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Introduction – No Dig Gardening

1b. A cornucopia of vegetables in September 2018
A cornucopia of vegetables – September 2018

Welcome to a course which will save you time, give you pleasure in gardening, and health-giving food to eat. All this is achievable, and much easier once you understand how to care for and nourish soil.

No dig is a straightforward, time-efficient way of enhancing soil quality and fertility. We don’t work or see the soil, and you don’t need soil tests to understand it. Evidence is given by plants, and I demonstrate this throughout the course.

My teaching is based on experience and results, from 38 years of growing. The methods I explain and illustrate are sometimes different to commonly held beliefs, and in every case I explain why. These differences are what enable you to save time and achieve more reliable results.

The photos are mostly of the garden at Homeacres where I live now, in South West England. Our latitude is 51N, with eight hours between sunrise and sunset in midwinter, rising to 16 and more in midsummer. The climate is temperate oceanic, warmed by the North Atlantic Drift, also called the Gulf Stream.

Will these understandings apply in different climates?

Yes, very much so. The growing amount of feedback from all around the world illustrates how no dig succeeds whether your climate is hot, cold, dry or wet:

‘I’m now promoting your no dig method here in our country, the Philippines. It really works. We can see amazing results. Finally we found the best farming method that can be easily done by anyone.’

Agri-nihan, comment on Growing Success video, 23.1.20

‘Even though we are in Zone 3a with one planting a year, I am having success with intensive no dig beds. I use less garden space and did less weeding, wonderful!  Switching to this method has made great soil and saved me time and energy, thank you from northern B.C. Canada.’

Tall Cedars, You Tube, 30.10.19

My new no dig flower garden is doing great in comparison to my neighbour’s gardens. We have had a very hot June this year here again but there was no such thing as a drought in  my new garden at all. Everybody around’s been complaining about drought but me!’

Beata Wypych from Poland, email, 22.8.19

‘Hello Mr. Dowding, I am in Northern California, a mile east of the ocean. From your videos I attempted my first no dig garden at the end of 2018. Even through winter storms it started producing, and by the time spring arrived, I had an abundant, healthy, thriving garden, with my nearest neighbours taking notice, and swearing they must take up the method themselves.’

Linda Schneider, email, 15.6.19

I wholeheartedly agree with the no dig method of growing …. even through the most challenging lack of rain and disturbed weather patterns here in South East Queensland, my gardens have continued to produce whereas most other gardeners in the area have given up on their production.’

Russell from Queensland, The Free Radicals on You Tube, 01.05.19

Our climates couldn’t be more different – I’m in south Louisiana, USA, about 30 miles inland from the gulf of Mexico. Yet I find your gardening methods work well for the vegetables and herbs that will tolerate our heat and wildly inconsistent rain patterns here in Acadiana.’

Sidney J Barras Jr, Charles’ Facebook page, 15.5.18

My background

I became keen on gardening in 1979, when my mother needed help to plant some trees. Something about handling plants and soil made me feel really good. Soon after, I became interested in food and nutrition while still at university. I read Peter Stringer’s book, Animal Rights, and became vegetarian, possibly the first one at my college – the kitchen staff found it amusing.

I joined the Soil Association shortly after, a subscription based organisation of 4,000 people. They were founded in 1946, with a mission to promote and know more about soil health in farming and gardening. They ran a trial in Suffolk to investigate any links between soil, plant and human health.

I had been working on the family farm since learning to drive a tractor at age 14, but was not positively engaged. It was a big farm for those times, with grass and cereals covering 400 hectares (988 acres), and 300 dairy cows in five herds.

Despite living on a farm, I felt separate from it, and the only farm produce in our house was milk. Of more interest to me were the vegetables and raspberries from the garden. I still remember the eureka moment of discovering delicious broad beans at age 15.

In 1981 I worked for a year at the Argyll Hotel, on the small island of Iona off western Scotland, as a ‘maintenance man’. While there, I became interested in their vegetable garden and did some jobs to help out, then grew keen to get home and start gardening.

In early 1982 I made a mound, the original style of hugelbeet, with a base of sticks rather than logs. It ran east to west, and its south side enabled me to harvest carrots as early as May, which impressed my parents. I practised by working in their garden, and I visited and worked on organic market gardens. They were rare in those days because organic was ‘leading edge’ and highly unprofitable.

In August 1982, I used the farm tractor to rotovate 0.66 hectares (1.6 acres) of old pasture. The soil was Cotswold Brash, stony and loamy with over 7% organic matter, thanks to being permanent pasture for the cows.

During September and October, my next step was using a spade to shape raised beds. I shovelled soil from 60 cm (2 ft) wide paths to 1.5 m (5 ft) wide beds. I then spread old hay on some of the beds and old straw in all of the paths, to prevent weeds from growing.

This mulching – covering – with undecomposed materials, resulted in a lot of slugs and damage to new plantings in particular. This led to my using compost mulch instead.

The fact that my market garden was no dig, as well as organic, slipped under the radar (see Lesson 3). I was not proclaiming it, but no dig felt right. By 1987 I had almost 3 hectares (7 acres) of no dig beds, although I always rotovated in the first autumn of converting land from pasture to soil. At the time it was the only way I knew how to achieve this.

National television

Charles Dowding no dig 1988
By 1988 my methods were being noticed, and I hosted the BBC’s Gardeners World TV show for two days; Geoff Hamilton is second on the left
11b. August 2016 - Gardeners World filmed at Homeacres, and interviewed me again about no dig
August 2016 – Gardeners World filmed at Homeacres, and interviewed me about no dig again

In 1988 the BBC appeared, to film a whole episode on organic gardening with Geoff Hamilton. He had become iconic and had warm communication skills.

Geoff was amazed at my results from using only compost and no synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. What we didn’t discuss, and he did not comment on, was the no dig part.

The extract below is from the archive of BBC footage of the1988 programme, and starts with Geoff’s question: ‘Charles – the crops are looking really good, what type of fertiliser are you using on them?’

I answered: ‘I’m not using any Geoff, it’s good soil and we’re putting on quite heavy dressings of manure and compost and that’s enough.’

Geoff replied: ‘No chemicals at all, that’s really quite remarkable!’

Footnotes to the above are:

  • In the 1980s most gardeners relied on artificial fertiliser and pesticides, more than they do now.
  • Because there was such a low use of composts in gardens generally, I described my dressings as ‘heavy’, whereas now I would call them normal, or even light – about 1.2 cm (0.5 in) of compost per year. Plus I was adding straw to paths.
  • The soil was of average fertility, Grade 3, and very stony. I remember that I had wanted Geoff to look less wrong for thinking he had to use fertilisers!
  • Subsequently, in 2016, the BBC came to Homeacres and filmed for Gardeners World once again. This time it was exclusively about no dig and my successes with the method.

I have also appeared on three other BBC programmes: Charlie Dymmock’s Garden Rescue in 2017; Escape to the Country, also in 2017; and Gardeners World in 2008, with Sarah Raven.

Early difficulties at Homeacres

I started making the garden at Homeacres in November 2012, trying many different methods for mulching very strong weed growth. Almost everything had succeeded by summer 2013.

However, when researching my documents for this course, I came across a diary entry I had forgotten called ‘Stirrings’. I had filed it away on 4 June 2013, and could scarcely believe what I was reading! I have not edited anything.

‘I am feeling overwhelmed by the amount of time needed for this new garden. Have I taken on too much? The continual, persistent growth of couch grass, especially where I have experimented with thinner or briefer mulches, is getting me down. So is the aloneness of it – but that is exactly what I wanted, to be more in my own space, not behaving according to other people’s rules.’

It continues in a similar vein, less relevant to gardening.

I include this to encourage you not to be overwhelmed! And in case starting your garden feels like a big commitment of time and effort, for an uncertain benefit. Take it from me, the rewards – year after every subsequent year – justify it, and my experience demonstrates it.

Enjoy the course.

(At the bottom of this page there is a link to an  introductory quiz to get you started!)

How you can use this course  

The course is made up of 19 lessons, which are grouped into seven modules. Each lesson has text to read, as well as photos and instructional videos to illustrate the results of what I teach. There is much to absorb, so take your time.

There is a multiple choice quiz for you to complete at the end of each lesson. Don’t worry, these aren’t designed to catch you out! They are to reinforce your understanding, and to help you to digest your own learning. There’s a final quiz too, designed to bring it all together. Do look to enjoy the quizzes as a way to clarify things.

To recognise how much you’ve learnt from the course, you’ll receive a certificate on passing the final quiz. This will show friends, family, employers and yourself what you’ve achieved.

Course overview

Here is an overview of all the modules and lessons. There is a chronology to the lessons, and I’d recommend working your way through from the beginning. However, you can dive into any lesson at any time, it’s totally up to you.

Module 1 – Introducing no dig

The history of no dig, always successful, makes one wonder why it has not caught on before in a bigger way. I explain the benefits to soil and gardener.

Lesson 1: The advantages and recent history of no dig

We start with an overview of the advantages of no dig, and why it’s such an effective method. To help you understand more about it, I’ve put together a history of no dig practice. It will give you more of an idea of where we are now, and reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun.

Lesson 2: Simple, time saving, productive

An overview of the no dig method, and how it enables comprehensive weed clearance at the same time as successional plantings throughout the season. I explain the simplicity and the time saving benefits, while showing you the results.

24. Homeacres field when I arrived and after I had the pasture mown by a tractor
Homeacres’ field when I arrived, and after the pasture had been mown by a tractor
25. Same view ten months later with no soil disturbed, just mulches laid to kill weeds and make beds
The same view ten months later – no soil has been disturbed, just mulches laid to kill weeds and make beds
26. And the same view five years later: intensive cropping and no weeds
The same view again, five years later – intensive cropping and no weeds

Module 2 – Top results for less time needed

In this module we explore the results of no dig on different soils, and also how it compares to growth in dug soil. We look at results from the side-by-side trials I run, including the dig/no dig comparison beds which I have cropped every year since 2007. I give you my perspectives on the results.

No dig has, until recently, been frowned on by traditional gardeners and institutions.  However this is now changing. The process of change shows how it can be good to question accepted beliefs. I encourage you to develop your hunches in order to understand gardening more fully.

Lesson 3: No dig on different soil types

Whether your soil is clay, stony or sandy, no dig is the best method for being time efficient, holding fertility, and giving fine harvests. I show you my first market garden from 1982, which was on stony limestone soil, then two market gardens on clay, before the silt of Homeacres. Plus we look at clay in Kent and sand in Florida.

Lesson 4: Comparing dig and no dig for 13 years – what the differences reveal

I add my interpretations to the sometimes dramatic differences you see. These beds reveal a lot about both dig and no dig, with comparisons that are always fascinating, including when differences are small.

Lesson 5: A three strip trial and continuous cropping

This wide-ranging trial compares growth when using different composts, and when soil is loosened by forking. In addition, there is a ‘no rotation’ element, and you see the results of growing leeks and cabbage for four years consecutively in the same soil.

Lesson 6: Myths – what you don’t need to do

One of my favourite topics is gardening myths! They are so numerous and so obvious when you analyse them, and it’s fun to realise how much time we can save. Understanding how they came about also helps us to understand more about how soil and plants are often explained, and how we can spot more mistakes.

11. Three strip trial in July 2015: first and second plantings
The Three Strip Trial in July 2015 – first and second plantings
12. Three strip trial: new compost and plantings in October 2015
The Three Strip Trial in October 2015 – new compost and plantings
My sourdough rye bread is ‘no knead’ – quicker, easier, and with great structure

Module 3 – Laying out beds and paths

I explain how you might set up a garden, including the benefits and importance of well- maintained paths. You see examples from different parts of Homeacres and from my previous garden at Lower Farm.

Lesson 7: Bed width and orientation, sides or not

You can have beds of any width, and align them in whichever way works best for you in the context of your site. I explain the value of sides to beds in some situations, and the many reasons you may not want them.

Lesson 8: Paths – how they feed your plants and how to look after them

How to clear paths of weeds and keep them weed free, and why this is worthwhile. I explain reasons for having paths of different widths, and how narrow paths without bed sides can increase your cropping.

19. New beds and paths in January 2013: starting a new garden
January 2013 – starting a new garden with beds and paths
20. View in mid March: weeds dying under mulches
The view in mid-March – weeds dying under mulches
21. Same view two months later: new cardboard on many paths
The same view two months later – with new cardboard on many paths

Module 4 – Weeds

This is a huge topic and second only to soil, particularly if you have a weedy site when starting out. Appropriate mulching in year one leads you to experience the joy of weed free soil. Not 100% weed free for sure, but highly manageable, and I show you how.

  • Identify your main weeds to know better how to mulch, what types of mulch to use, and how to stay weed free all the time.
  • Learn the important differences between annual and perennial weeds.
Lesson 9: Know your weeds – the two types

It helps to name and understand each weed, so you have an idea of how to mulch or remove the mix you may find. In particular, I explain the characteristics and differences of annual and perennial weeds, and how their growth tendencies affect what you need to do, in order to achieve clean soil for easy growing.

Lesson 10:  Organic mulches

Eliminating perennial weeds is possible with no dig, and here is the how-to, using mulches of organic matter only. When digging out perennial weeds there are always a few roots that regrow; with no dig, 100% elimination is possible.

Lesson 11: Non-organic mulches

Non-organic mulches – plastic of various kinds – do not look nice but sometimes have a use in year one, mainly for reducing and eliminating perennial weeds. You can also reuse the same plastic, several times if needed.

I show how to use them in conjunction with organic matter, to improve soil at the same time as clearing weeds and growing a harvest.

Lesson 12: Staying weed free – ‘little and often’

You always need to be aware of how weeds can recolonise soil, and react to them when seen, yet no dig takes all the pressure out of this. I explain how weeding can be enjoyable because there is little of it to do. I share tips on how to stay weed free in this lovely scenario.

5. New beds for fruit bushes: compost and cardboard on weeds
New beds for fruit bushes – compost and cardboard on weeds
9. First mulches in the greenhouse before erection in February 2013
February 2013 – the first mulches in the greenhouse before its erection
22. Paths in June: new cardboard along the edges
Paths in June – new cardboard along the edges

Module 5 – Fertility, compost and soil

These three words have a usage and meaning that varies with context. I give you the definitions that matter for no dig, simpler than often explained.

Soil and compost behave so differently. We look at composts you can buy or source for free, and how to make compost at home.

Lesson 13: Make your own compost

Homemade compost has abundant life, and I show how to increase the microbes and organisms. Everybody’s heaps and additions are different; once you have a grasp of the principles, you can create a process that works in your space.

Lesson 14: What compost offers, when to apply, and amounts needed

Fertility is often equated to nutrients feeding plants, yet true and long-term fertility is about so much more than this. I explain how easy it is to grow great plants when you know surprisingly little about nutrient supply and uptake. Green fingers and a biological approach, rather than calculations and spreadsheets!

Lesson 15: Understanding soil, and comparing it with compost

I had a fun comment on Instagram, a ‘professional horticulturist’ who declared that soil and compost are the same thing! I show you how they are not, why they are not and how it helps your gardening when you understand the differences.

Lesson 16: Types of compost

The one word ‘compost’ covers so many products and possibilities. Enjoy the tour of different types in this lesson, and the results of growth comparisons from using four of them.

Charles with August harvests, at Homeacres in 2019
View to the house on 20 December – mulched beds with compost, and old wood chip on the paths

Module 6 – Cropping smaller spaces

How to create a bed with compost on weeds – you can plant it straightaway then see how everything grows. I explain the cropping plans for this bed through a few seasons, and the harvests too.

I use my small garden of 25 m² (269 ft2) to show you how, in no dig, plantings can succeed each other through the course of one year. You will learn some vegetable choices and planting methods.

Lesson 17: A new  bed – plantings and harvests over five years

This is a story of one bed: how we made it in a morning then planted and sowed in the afternoon, and its subsequent growth over the following years. Year five shows possibilities for interplanting. Plus I have used the bed to trial unusual vegetables, so you have a peek at which may be worthwhile and which may not be.

Lesson 18: Growing abundance – two years of planting and cropping in ‘the small garden’

The small garden is 25 m2 ( 269 ft2); I take you through the details of soil preparation (very little!), spring sowing, planting, edging and harvesting. Then you see the new plantings in summer, meaning that every part of the garden has grown two, or even three vegetables in one year.

34. After planting the new bed
With David, the video maker, after planting the new bed
36. Small garden in May with a harvest of 2.08kg leaves, radish and turnip - in the hungry gap
A May harvest from the small garden – 2.08 kg (4.6 lb) of leaves, radish and turnip

Module 7 – A lecture and the final quiz

Lesson 19: a talk video, and the final quiz

To finish off the course, a video summarises my approach to no dig and the benefits you can enjoy. It also looks at aspects of growing which I explain further in my second online course, Skills for Growing.

7. Charles leaps for joy: no weeds, great crops
Leaping for joy – no weeds, great crops
sow & propagate
Transplant - Size, time of year, Spacing, support
container growing
Prune and train plants/thin fruit
Harvest times and method
Potential problems