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The advantages and recent history of no dig

It is instructive, and also fascinating, to discover where no dig has come from and how it has developed. And to consider why it did not become popular, even though its practitioners enjoyed such success.

No dig copies nature’s way of caring for soil, and the soil responds by caring for plants, hence the great results. Sounds too easy? Not exactly, but knowing the details is what makes it work.

Vegetables need plentiful moisture and fertility, hence my emphasis on being generous with your mulches when growing them. No dig also works with thinner mulches, but crops will be less abundant and weeds may be more numerous.

I recommend maintaining a cover or mulch of organic matter, so the soil underneath is mostly invisible. One application a year can achieve this. Organisms in the soil keep eating the surface material and mixing it with soil materials, to create an open structure for the growth of plant roots.

View of the west side of Homeacres in September 2018 – the main work is sowing, planting, and picking

View of the west side of Homeacres in September 2018 – the main work is sowing, planting, and picking

Soil structure, the natural and easy way

Most soil already has a good structure for plant roots to grow, and is full of growth-enabling organisms. Millions of fungal threads, nematodes, millipedes and earthworms, to name a few of soil’s inhabitants, are being helpful right under our feet and out of sight.

You have already started no dig without knowing! Since the last time you dug, tilled or forked your soil, it has been healing itself: growing networks of mycelia, breeding health-bringing organisms, and recreating a stable structure. No dig facilitates this work, and nutrients stay available without the complexities of soil tests.

Significant advantages of no dig, for soil and for us

If anyone asks you what is good about no dig, here are the main answers. We will explore these further throughout the course.

  • You can start at any time of the year, even before you have finished this course! Have a go using just one bed, and learn as you grow.
  • There is no need to dig or weed first, except for woody plants – just cover with a mulch.
  • With compost mulches, you can plant beds on the same day as you make them.
  • You enjoy gardening more, because weeds germinate less.
  • Mycorrhizal fungi stay intact, so they can help plant roots to find more food and moisture because they are smaller than roots, and can reach into tiny crevices.
  • Moisture is retained – and available to a considerable depth – because there is no ‘shatter zone’ of different densities, which is created after cultivations. Water struggles to move either up or down across a boundary of materials with different densities. Hence it is now not recommended to place crocks or stones at the bottom of pots under the compost, supposedly to improve drainage but, in reality, making it worse.
  • Mud does not stick to your boots in wet weather, because drainage is good, and the soil’s structure has not been broken by tools or machinery. Soil particles stay clustered in aggregates, enabling excess water to rub through, so you can garden when you need to.
  • You can quickly resow or replant at any time of year, with no soil preparation needed. Clear preceding plants by simply twisting them out, to leave most of the roots in the soil.
  • Warmth is retained by soil in winter, because deep-level warmth can rise, unhindered by damage from cultivations.
  • Carbon stays in the soil, instead of being converted to CO2 by oxidation after cultivations.
  • You need less compost than if you were digging the soil (see below).

A recent history of no dig

It would be fascinating to know the full human history of not working the soil. Below are a few of the no dig pioneers from recent times, who enjoyed amazing results but were on the fringes of mainstream gardening and farming.


In the 1940s, gardeners practising no dig in the UK included Arthur Guest, a miner from Yorkshire, in his sixties by then. His results were so good that he kept winning prizes at horticultural shows. Then he wrote a book, which sold worldwide, and later in life became a BBC presenter, espousing what he called ‘natural gardening’ and not being a ‘slave to the spade’.

Guest had used to dig in a ‘traditional’ way. After adopting no dig, he wrote that he used 40% less compost, thanks to soil organisms being healthier and compost being used to ‘maximum advantage’ on the surface.

Guest’s small book has been reprinted by the UK seed firm Marshalls, and it’s a great read if you ever find a copy. As well as compost from his own garden and some horse manure, he used a fair amount of sawdust mulch. One amazing statement reads, ‘I had club root fairly badly, but compost treatment cured this in two years.’

F.C. King

King was the head gardener at Levens Hall in Cumbria, UK, for three decades. He visited many gardens and had the resources to trial no dig in the 1940s. His books are full of good ideas, they include: ‘Gardening with Compost’ and ‘The Weed Problem, a New Approach’ (both Faber & Faber, 1951). The quotes below are from the latter:

‘These, and many similar results which I have witnessed, confirm my opinion that less digging means fewer pests and diseases.’ (p. 83)

‘At the approach of spring, the difference between my dug and undug plots is truly remarkable… the undug portions of the garden are always infinitely drier and in better condition for planting or sowing than are the plots that have been dug (which) often resemble a quagmire.’ (p. 85)

‘The general conclusions I have drawn after many years of patient investigation of the value of no digging are:

  1. This system offers many advantages over regular digging in the control of weeds.
  2. Contrary to popular belief, such land is well-drained and capable of producing excellent crops, showing signs neither of asphyxiation nor of chlorotic conditions.
  3. The soil is appreciably warmer in winter and spring.
  4. The earthworm population is increased, judging by the number of casts found on the surface.
  5. Less labour is required in the preparation of better seed-beds.
  6. A well-defined zone of dark rich soil is formed, which absorbs rather than reflects sunshine.
  7. Good control is maintained over sucking insects, aphids chiefly.’ (p. 90)

Like Guest, King answers the question that I am often asked, about the supposed ‘extra compost needed for no dig’.

‘Garden soils are more often over-cultivated then under-cultivated. Even in the palmiest days of horticulture this was true, and the credit for the abundant production of days gone by should rightly be given to the large quantity of organic matter that most gardens received. Regular cultivation, without an adequate supply of organic matter, is likely to upset the natural balance between mineral and organic matter because cultivation must increase the rate of decomposition of the organic matter in soil while affecting the mineral content very little. [Therefore] the less we dig, the longer will our supply of humus last.’ (pp. 76–7)

Likewise in my trial beds at Homeacres, the no dig bed yields more harvests. for the same amount of compost added to each bed.

In 2020-21, the soils of these two beds are being analysed by a soil scientist. Her findings include a ‘highly statistically significant’ amount of extra carbon in the no dig bed. This backs up how I am noticing that we need to use a little less compost every year, as soil improves.

Shewell Cooper

A contemporary of King was William Shewell Cooper, described by Val Bourne in the Oxford Times of 18 November 2010:

‘My gardening guru of the 1960s was Shewell Cooper (1900–1982) who wrote at least 30 books, including a gardening encyclopedia. Shewell Cooper was famous for pioneering no dig gardening in Britain.

‘He founded the Good Gardeners Association (4,000 members in the 1950s) and was a founding member of the Soil Association in 1946. His garden, at Arkley Manor near Barnet, attracted 10,000 visitors a year and he travelled the world explaining organic gardening. Recently I came across his son Ramsay while in conversation with a modern exponent of no dig gardening – Charles Dowding. Ramsay still practises no dig gardening and he has a demonstration plot at Capel Manor College in Enfield. The picture shows them both.

‘Modern gardeners could do with more of this practical wisdom, instead of the celebrity-led television that seems to impart little.’

Arkley Manor had to be sold to pay taxes when Shewell Cooper died. The GGA continued, but declined and then died in 2015, perhaps from confusion over what it stood for. For some reason Shewell Cooper did not use the phrase ‘no dig’ to describe his association, perhaps showing what an ‘unsexy’ phrase it was at that time, with little interest in soil apart from as a ‘bank for nutrients’.

I enjoyed conversing with Ramsay, still gardening at 80 years old. This photo was taken just six years before he died in 2016.

Ramsay Shewell Cooper and Charles at a London RHS show in October 2010
With Ramsay Shewell Cooper, at an RHS show in London – October 2010

Gerard Smith

N Gerard Smith, a horticultural consultant, wrote books on growing dahlias, chrysanthemums, and one called ‘Organic Surface Cultivation: Its Theory and Practice’, published in 1950.

He gave his background in the Soil Association’s Mother Earth magazine of Winter 1950:

‘I have been gardening for more than 45 years and cannot really say when I changed to organic methods. It was a trial-and-error process taking five years or more, and three books decided that the methods were on the right lines. These were The Living Soil1, Ploughman’s Folly2, and F.C. King’s The Weed Problem (see above).

‘My present state of mind is that the “non-digging” of King is an inescapable corollary to fertility-building with compost in the garden. If you dig your compost into the soil, you will lose, or at least postpone, the valuable effects. That is the Buried Fertility method and the initials are significant.’


In Japan, in 1938, Masanobu Fukuoka started pioneering work on his farm. He called his method Natural Farming, ‘a Buddhist way of farming that originates in the philosophy of “Mu” or nothingness, and returns to a “do-nothing” nature’ (p. 23, The Natural Way of Farming3).

His method was to scatter seeds, wrapped in clay, into a ripening grain crop such as barley, which had also been undersown with clover. The clay was to protect the seeds, while they germinated on the surface of ground that was never tilled.

Fukuoka’s system is precise and needs timely interventions, including a flooding of the young rice to weaken the clover. In his subtropical climate he could grow two grain crops every year, also using some chicken manure, but no artificial fertiliser or pesticides. The straw that remained, after each crop had been harvested, became mulch for the next one.


Ruth Stout, in 1950s–80s USA, became a gardening pioneer by accident. In 1944, while waiting for the ploughman to till her vegetable garden, she lost patience and thought to sow seeds in the soil as it was, after pulling any weeds.

Her husband kept animals on their small farm and gave her spoiled hay. She simply laid it on her vegetable garden and did not bother with the tillage part. It worked a dream, and she made her method popular with magazine articles and in her book, ‘No Work Gardening’4.

I came across this book in 1982 and applied hay mulches in Somerset, UK. The result: slugs! However, in the book there is little mention of slugs. Ruth Stout did not suffer them because of Connecticut’s cold winters and dry summers. In fact, I don’t think she realised the link between hay and slugs.

In the book, Ruth Stout advised gardeners to lay beer traps if slugs were a problem. Beer traps are effective – indeed she mentions how one man caught 1000 in three days. This is fine, except she makes little of the time (and beer) needed.

My approach for pests is to minimise the time needed in dealing with them, by preventing them rather than reacting to them. After my experience with slugs in 1983, I abandoned hay and developed the method of compost mulching.

A word on soil tests

I have had a few tests done over the years and am not a fan. By all means, if you are comfortable doing or paying for a test, carry on. However, I recommend it only if growth on your property or in your area is poor. This may be because of acid soil, which fortunately is rare, and lime is the remedy.

Tests are snapshots in time and can cause unnecessary worries. They can easily, but erroneously, pick out apparent anomalies which may not actually matter. This prevents gardeners simply looking at existing growth for reassurance. When you improve soil life, nutrients become more available to plants, soil structure improves, and growth balances out.

Every book says you need to check pH to know about acidity or alkalinity, but what should you do with that knowledge? Perhaps read another book to find out and become immersed in complexities!

Most of us do not need to test. Almost all soil tests are geared towards using fertilisers and amendments, and just a few are able to interpret soil biology. Even those have issues, which I discovered in 2010 when a test highlighted ‘poor fungal life’ in soil that was growing superb crops.

The ones I would recommend, and they are not cheap, are biological tests along the lines of work by Dr Elaine Ingham. She has pioneered soil microbiology research and knowledge, since graduating in 1977 with an MSc in Microbiology. In 1996 she founded Soil Food Web Inc.5, and currently works at Oregon State University.

  • The complexity of soil testing is illustrated by a comment from the director of a company that makes potting compost. He said that their best method of testing for quality is to give the compost to some growers and then to receive feedback on growth. He finds this to be more reliable than lab test results showing nutrient content.

Soil types

Descriptions of soil type are usually based on density, from clay being the densest, through silt and loam, to sand the coarsest. Most soils have some of all of these types, with a variable amount of stones and organic matter.

No dig means you see little of the soil and instead enjoy its results, without worrying about its detailed qualities or needing to know a lot about it. The no dig method works on clay, silt, loam, stone and sand. I received this message by email from Ann de Baldo, who subsequently took this course online:

‘I live in Florida, USA.  I have adapted no dig principles to our sandy soil and it works like a charm.’

Course glossary

Here are terms I use throughout the course, described in a few words:


1 The Living Soil by Eve Balfour, Faber & Faber, 1943. (She founded the Soil Association in 1946.)

2 Ploughman’s Folly by Edward H Faulkner, Michael Joseph, 1945. Also Ploughing in Prejudices by Edward H Faulkner, Michael Joseph, 1948

3 The Natural Way of Farming by Masanobu Fukuoka, Japan Publications Inc., 1985

4 The Ruth Stout No Work Garden Book, Bantam Books/Rodale Press, 1971

5 Teaming with Microbes, a gardener’s guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, Timber Press, 2006

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