Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Online Course Icon

An outline of key skills

Once your soil is fertile and weed-free, everything else becomes easier. Let’s start with that primary skill.

Improve soil

Hone your skills so that your space is ready for sowing and planting, with a minimum of effort. No dig allows rapid preparation of clean and fertile soil for each new planting, at any appropriate time.

Prepare ground

The information in this course is also relevant to diggers, but the advantages of no dig make it worth using this method, if you don’t already. Everything then flows easily throughout the season, with fewer weeds and quicker replanting, allowing you to take repeat harvests from the same small area.

Preparing beds for new plantings, from May to August, is about pulling any weeds that are growing (normally only a few), perhaps a light rake to level (though I often use my feet), and that’s it! Use this easy method for all vegetables.

From September, new plantings are mostly to overwinter as small plants for cropping in the spring – for example, spring onions, spring cabbage, and then garlic plus broad beans. It’s best to apply compost before planting these overwintering vegetables, as otherwise soil has no mulch until their harvests finish, which is sometimes not until the following summer.


There are many different approaches, according to which materials you can source and how quickly you wish to plant. Also according to how many weeds are present and how persistent they are.

Even where there are thick and difficult weeds, you can plant straight away, as I did in the photos shown below.

The method is to first remove any woody roots, such as brambles. Then lay thick cardboard, covering the surrounding pathway too. If you don’t mulch / cover and keep the edges of new beds tidy, or any beds for that matter, these surrounding weeds will spread in very quickly.

On top of the cardboard, spread up to 15 cm / 6 in of compost, the lower part of which may be imperfect and lumpy, with the top part finer.

Wooden sides to any new bed are not obligatory, but they help to keep sides tidy. They maintain the shape of the bed by containing the compost until it settles, during the first few months. Walking on the compost helps, unless it is very wet, in which case it is best not to!

If weeds are strong and you are not rushing to plant, mulch thoroughly for up to a year before planting. This might include laying polythene / plastic to eradicate perennial weeds, for easier maintenance before and after planting, with less compost needed initially.

Sometimes we grow potatoes and winter squash, planted through holes in the polythene. This allows a harvest of food while persistent weeds are dying in the darkness. A few manage to grow through planting holes and need repeat pulling, with the parent roots weakening all the time.

When the initial weeds are mostly annual, rather than perennial, you could lay cardboard and then 7–10 cm / 3–4 in of compost on top of the weeds, and plant straight away.

Keep removing shoots of perennial weeds before they establish, especially in year one, until you see no more. Your aim is to always have clean soil, with little weeding needed in subsequent years, but this needs an initial investment of time.

A new bed on weeds – layout of the new bed, with temporary wooden sides on the grass and weeds
I have now laid down thick cardboard, and will add compost next
After filling with homemade compost and then six sacks of potting compost, I am treading it down
The bed has now been planted, with potatoes at this end and carrots sown in the middle; also radish, peas, spinach, lettuce, beetroot, fennel and onions – all planted on 14th April

Understand compost

A key role of compost is to stimulate soil biology, which then makes nutrients available. Of itself, compost is not a fertiliser, in that most of its nutrients are not water-soluble and need biology, such as mycorrhizal fungi, to make them available for plants.

Hence the saying, ‘Feed the soil, not your plants’. This refers to feeding soil organisms, and this one understanding makes gardening a whole lot easier. You simply need to spread some well decomposed organic matter on the surface, once a year and every year, whatever is to grow there. You don’t need to know about ‘heavy feeders’ and ‘light feeders’. Soil life organises growth for us.

Surface materials are called mulches, and different mulches have varied attributes. Mulch materials vary in food value and texture, from compost to wood chips to polythene.

  • Compost mulches are what I mainly recommend using, in other words decomposed materials, whatever they were in the beginning. Decomposed mulches generally result in fewer pests, and their nutrients are more available to plants than those of undecomposed materials.
  • Other mulches are appropriate in certain situations, such as using polythene or plastic for a few months to reduce vigour of strong perennial weeds.
  • Cardboard is useful for smothering and eliminating weeds when starting no dig. It is not necessary to use it every year, only at the beginning. Also use it around weedy edges, to prevent ingress of vigorous weeds such as couch grass.
  • Path soil is easy to maintain with a thin mulch of wood chip, once path weeds are mulched and not regrowing.
  • Some wood in a mulch is fine, whereas if dug in, it would slow growth by taking nutrients before plant roots can access them.

Surface feeding with any organic mulch means you don’t need to worry about its state of decomposition, as long as it is less than 1.5–2.5 cm / 0.5–1 in thick on the beds, and materials on the surface have time to finish decomposing while roots grow beneath. Roots also grow into any mulch if it is decomposed, such as compost.

A squash plant in a pile of four-month-old wood chips; the decomposing wood takes nitrogen so less is available for plant growth
A squash plant of the same batch in a pile of mushroom compost, whose ingredients are mostly decomposed

Sow and space


Seeds are becoming more valuable and appreciated. The planting and harvesting methods I describe often mean you need fewer plants which can live for longer, resulting in a more economical use of seed. Also, you can save seed by knowing the best timings and by sowing in the best conditions. This reduces the chance of failed sowings.


Raising plants is such a key skill, and worth practising to increase your success rate. Having plants ready at each vegetable’s appropriate time unlocks massive potential for early, late and generally increased harvests.

Propagation through the summer, as well as during spring, brings the pleasure of a full garden all year, and of needing less space to grow the same amount of food. Combine this with no dig to enjoy a high output per area, and more food per amount of compost used.

Spacing and companions

I know how difficult it can be to space plants correctly, yet how to define ‘correctly’? It is the balance point between two objectives:

  1. Each plant is far enough from its neighbours to have space for growing to maturity, and for you to have space to take harvests of a worthwhile size and amount.
  2. Plants are close enough for companionship, and to make full use of available space and light.

Each vegetable has its own ‘best spacing’, according to the harvests you like, their timings, and how you like to harvest them. The photos throughout this course will give you ideas for spacing, even where I don’t specifically mention it.

The west side of Homeacres on 5th June, with spring plantings of varied dates and spacings
The same view on 11th August with new summer plantings, in the same year, 2019

Succeed with succession

I love this phrase, and succession is a great skill to learn. Enjoy the benefits of second cropping with new plants set out in summer. The results are rewarding as summer grows into autumn, and even into the following spring.

Succession skills include clearing plants quickly with minimal soil disturbance, easy soil preparation, intersowing and interplanting, and, above all, anticipating what needs doing a month or more beforehand. This ensures that you have seeds and transplants ready at the best times, during all the months that are suitable for growing in your climate.

Homeacres on 26th March,
…on 2nd July,
…and on 8th September

Keep up with growth

Tidiness and edging

Find your balance point, where you are most comfortable between chaotic mess and straight-line order. I suggest the latter as a base layout because it makes a garden easier to manage at all stages, from planting to plant care to harvesting. The straight lines of beds and paths become softer when vegetables and flowers are growing strongly, often spilling into pathways and giving nice blocks of different shape and colour.

There is, incidentally, no obligation to have wooden edges or sides to your beds. The advantages to not having sides are that you save money and slug numbers can be less. You also have a fuller use of space to grow because none is needed for the sides, which grow nothing. This is especially valuable in the limited area of a polytunnel or greenhouse.

A tidy edge and paths on 26th May 2021 – the two middle beds are my trial beds of dig, top, and no dig, bottom

Little and often

Your soil and plants are friends that benefit from constant care and attention to the details, needs and issues as they arise, such as dealing with pest damage, providing support, tidying damaged leaves, watering, and removing unexpected weeds.

In the UK, we say there is no manure like the farmer’s foot. In North America, I hear that there is no manure like the gardener’s shadow! Both sayings have the same meaning, that just being there enables you to notice the needs of your soil and plants, allowing you to undertake any necessary jobs in a timely and effective manner.

Every season has its appropriate tasks. Stay involved at all moments, and take every opportunity to do just a few, but highly relevant, jobs each time. This will enable you to enjoy harvests for much of the year, and to have stored vegetables for the other months.

sow & propagate
Transplant - Size, time of year, Spacing, support
container growing
Prune and train plants/thin fruit
Harvest times and method
Potential problems