested that it might contain all sorts of non-organic rubbish that people put into their green waste, knowingly or otherwise. In the end though it seemed like the least worst option, so in June I got in touch with the council and as I have the space to store it, ordered six tonnes to be delivered on a lorry.
When it arrived a few days later it was still too hot to be comfortable to put my hand into and keep it there, so I covered it with tarpaulin and just left it to sit until the winter. The driver said that I’d done well as the previous couple of months had been warm and dry so the moisture content wasn’t very high. I imagine if you get stuff that’s been out in the rain for three months then you’re paying for more water and less compost. The warning about non-organic rubbish turned out to be true, though not upsettingly so. I did find the occasional piece of shredded plant pot, and even a piece of LEGO.
With the change from digging to no dig I decided to switch from quartering the plot for rotating crops to a number of narrow beds running its full length. I settled on a width of 1.2m or 4′ for the beds meaning that the centre of the bed was a comfortable reach from either side, with paths of 0.6m or 2′ between each. From autumn through the winter and into spring, as beds were cleared, I removed any obvious perennial weeds that remained and covered each with a thick layer of compost. In the polytunnel I removed the existing raised beds and replaced them with a 1.2m/4′ wide bed down the middle and 75cm/2’6″ wide beds down each side, leaving a path of the same width between them. I’d have made a wider bed and narrower path, but was mindful of the fact that I intended to grow tomatoes in the middle bed and wanted to leave sufficient space for my in-laws to walk down the path to pick fruit in comfort. In the greenhouse, where little walking would be required, I went for 60cm/2′ paths and beds.
Whilst some “no dig” gardeners appear not to differentiate between them and use the same material to mulch paths as beds, I wanted my in-laws and any visitors to feel comfortable walking around the beds, so I covered my paths with woodchip to make a clear distinction between the two. We’d had some tree work done over the winter and I’d kept all the chipped wood, but I used that up and had to buy in some more from a local sawmill. Fortunately it wasn’t expensive to buy a large trailer load.
Covering work that extended over several months in a couple of paragraphs feels insufficient, but it really was quite straightforward. As the space became free I put in a couple of string lines to mark the edges of the beds and shovelled in compost to cover the ground, then barrowed in the woodchip for the paths as the adjoining beds were complete. The last beds and paths were finished around April 2021 when I removed the last of the Purple Sprouting Broccoli, by which time I already had other plants growing in the new “no dig” beds. I’d guess that I’d used about eight tonnes of compost to cover a growing area (excluding paths, that is) of about 140m². In future years less should be required and I’d hope that would drop to perhaps three or four tonnes for the same area.
And so to planting… That’s what it’s really all about, after all — growing stuff. This is the part where I believe Charles Dowding has really started to incorporate his own experience into the “no dig” model in order to provide the opportunity for the greatest possible harvest given the UK growing season. His approach is to have module trays filled with seedlings that are raised in the greenhouse (either sown directly or pricked out from trays) and planted out into the no dig beds when they’re of a suitable size. Carrots and parsnips still have to be sown direct, but it seems to work for many other plants. I had raised beetroot, radish, spring onions, broad beans and peas in module trays in my greenhouse and they went out into the plot as soon as they were big enough to survive. There’s a benefit to this in that the healthiest plants can be used to fill beds whilst weak ones or seeds that fail to germinate don’t matter, but also it provides a window that allow crops to overlap. For example an early planting of beetroot might be replaced on the day of harvesting by month-old cabbage plants that are already growing well rather than sowing from seed direct. The plants I found most awkward to grow in module trays were the peas and particularly beans, because they put on so much growth so fast, especially root growth. It may be tempting in the future to sow these in 3″ pots instead.
I’ve followed this system with winter/early spring brassicas following spring/early summer crops, filling in gaps with shorter-lived crops such as lettuces and radish. It’s not always worked out as well as it might, but as I write this in early November I’d say that at least three quarters of my plot is still cropping or growing crops for harvest into early Spring next year.
In fairness it has been a dreadful year for comparing different methods of growing vegetables. The changes we’ve caused to our planet’s climate mean that it’s quite hard in a country such as the UK to define which season is when any more, but this year we’ve had what might be considered very unseasonal weather more often than not. Last winter saw an entire week when temperatures here in the south west didn’t exceed 0°C according to my weather station, possibly for the first time in the seventeen years we’ve lived here, followed by an unusually warm March, then a cold April and wet May. June brought a (short) heatwave, whilst the majority of the summer has been dry, yet overcast. I didn’t stop wearing shorts until the first week of November and even the second week has delivered comfortable t-shirt weather.
I can make a few comparisons however, starting with weeds. Some people seem to claim that “no dig” effectively means there’s no weeding. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just not true. Using a mulch may mean that weeds are suppressed and it’s possible perhaps that in a suburban environment with well-tended gardens there’s almost no weeding required as a result, but where I am, surrounded by pasture for cattle and sheep in fields with wild hedgerows, weed seeds are constantly blown in. Fortunately it takes very little time to remove such weeds as they’re generally only rooted into the surface compost before they’re found and can quite easily be removed by hand. Pre-existing perennial weeds such as dandelion, dock and bindweed are more of a problem. I’ve used a hand fork or trowel to loosen the ground around them before pulling them out. If the entire root is not removed they can grow back, but if caught early enough the root is weakened and eventually will run out of energy for producing more shoots. One of the polytunnel beds was full of bindweed when I removed it last winter and I’ve been pulling out bindweed shoots on every weekly “bindweed patrol” for the last six months, but it’s clear now that they’re far less numerous and much weaker than they were. I don’t think they’ll reappear next year.
Sometimes the leaves of the crops effectively smother weeds, but where they don’t it is necessary to be vigilant and keep on top of any weeding that is required, especially under fleece or mesh. One of my “problem” weeds is bittercress which I suspect may self-pollinate, meaning that it can set seed even under mesh as it doesn’t require insects to visit. Once the seed pods start to dry it’s impossible to remove the plant without the seeds being flung off all over the place, so catching them by the time they flower means far less work.
In the main plot, last year I had weeds growing pretty much everywhere, but this year has been very different. The oldest compost made here by my father-in-law has been full of weeds. The heap that I took over managing has not been quite so bad. The bought in green waste compost has had almost none that haven’t clearly been blown in since the compost was put down. I’d suggest this means that if you want to keep weed numbers down, good management of your compost heap(s), particularly in terms of getting the temperature up, is very important.
Along with weeds, pests such as slugs and snails and a variety of insects are probably top of the list of things gardeners don’t like to see. Charles Dowding makes a couple of points about slugs and snails that I took to heart. The first is that when sowing direct, what might be perceived as a failure to germinate could well have been the result of gastropod gastronomy — the germinating seedlings get eaten before we have a chance to see them. The second is to keep the beds tidy. That is, to remove fallen or yellowing leaves and other dying material so they’re not attracting slugs. I’m pleased to report that slug damage appears to have been much reduced compared with previous years, but can’t discount the suggestion that the dry weather during the period when they’re most active may also have contributed.
Carrot root fly and flea beetle are also a big problem for me. The layout of the beds made it very easy to cover susceptible crops with mesh however, and for the first time in a long time I had a wonderful crop of carrots and flea beetle damage was much reduced on the brassicas, particularly radishes.
The biggest pest problem for me this year has been butterflies. In particular the Large White and Small White. They did do quite a bit of damage to some of the brassicas, despite my picking off hundreds of caterpillars (which get relocated to the compost heap). Last year there were always wasps on patrol amongst the brassicas, looking for food for their larvae (which are carnivorous) and I suspect that helped me out quite a bit. This year the wasps really seem to have struggled, I assume because of the poor spring weather, and there have been very few around the vegetable plot as a result. I’ve also had deer wandering through and nibbling the brassica leaves (they left hoofprints, so if they come back I’ll be able to identify the guilty party). For next year I’m going to net all the brassicas once I take off the insect netting and probably leave them netted until the plants are removed.
Obviously there’s no reason that traditional dug beds can’t be the same, but reorganising my beds into long strips has made the use of netting and fleece easy. Before this year I’d never tried it. I used 30gsm fleece heavily early in the year to protect early crops of radishes and then as a result of the poor weather, well into spring to protect almost everything. The one plant that didn’t seem happy about it was sweetcorn. I will still put fleece over the sweetcorn next year should it be required, but it will be supported by hoops rather than lying directly on the plants. I suspect the fleece may also have contributed to the lack of slug- and snail damage because they couldn’t get underneath it. Unfortunately of course if they do get underneath then it’s party-time because they’re protected from many predators. I had no existing hoops to support fleece or mesh, but I did have some old MDPE water pipe (blue pipe, these days, but I think old imperial sizes are black). Cutting that to a suitable length and supporting the ends in the ground with a couple of bits of cane or something similar worked beautifully and I may have to do a bit of skip-diving to see if I can find some more.
One of the most important changes for this year is that we now compost as much as possible because I know that I’m going to need a lot of it in the future. Now, my first thought regarding any kind of organic waste is “Is there some way I can put this in the compost?”. Obviously all vegetable waste goes in, but I’ve added cardboard (to help balance out the “green” content), the contents of the vacuum cleaner and a few dead birds and rodents along the way as well. I’m quite happy to put dead animals into a heap that’s warm (over 40°C, say), but “into” is an important word here. Not “on”. I dig a bit of a hole in the top of the heap to get to the really warm stuff and then bury the animal inside. Burying the carcass in the hot part of the heap appears to deter predators very nicely and I’ve had no rat issues. Early in the year I buried a cockerel that had died, and when I was recently emptying the heap to spread on the beds for next year, all I found was the sternum and thigh bones. My father-in-law has started to look quite nervous about standing still for too long in the veggie plot for some reason 😀 I’d even quite happily put in clothing made from natural fibres, though I do tend to wear clothes until they’re so full of holes that either they no longer keep me warm or I start to get complaints from the neighbours so there’s not much other use for them at that point. I’m contemplating ways of adding even more material that would probably make a few peoples’ toes curl, but that’s for another time.
Some gardeners appear to believe that compost needs to be turned regularly to break down properly. Others say it doesn’t need to be turned at all. Ultimately I probably agree with the latter group, but I suspect that’s perhaps only true if there’s always a good mix of materials going into the heap and it can be left for long enough. I suspect for most domestic situations the mix is not usually that good. For example there’ll be a lot of grass clippings, then a lot of something else (whatever crop has just finished, say — the remains of all the pea or climbing bean plants, for example) followed by a layer of hedge prunings and so on. My gut feeling is that in such situations it’s helpful to turn the compost at least once, just to mix the material up so the organisms doing the work have access to all the nutrients they want. I’ve also come to the conclusion that whilst it’s fine to put soft or leafy green stuff on the heap in one piece, anything “stalky”, even if it’s quite small stalks, benefits from being chopped up using a lawnmower or shredder.
Not digging the ground has also made quite a difference to the set of tools I use regularly. I have not touched a spade at all this year and whilst I have used a fork it’s only been for shifting compost and for lifting parsnips. I have used a rake for levelling compost when it is put on beds, and occasionally a hoe for clearing weeds on areas of the beds where blown-in seeds had germinated. A hand-trowel and hand-fork have been helpful for removing deep-rooted weeds and for playing “hunt the shy potato” when lifting them. The hand-trowel is also useful for planting potatoes. My most-used tools by far are a dibber that I made by rounding off the end of a fork handle and the garden shredder. I did also buy a compost thermometer so I had a better idea of what was going on inside my compost heaps.
If module trays count as tools then I’ve used those an awful lot. I did modify mine however. I bought some new 20-cell trays because they’re about the right size for the number of plants that I’d generally want to raise at any one time, but the problem with them is that they tend to split when plants are removed. I made myself a 15mm hole punch from a piece of scrap steel tube by grinding the outer edge off one end, right before my father-in-law handed me a 5/8″ one that he already had. I used that to punch out a hole in the bottom of every cell, which means the plants can now be pushed out of the cell from underneath.
So, in conclusion then, my thoughts on a year of not digging… Despite the difficult weather I’d say that it’s gone very well. We’ve had a very productive year, quite probably harvesting more from the plot than ever before. It’s been enjoyable to go out and spend time in the plot even if I’m just weeding because the weeding is actually really easy.
It’s been a huge pleasure to see the plot so productive over such a long period. I feel sure that some of the productivity is a direct result of going “no dig”, some is probably a result of changing the design of the plot in a way that doesn’t demand a “no dig” approach but is made very easy as a result, and some is down to the growing and harvesting of multiple crops off the same ground in one year, which would probably be far more difficult in a traditional rotation system.
I’m certainly intending to stick with the same approach for the coming year, but I think one of the big lessons I’ve learned this year is that to really do well and to use the same ground more than once per year, good planning is absolutely essential. My current thinking is that the plants I want to grow need to be split into those that will or can crop early (peas, onions, broad beans, early carrots, calabrese and beetroot, for example) plants that can be planted out later for harvesting in late summer, autumn, winter or the following spring (mostly brassicas perhaps, but also some beans, sweetcorn and squashes), ones that need the ground for most of the year (parsnips) and fast-growing crops that can be slotted in where there’s space (radishes, lettuce, spring onions). Having done the planning it should be possible to allocate space in the beds in a way that makes them very easy to manage, whereas this year I’ve ended up with similar plants dotted about all over the beds because it was where I happened to have room at the time.
It’s probably also useful to know how much of a given vegetable you’re likely to eat (though in fairness I could probably plant an entire plot full of peas and die a stuffed, but very happy man without even getting as far as the kitchen 🙂 One last element of planning is to try to understand the life cycle of the plants a bit better. I think this is perhaps most important with crops such as cauliflower and calabrese where they all seem to be ready at the same time. Much as I like calabrese, even I can’t really cope with two dozen heads being ready at the same time. Understanding the plants at little better in terms of what causes them to flower, say, or in the case of onions what causes them to fatten up (day length, apparently) with a view to staggering the harvest where appropriate will definitely be beneficial.
Better planning should also allow me to ensure that the brassicas all end up in a convenient place for the netting to reduce the damage done by butterflies and deer. I very much enjoy seeing the butterflies however (deer mostly turn up when it’s too dark to see them), so I shall also plant some nasturtiums as a sacrificial plant for them and we can harvest the flowers for adding to salads.
My feeling is that the second year will be where I really learn the most: I’ve hopefully got the hang of the basics and think I know what I’m up to, but this could be where any misunderstandings or wild assumptions get shown up for what they are. It could be that my composting wasn’t as good as it needs to be and I’m faced with a forest of weeds next spring. I’m looking forward to it, but with a tiny hint of apprehension.
Finally, my wife expressed an interest in us having some asparagus, so for next year I have extended the plot to add another bed. As that is in an uncultivated area I’ve used the cardboard/compost method to create the bed from scratch and hopefully the asparagus crowns will grow well there. I suspect the bed will be too large for the number of asparagus plants I intend to plant, so I shall add some soft fruit bushes in the spare space.
Overall, if you’d like to give up digging and you have some way to make or acquire and store sufficient compost (in the UK I think this is the really important bit — you’re going to need quite a lot of compost), I’d encourage you to give it a try. With a suitably arranged plot it would certainly be possible to try it for some plants and keep others as they are, so it doesn’t have to mean the amount of work that I have undertaken all in one go. And if it doesn’t work for you then the compost can just be dug in and everything can revert to how it was.