by June Cynthia, 17th July 2023
After no-mow May, it’s time to park the spade, too
Apologies if you’re reading this after a lifetime of back-breaking spadework, but you’ve been doing it all wrong!
That’s the view among a growing consensus of expert gardeners now putting their names to a long-established garden movement that’s gathering new momentum in the digital age.
And to anyone who’s tired of creaking into the armchair after a long day in the garden, its name sounds rather appealing. It’s called no-dig gardening. Which, much-like no-mow May, is proving popular with the time-poor.
Originating in the 1940s, no-dig is exactly what it sounds. Instead of digging over your garden to remove weeds, aerate the soil and create supposedly ideal growing conditions for plants, shrubs and vegetables, you simply don’t bother!
Instead, you cover the soil with a permeable, light-excluding organic layer, such as cardboard, cover that with a good few inches of compost, and plant into your new bed of soil instead.
You’ll need to top up with a compost mulch each year, but whatever you do, you don’t dig it over. Worms and other garden insects will break it down and work your organic matter it into the soil.
As for those weeds, you’ll have much more success by picking them out of the shallow layer of soil you’ll be working with instead of digging deep to try and remove the roots.
If it all sounds too good to be true, don’t worry. It’s not. Loose, turned soil being good for plants is a common misconception; they actually do better when the soil structure is firm, as horticulturalist and recent no-dig convert Joseph Clark - of Joe’s Garden fame - told Ideal Home magazine recently.
“Digging can break down the natural structure of the soil, destroying networks of fungal growth, which can impact the ability of a plant’s roots to access water and nutrients,” says Clark.
“When soil is dug, you can only get down so deep,” he adds. “What happens is you create a loose, free-draining layer of soil, usually around 10 inches deep, which is sat on top of a compacted layer of untouched soil. This can create poor drainage and can even lead to accidental overwatering and root rot.”
Not only that, by digging over the soil in a bid to rid it of weeds, you can actually achieve the opposite effect, by bringing weed seeds to the fore.
“Once they’re on the surface - as anyone who has an allotment knows - they’ll soon germinate and become a real problem,” Clark explains. “You’ll then forever be on your hands and knees, plucking out weeds all summer long.”
One of the pioneers of the modern no-dig gardening movement is Somerset horticulturalist and author Charles Dowding, pictured above.
A member of the soil association, Dowding rejects the concept of crop rotation, indulges in only minimal hoeing and avoids all use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and synthetic fertilisers. Yet he claims he can create 100kg of produce per year from a 10 square-metre plot of land.
Originally from farming stock, he attended Cambridge University, where he first started to think differently about the environment, having not long become a vegetarian. In the late 70s, such a move was considered a radical step.
“I became more and more intrigued by organic farming,” Dowding recalls. “Because, why were so many synthetic chemicals being used? How necessary were they? Many of my parents’ friends were farmers, and all of them used synthetic chemicals, artificial fertilisers, without apparently questioning or worrying about it.
“Looking back, it’s fascinating how we accept the paradigm of what most people around us believe.”
In 1982 Dowding started experimenting with no-dig gardening after reading some 1940s Soil Association journals. He’d also come across Ruth Stout’s No-Work Garden Book.
“Her wisdom reinforced my instincts towards no-dig,” he says. “There was already a history of no-dig methods when I started out, but no-dig wasn’t receiving attention in the general gardening world.”
All that is now changing as more and more gardeners with strong online profiles sign up to the movement.
And why wouldn’t they? Healthier plants, less weeds (and hence less weeding), better soil quality and, of course, no digging… What’s not to like?
For more about Charles Dowding, his no-dig gardening methods and this year's No Dig Day in November, visit charlesdowding.co.uk