Many gardeners are discovering the benefits of growing healthy food without any soil cultivation. As well as saving the effort of digging, rotovating, 'forking through' or whatever, you will find that weeds eventually grow much less, that vegetables grow just as well, or better, and that soil sticks less to your boots - which may seem a small point but it makes a big difference to the pleasure of being out in the plot.
This comment from Steve Jenkins in Lancaster reflects that:
Here is a comment from Mark Burge, gardener at Barnsley House in Gloucestershire:
"No matter how many photos you see, nothing can compare with the real thing, it was amazing to see your veg 'zinging' with health and vitality and no weeds in sight, although you did manage to find one hiding in amongst your brassicas."
The first step depends on the weeds you have, and how much organic matter you can use. Below I show a process of patient mulching, to clean soil of existing weed growth and to either smother or exhaust the reservoir of weed seeds. Once this is achieved, in 6-18 months depending on the current weed situation, gardening becomes significantly easier with less germination of new weeds.
For faster results, you can either use extra compost, up to six inches on top to smother all weed growth and then sow or plant straight into that, see stage 2 below. For an approach like this and growing potatoes at the same time, see Naomi Schillinger's blog of summer 2012 http://outofmyshed.co.uk/2012/08/13/im-never-gonna-dig-again/
Or you can do a one-off dig to remove roots of perennial weeds and bury annual weeds, leaving a surface of clean soil to sow and plant into. However, annual weeds will germinate in this soil, and extra hoeing and weeding is needed at first, see below.
There is rarely any need to double (or single!) dig before starting, or to incorporate manure at depth. Placing any organic matter on top is the best way to bring soil alive because that is how soil organisms work, searching for and eating organic matter at the surface, then digesting it in the soil, excreting and building a permanent structure in so doing.
WEEDS and MAINTENANCE
After digging, soil recovers from the disruption by re-covering with weed growth. It also needs time to recover in a more general way*. By contrast when left uncultivated it has less need to re-cover and grows less weeds - but there will always be some, mostly from seeds blowing in or brought in with manures, and they need removing by hand or hoe at all times. It is a little and often approach, without a grand dig to bury all the trouble. Vegetable growing is more bountiful and much easier when weeding is just a small issue.
There are three different stages to pass through in reclaiming weedy soil for growing vegetables:
1 Initial composting and/or mulch of weedy and grassy plots. Any organic matter can be applied on top at this stage and used as a light suppressing mulch. Sheets of cardboard and/or manure, compost, leaves, grass mowings, half rotted manures and composts and so forth are all good for feeding worms which get busy under dark mulches. So soil is improving at the same time as weeds are dying off. You can also use black plastic mulches, preferably with some organic matter underneath.
manure on grass & weeds in August, paper mulch on top, but six weeks later some of the paper blew off, dandelions alive!
so more mulch (cardboard this time) is applied in September, this is Steph helping here. A problem with cardboard can be weighting it down, because under manure, as in this photo, it rots more quickly. Black plastic is easier from that point of view, and worms seem happy either way.
Here is another example, March 2013 at Homeacres where i have put two inches of well rotted compost and manure on grass, in beds three and a half feet wide, then mulched with black or green polythene or cardboard, with card in the pathways too, for an experiment to see the effects of different surface mulches. This soil has some couch grass, buttercup, cow parsley and other vigorous, perennial weeds.
By early June I have planted Kuri squash, beans and Brussels sprouts, the lettuce in front, growth is good (Sept 7th on right)
Keep an eye on progress in This Month.
2 Patience is key at this stage, allowing enough time for weed roots to be exhausted under whatever mulch has been used. Annuals need two to three months, many perennials take six months and up to a year for their roots to be exhausted by trying to grow in darkness. If you peel back a mulch and still find white stems of weeds, their roots are not yet exhausted.
AN EXCEPTION is when six inches or so (15cm) of manure and compost have been used to cover weeds because this is enough to prevent re-growth of all weeds (except bindweed and marestail) so you can sow and plant straightaway, see below.
LEFT same ground in June after spreading an inch or two of mushroom compost - and raspberry suckers have been planted in December, then RIGHT same ground in late August, view from other end. Little weeding needed, raspberries establishing, fine growth of four plants of winter squash
December, bed on grass made simply with manure & compost, no other mulches - and growth in May of spring vegetables
3 The third stage is normal growing, but with less weeds than one often sees on dug plots. All sowing and planting is into the dark surface layer, with plants then rooting into undisturbed soil below, which is firm but NOT COMPACT. Do bear this difference in mind at all times. Firm is good! My soil is clay and I find that all vegetables send roots into and through my walked-on, wheelbarrowed-on pathways of dense, firm but not compacted soil. Undisturbed soil develops and maintains a honeycomb stucture of small air passages, especially when it is fed annually with an inch or so of compost on top. Compost can be animal manure that has been stacked for six months or more.
paths being washed with flood water in November 2011!!... and exposed roots in a pathway afterwards of endive and chard
NO DIG IS EASY?
Yes, because of not needing to dig, and having less weeds; but no dig does not mean no work! The input of time is in other ways that lead to higher fertility and less weeds. No dig can be practiced without spreading much organic matter, but an annual dressing of compost helps accelerate the improvement in soil structure and is definitely worthwhile for growing good vegetable crops.
I aim to spread an inch or two of my own compost, or composted animal manure, or purchased compost every autumn, so that winter weather can break its lumps into a tilth by spring, with some help from my rake. The organic matter is placed on beds only, about three fifths of the total area.
spreading compost in December, after harvests, on four foot wide beds - and in May after clearing winter cauliflower
Organic matter can be spread at any time of year! The most practical season is autumn, when soil is moist and still warm, so that worms can access it, and when harvests are finishing and soil is cleared of crop remains. Some ground becomes clear in spring after winter leeks, cabbages and so forth, and can be composted then if there is no remaining organic matter on the surface. I find that one composting a year is sufficient for two crops, once soil is in good heart. You can tell this by how healthy and vibrant your vegetables are looking.
Where to find the organic matter you need? Compost is becoming more available, and often cheaper, thanks to recycling of green waste, and there are surplus quantities of animal manure to be found in many localities, in addition to any compost you can make.
WHY NO DIG
PHOTOS: top, drawing drills to sow carrots; bottom, my dig/no dig experiment, undug bed in front, then dug, then undug, then dug SEE ALSO under 'dig/no dig experiment' on this site
One-off, six inch (15cm) dressings of compost in deep beds, well trodden down, are enough to kill existing grass and many perennial weeds such as buttercup, dandelion, and even small amounts of couch grass. Cardboard under the compost, in this case of a thick dressing, makes no difference as weeds are killed by the 6" of compost.
filling a new bed on grass, one half with cardboard: the six inches of organic matter in this bed was enough to kill grass, dandelions and buttercups same bed, harvest of carrots in late July
When plants are harvested, remove all debris to the compost heap, tread down any lumps caused by pulling rooots out, and then for any harvests before the end of August you can sow or plant again, with vegetables such as autumn salads.
a lettuce bed in May, after three pickings of outer leaves
Testimonial from Sally Lloyd which arrived via Facebook:
I've followed no dig on my moorland veg garden for the last 2 years. I can see the areas that have been dug and not hoed as they are knee high in buttercup, marsh reeds, nettle and dock among other things. Those were the 'beds' my kids cultivated (it was a neglected nettle bed before) and didn't hoe. I did dig mine over the first year as the soil is badly compacted and we are on a solid clay subsoil at the bottom of a valley, and I wanted to take out the nettles and docks to plant that year (and didn't have access to loads of manure or topsoil to raise beds.) Even though I had dug, because I hoed 3 times at 2 weekly intervals and then hoe fairly regularly, my beds are weed free since. Any disturbed soil here comes up thick with so many difficult weeds, so I WILL not dig again! lol. Thanks to Charles for the inspiration. I'm trying to spread the word, as it works so well and has so many benefits This year we finally worked out we have to source the manure we need in the autumn in the previous spring ... lol... so we should be firing on all cylinders in our third year. I very nearly lost hope because all we could raise (for rabbits, water, weather, slugs and weeds) was potted stuff ... having come from a pot garden to a full kitchen garden!!!
In case you are wondering, no dig is a ‘permacultural’ approach, using compost instead of more bulky mulches of unrotted organic matter, or mulches of growing plants. The latter approaches are not really suitable, as Patrick Whitefield says, for our “slug infested island”.
My orchard is a beautiful permaculture garden with espaliered apple trees and vegetables growing between them.
(left) Orchard in July 2009, vegetables on undug soil between apple trees, and (right) the same view in August 2011: trees are on M26 and MM106 and have scarcely diminished vegetable growth (yet!), except in dry summers.
from Pat Johnson, received November 2013:
"I began growing vegetables when I returned to England two years ago, using Charles Dowding’s “no-dig” approach. This has been very satisfying and rewarding, producing generous harvests of vibrant vegetables – and highly nutritious, straight from garden to table. My first summer here after 12 years in the Horn of Africa was the coldest, wettest and dullest for 100 years (apparently) – excellent for a prolific crop of sugar-snap peas and bedding in espalier apple trees and raspberries, and large brassicas through the winter. This past year’s hot dry summer worked well for my first squash and tomatoes (gigantic Black Krim) in my garden – while other veg in my new allotment patch just stopped growing until the rains came back (and reinforced the importance of healthy soil to reduce the need for watering). I’m beginning to see that every year will have different qualities – and a sound base gives the veg more resilience and possibility to flourish (rather like people…).
Gardening and in particular learning about growing vegetables has been very therapeutic as I emerge from post-traumatic stress (after working in a conflict zone) – being in the present while also working with the cycles of the seasons, weather, and moon. The ‘no dig’ method amplifies that by encompassing the soil as an organism and because it gives a better chance of healthy vegetables (while also reducing weeds), it has been especially helpful for me.
The day course with Charles Dowding reinforced and expanded on what I’d already learnt from his book - inspiring and enjoyable. Highly recommended."