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Simple, time saving, productive

I notice that gardening has been made to seem very complicated, even by people who really should know better. A key part of this course is learning how to to use the simplest, cheapest and, above all, quickest method.

People have been led to believe that it’s more difficult and harder work than it needs to be. This is illustrated by the questions I am repeatedly asked, such as this one:

‘We have a few raised beds, made three years ago, and want to do your no dig instead, how could I convert these beds? Would I have to dig out, put the cardboard etc down, and put same soil/compost over it? Or put new compost over it? Or place cardboard etc over all the existing compost now, then place new compost etc straight on top of cardboard? Just seems a lot more work if I have to re-dig, but I do think it would be worth it in the long run! Or do you have another suggestion?’

To which the answer is shorter than the question!

‘Level with a rake and spread 3–5 cm (1–2 in) of compost on top of the soil, which I imagine is in a state of reasonable fertility. If there are many weeds, lay cardboard first and then the compost on top of this.’

Cardboard is a weeding timesaver, when weeds are large and numerous.

  • You don’t need to use it otherwise.

No dig, right from day one, is less about what we do to ‘fix’ soil and more about how we enhance its natural liveliness. Compost/organic matter on the surface encourages organisms in the soil to travel upwards and feed, which improves aeration and structure. Their excretions contain feed for other organisms and/or plants, so the cycle of life is enabled and magnified.

‘You’ve completely changed my methods from overly complicated to simple and effective.’  Sarah Olney, Instagram, December 2018

The next simple step is to sow and plant into the surface compost, when it’s the right season for each different vegetable.

Drills for carrots in mid-March – different varieties sown in surface compost
Carrots growing in late May, covered by mesh; broad beans to the right
Harvest from the end of July of final and larger roots – Purple Haze and Rainbow varieties. Notice the length of fine roots, which had been growing into clay

Big harvests, and healthy too

Carrots illustrate the falseness of the ‘organic’ teaching I was brought up with in the 1980s. They were (and still often are) called ‘light feeders’, and the soil was left unfed, with no compost in the winter before sowing.

I was also told that spreading compost before sowing carrots ‘made them fork’, and resulted in ‘lush leaves and less root growth’.

This is how I interpret these comments, from the results of my no dig growing:

  • Terms such as ‘light feeders’ come from the fertiliser manufacturers’ lexicon, and ignore life processes in the soil.
  • Forking roots happen because of the soil cultivation, which was being practised, but not mentioned, because it was seen as normal. Forking is not caused by applications of compost applied to the surface.
  • Lush leaves happen if gardeners spread nitrogenous fertilisers, which are like junk food to plant roots: abundant and unbalanced. Whereas feeding soil life with mulches of organic matter results in strong, healthy and balanced growth of all plants.

Hence the wonderful growth one sees in no dig, and the big harvests.

Charles with carrots from the trial beds, no dig and dig
With carrots from the two trial beds – no dig on the left, dig on the right (see Lesson 4 for more on this)
Parsnip length shows soil structure
Homeacres’ clay soil shows on the lower end of this parsnip, which had been levered out with a spade
Compost for autumn mulching
The empty area on the left is planted with garlic, then I spread this compost on top (year one in the small garden)

The photos above illustrate another massive misunderstanding – until recently believed by most gardeners – that ‘soil needs to be loosened for roots to go down.’

Do you need to loosen soil before starting no dig?

The answer is absolutely not, because it’s better to preserve the existing structure and soil life, and to simply apply surface mulches of organic matter. These feed soil organisms, whose activity creates a good structure for growth.

It’s a terrible and arrogant assumption that only man or woman can create soil suitable to grow plants. Just look at the wonders of growth in untended nature and copy what happens there – leave soil undisturbed, and encourage soil inhabitants to feed at the surface.

The first step in no dig is to mulch, only that, and with as high a quality food as you can. Compost comes top, and this includes old animal manure, leaf mould and composts you can buy. Undecomposed mulches like hay work too, but add fertility more slowly and encourage slugs in damp climates.

  • An exception to commencing without soil disturbance is if you start with a plot of uneven ground, whether a ‘lunar landscape’ or just hollows that feel awkward to walk on. I recommend using a sharp spade to slice off the peaks, and then place that soil in the hollows until you have a level surface. Then mulch.
  • Level does not mean no slope (see Lesson 7 for more on laying out beds on slopes).

I had this question on YouTube:

‘I am making a garden on the west coast of Canada from land that has only been a forest. It has been logged and tortured by heavy machinery, and is mostly sand and gravel with a great many rocks. Before I found you, I was digging six inch trenches and filling them back up with sifted soil and manure, removing a great many rocks in the process. How does no dig work with such rocky land?’

My answer is to remove only protruding rocks and stumps, then mulch. For example earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris, different to compost or red wiggler worms Eisinia fetida) are surface feeders, yet often live quite deep in the soil and therefore travel up and down to feed on mulches. This movement maintains and increases their network of channels, which endure many years longer than any temporary ‘aeration’ after digging or forking. Loosening of soils through using tools creates only a short-lived tilth, which collapses after a few months and then needs remaking every year or more. Diggers are on a treadmill.

By comparison, with no dig – and a surface mulch of organic matter – soil structure continually improves. (Refer back to Lesson 1 if you want more clarification on the term ‘compacted soil’, which is fortunately rare.)

There are exceptionally few instances where any mechanical loosening would improve soil structure. If you have doubts about your soil condition, I still suggest to leave it well alone and simply to mulch the surface.

Every year my trial results show how plants are rooting more successfully into undisturbed soil. No dig carrots are a graphic example –  mostly longer, fatter and with more colour. Carrots from the dig bed tend to be paler, and their leaves less glossy.

Rooting downwards is clearly easy for plants when soil is left undisturbed. The parsnip in the photo above shows us the different qualities of soil at deeper levels – it has rooted through unloosened clay at depth.

New no dig, February onwards in 2021

I bought a field in January 2021, with no intention to do so until six weeks earlier. I had no plan and felt pretty daunted by the prospect of such a big new area, of 3600m² / 0.9 acres.

The soil is heavy and would be sticky if dug or ploughed. It’s silt over clay. We laid the first launchers or covers during very wet weather, starting in February. No mud stuck to out boots. Then by April it was very dry, and the mulches were conserving moisture in the soil.

The top part is my new area of land, is bigger than Homeacres existing and is rough pasture at this point
A soil sample in January, excellent silty loam sits above clay subsoil
Progress of mulching with cardboard, compost and polythene by early May

This video in late September 2021, Michaelmas day, shows the transformative effects of no dig.

No dig is brilliant for heavy soils

Clay is dense, but also structured thanks to soil life, and results are best when this structure is left alone. Soil texture changes only gradually as one descends into undisturbed soils, without the sharp variations caused by cultivations. Water drains evenly downwards after rain, while moisture can also travel upwards in dry conditions.

I observe how good the drainage is at Homeacres, and this was illustrated by a storm which produced 72 mm (2.8 in) of rain over 43 hours, between 19 and 21 November 2016. Then again by another 52 mm (2 in) of rain in four hours on 11 August 2019.

Excellent drainage on no dig paths
After 72 mm rain in 43 hours, the paths are free of water – only the unmulched edge has water lying on the surface
Some water lying after a storm
After the heavy rainfall, this is the only part of Homeacres’ cropped area with any surface water – and only for an hour or two

The first storm was on saturated soil and the second on dry soil, both of which can cause problems. Homeacres has a dense silt soil, and the photos show water lying on grass edges but not in the main garden at all, even on paths where I had been pushing heavy wheelbarrows. The only area of water on paths was near to an old greenhouse, where there may be some concrete deeper down. However growth is good there, and it’s not worth digging a hole to attempt any remedy.

Nutrients are held in the soil organic matter

Any rain water not used by plants just drains through, and sometimes people worry that nutrients are being ‘leached’ (carried and lost) downwards, especially in winter. However this is just not true; if it were, Homeacres would not crop as it does – throughout a whole year and after just one application of compost.

  • The key understanding is that nutrients in compost, and nutrients in soil which have been processed/excreted by soil organisms, are not water soluble.

Compost is not fertiliser and I urge you not to think of it in those terms (see Lesson 14).

A related question that I am sometimes asked is:

Do I need to cover soil in winter with cardboard or polythene?’

My answer is:

‘It depends on which weeds are growing. If there are more weeds than you can remove by hand, cover with cardboard or polythene, depending partly on the size of the area. If laying polythene to kill weeds, spread any organic matter on the weedy ground first.’

  • Then worms and other soil life can feed on this while enjoying the safe darkness under a cover, meaning your soil will be in better condition when the polythene comes off.

When weeds are removable by hand, do this before covering the soil surface with 3–5 cm (1–2 in) of compost of any kind, whether old manure, your own homemade compost or purchased compost.

  • Soil organisms stay active in any mild weather and appreciate this food at the surface, which is their preferred place to forage and eat.
  • Polythene mulches need removing at some point, while cardboard does not because it decomposes and is eaten by soil organisms.

Compost protects soil from weather, and results in fewer slugs than where covers are laid. Nutrients in compost are not washed away by rain and become available when roots are needing them, when warmth and soil fungi combine. Simply spread compost once a year in early winter, for sustained growth over 12 months, and apply no feeds at any time, just 3–5 cm (1–2 in) of compost once a year – though a larger amount of compost is needed in year one, say 7–15 cm (3–6 in).

This sequence of photos shows a year of growth, after making new beds in late autumn.

November 2017 – mulching a new area with compost on cardboard over weeds, and using temporary wooden sides
2 March 2018 – after the winter’s first snow; there are now new beds on this whole area
17 May – the beds to the left are three months old; those to the right are six months old
5 July – cabbage are now followed by French beans, and herbs are followed by beetroot (next to greenhouse)
7 October – chervil and spring onions just planted after the French beans had finished; to the left is chard, planted after mixed crops
5 December – the beds are now one year old and have cropped a huge amount with almost no weeding needed, and no feeding at any point during the growing season

New beds, no need to wait

There is a misunderstanding about newly made beds, that you need to ‘wait to plant’. In fact you can sow or plant on the same day that you cover weeds with compost, as long as it’s the correct time of year for each planting.

When I started at Homeacres it was midwinter, so too cold for planting, and the first beds were empty for two to three months until spring arrived. I was still making new beds in the spring, and planted some of them straightaway.

By May, even though beds still had weeds dying underneath, the garden was almost full of vegetables and flowers.

There were residual pests such as slugs, which had been living and eating in the thick grass and weeds. Two other differences between year one and subsequent years were:

  1. I laid cardboard in pathways, because perennial weeds such as couch grass and dandelions were still trying to grow.
  2. Many beds had temporary wooden sides, mostly old fence posts laid on the ground to hold new compost in place, and to give a precise, weed free edge.

We’ll cover more on this throughout the course.

One caveat is if you have bought compost which is still hot when delivered – if possible, leave it to mature in a heap for two months before using. Lesson 14 shows how, in spring 2013, vegetable growth was not good in such compost, but was then excellent for summer plantings three to four months later.

The view of Homeacres soon after I arrived in November 2012; the main field was growing pasture and weeds, and you can see a delivery of 5 tonnes of old cow manure (top left)
Six months later, and weeds are dead or dying under mulches – mostly compost for the beds, and cardboard for the paths
By 30 June there is abundant growth of vegetables, and we laid new cardboard on any paths where weeds had grown through

Bed sides and paths

I suggest you leave new beds’ temporary sides in place for three to six months, sometimes less. Here, when we lift and remove them, there are clusters of slugs hiding underneath in the moist environment they need.

Beds without sides result in fewer ants as well as slugs, and their sloping sides can be also be planted into so that space is maximised.

The next sequence of photos shows beds without sides, except for my two trial beds whose wooden boards are mostly oak. This decomposes very slowly compared to most softwoods, which results in fewer slugs.

September 2013 – the first summer at Homeacres, and these are second crops; all perennial weeds are now dead, except for bindweed.
Jump five years to February 2018 – no cardboard needed, and the only wooden sides are those on the trial beds
Early May – spring plantings have been made and a few are even cropping, after being fleeced over in April
Mid-June – the garden is full of growth, and we will soon start to empty some beds after harvests
Early September – most vegetables are second plantings; none of the beds have received compost or other amendments since the winter
Early December – we spread compost on all the beds which become empty after clearing the final harvests; some beds also have compost spread under the plants

Speed of planting and replanting

A transformative feature of no dig is the ease of second cropping, throughout a growing season. There is no bed preparation needed, and nothing to add in terms of fertility – just clear and plant. Weeds are few, which is another timesaver.

The serenity and rapidity of summer’s second plantings means you rarely grow green manures (see below for more information on this). There is no need for them, and it’s easy-to-grow food instead. This means you need a smaller area to grow the same amount of harvests.

19. May
19a. August
19b. December

Raising plants

Second cropping, or succeeding with succession, is helped by skilling up on propagation, especially in the summer. The photos below show sowings I made in August 2018, and how rapidly they became ready to plant.

Many of these vegetables could be sown direct rather than raised as seedlings to plant, but I find it easier, quicker and more productive to raise transplants. My online course, Skills for Growing, covers this in more detail.  In the meantime you can check out my video about propagation (link in ‘Further viewing’ below).

20. 10th August: today's and recent sowings include spinach, salad rocket, mustards and chervil
10 August 2018 – sowings from this day, and recent days, include spinach, salad rocket, mustards and chervil
21. Just three days later: see the new growth
Just three days later – notice the new growth
22. Another six days later and seedlings are almost ready to plant: in cleared beds or as interplants
Another six days later – the seedlings are almost ready to plant, in cleared beds or as interplants

Second plantings for healthy soil

The photos below show the rapid growth of summer plantings. They help to keep beds full of vegetables until the end of our main growing season, in about early November. After that, some beds continue to crop winter leaves and roots.

Timings for summer plantings will vary according to your climate. Homeacres is Zone 8,  usually with the first frost by late October. This website gives good weather data for my climate, so you can  compare it with yours.

  • In my experience, I have found that it’s better for soil to be growing plants during the growing season (which, in this climate, means not in winter) rather than beds being empty. The roots of growing plants are food for microbes, and help to keep the network of soil life busy and nourished.
  • Winter in many climates sees the soil and most plants dormant, or growing very slowly. Microbes are fed and protected by the mulch of compost, which keeps soil ready for planting any time from late winter onwards.
23. 5th August: onions pulled, spring broccoli planted after broad beans, chicories planted after peas, onions and calabrese
5 August – onions have been pulled, spring broccoli has been planted after broad beans, and chicories have been planted after peas, onions and calabrese
24. See the change after only six days of summer
11 August – see the change after only six days of summer
24a. 5th September: the garden is fully clothed for autumn
5 September – the garden is fully clothed for autumn
25. 16th September and first harvests of spinach (left) planted just 22 days earlier
16 September – first harvests of spinach can be seen on the left, having been planted just 22 days earlier

Green manures?

If you don’t want to grow a second planting, you could sow a green manure. But that suggests you are cropping a larger area than is needed for food. I find there are many misunderstandings about green manures for gardening. It’s a method taken from farming, and with too little consideration for the differences in growing vegetables.

  • It’s quicker and more successful to make new plantings in compost-mulched beds. By comparison, having to mulch an overwintered green manure loses time in spring and often increases slugs.
  • With the second cropping system I recommend, there is not enough growing time in autumn for green manures to establish. They can be grown only if you forego the second/summer planting of vegetables.
  • No dig soil is not ‘bare’ in winter. It is covered by a mulch and soil life is preserved beneath, undisturbed.

Further viewing

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