Ditch that spade!

Easy ways to have few weeds with the ‘no-dig’ method

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More on the ‘no- dig’ method

Con­sider the time you spent weed­ing this year. In con­trast, imag­ine your gar­den with only a few small weeds, so that your time there is mostly plant­ing and pick­ing. With no dig, it’s pos­si­ble, and here’s how.

In­stead of bury­ing weeds in soil, you can clear ground quickly and thor­oughly by sur­face mulching. Au­tumn is a great time to be­gin:

Mulches de­prive weeds of light, with the re­sult that their roots wither and even­tu­ally die, from lack of nour­ish­ment.

Mulches of or­ganic mat­ter in­crease soil fungi at the sur­face, and these dis­cour­age ger­mi­na­tion of pioneer (new) weed seeds such as chick­weed.

Dis­tur­bance means a need to re­cover

As well as the mas­sive sav­ing of time, a won­der­ful ad­van­tage of mulching over spade­work is how undis­turbed soil grows fewer new weeds there­after. In the 1980s I used to won­der why my seven acre mar­ket gar­den grew so few weeds, when my fel­low or­ganic grow­ers were so in­un­dated.

At the time I was mulching paths with straw, which caused a high pop­u­la­tion of small grey slugs, and I ra­tio­nalised the ab­sence of weeds by imag­in­ing that they were be­ing eaten by slugs, even though my crops were not. Now I have pieced to­gether lots more ev­i­dence, in­clud­ing work by Pro­fes­sor Elaine Ing­ham in the USA, and the an­swer to whether weeds are colonis­ing or not lies in the two words ‘dis­turb’ and ‘re­cover’.

The ev­i­dence shows how when soil is dis­turbed by dig­ging, till­ing, even fork­ing, it needs to re­cover. And it re­cov­ers lit­er­ally, with weeds, whose growth helps soil to re­store the fungi and other liv­ing or­gan­isms that were bro­ken and dam­aged by cul­ti­va­tion.

Chick­weed fol­lows the ro­to­va­tor

In 1987 I suf­fered a mas­sive ex­am­ple of this, at a time when there was a short­age of or­ganic car­rots. In a half acre plot next to my main gar­den, I bor­rowed the farm ro­to­va­tor to pre­pare the ground, then em­ployed a con­trac­tor to drill car­rot seeds.

The car­rot seedlings emerged nicely, but so did lots of chick­weed. We hoed care­fully by hand, but af­ter two weeks the chick­weed was still there, in damp weather. We hoed a sec­ond time, and still the chick­weed grew faster than the car­rots. So we hoed again, but to no avail: the dis­turbed soil was de­ter­mined to re­cover, and I har­vested not one car­rot.

It’s of­ten said that chick­weed fol­lows the ro­to­va­tor, prob­a­bly be­cause the dense mat of its roots is highly ef­fec­tive at re­bind­ing the struc­ture of soil, which has been so

When soil is dis­turbed, it needs to re­cover. And it re­cov­ers, lit­er­ally, with weeds…

dam­aged by be­ing smashed into pieces. In con­trast, at Homeacres in the no dig beds and paths, I see about three chick­weed plants per year; they sim­ply do not bother.

Couch suc­cess

An­other illustration of this is how I com­pletely elim­i­nated couch grass from an area that was in­fested with it. I mulched with card­board then 6in/10cm com­post in Fe­bru­ary, then kept pulling any re­growth of couch stems. By July there were al­most none, by Au­gust zero, and I have never seen couch grass re­grow any­where at Homeacres where I use this ap­proach. The undis­turbed soil does not need to re­cover.

Mulch ma­te­ri­als, meth­ods

The first step is a thor­ough mulching to kill ex­ist­ing weeds, in­clud­ing peren­ni­als such as couch, ground el­der, but­ter­cup and dan­de­lion. Their roots can be ex­hausted within a year and, if you mulch with com­post, it’s pos­si­ble to grow food while the weeds are dy­ing un­der­neath. Ex­cep­tional weeds such as bindweed and marestail take longer to elim­i­nate and re­quire some pulling and/or lev­er­ing out with a trowel, as well as mulching.

Many small­hold­ers have piles of ma­nure, but how suit­able is this for cov­er­ing weeds? Per­haps it is in large lumps, even smelly and anaer­o­bic from some air­less parts of heaps, where bed­ding is only half de­com­posed. It’s not fresh ma­nure, nor is it com­post, but some­where be­tween the two.

For an ini­tial mulch, this can work, es­pe­cially when you spread it over weeds in au­tumn. The half-de­com­posed ma­nure is now ac­ces­si­ble to air and it’s break­down con­tin­ues faster than if you left it in an air­less heap. Soil or­gan­isms can now feed on it, so struc­ture in the soil im­proves while life is en­hanced.

To have a thor­ough weed kill, some poly­thene may be nec­es­sary, de­pend­ing what weeds are in the ground now. Old silage sheets are suit­able, and if they are at all ripped, sim­ply lay two lay­ers so that light ex­clu­sion is close to 100%.

Couch grass is com­mon and, if it’s at all vig­or­ous, I would first spread about 10cm/4in of ma­nure, then cover with poly­thene. It’s fine if there are a few holes, which will al­low some rain and air to pass through, but if you see weeds such as couch grow­ing through the holes, pull them out be­fore new leaves can feed en­ergy back to the par­ent roots.

Af­ter the first few months

In the spring, lift a cor­ner of the plas­tic to see if there are weed leaves try­ing to grow in the dark­ness un­der­neath. If you see yel­low, light-de­prived leaves, the cover needs to stay on, un­til the par­ent roots are ex­hausted. How long this takes de­pends on the ini­tial vigour of the weed roots, and the types of weed.

Once you have man­aged the first stage of clear­ing ground, on­go­ing main­te­nance is quick, prefer­ably with a lit­tle and of­ten ap­proach. An illustration is this com­ment from Lisa Hart on Face­book group Un­dug on July 7, 2017 “No dig makes it so much eas­ier to weed; just pull weeds by hand. My plot neigh­bours thought I was mad but they are now col­lect­ing com­post ready for no dig next year. Far health­ier plants, less has­sle, win win win!”

World­wide up­take

No dig has, un­til re­cently, been frowned on by many es­tab­lished gar­den­ers, who see it as lazy and ‘not do­ing the job prop­erly’. How­ever, my decades of suc­cess make me more de­ter­mined to cut through this non­sense and demon­strate the won­der­ful ben­e­fits of no dig/no till to a wide au­di­ence, and You Tube is fan­tas­tic for that. Cur­rently my chan­nel has 42,000 sub­scribers and half are in North Amer­ica. Here is the kind of feed­back I now re­ceive:

Well, Mr Dowd­ing....I’ll ad­mit that I was a bit skep­ti­cal of your method, but you have made a be­liever out of me!! I don’t have a very large veg gar­den...about 24’ X 24’....filled with raised beds that I de­cided to do this year NO DIG. I just spread a layer of ma­nure and a layer of mush­room soil across the top. I can hardly be­lieve the yield I am get­ting, and by adding com­pan­ion plant­ing for pest con­trol, my fam­ily and friends all agree that it is the nicest and best pro­duc­ing gar­den I have ever had. I do very lit­tle weed­ing. It’s such a nice prob­lem to have to give food away be­cause you can’t pos­si­bly eat it all!!

M. Sch­midt in Mis­souri, 8.7.17 on You Tube MORE: To learn more, my book How to Cre­ate a New Veg­etable Gar­den has ex­ten­sive and fully il­lus­trated de­tails about mulching weeds. Check out the video No Dig, Two Ways to Clear Weeds, for de­tails of two dif­fer­ent ap­proaches.

Charles clear­ing rub­bish af­ter re­mov­ing a fence from a weedy pas­ture in Novem­ber 2012

By late June 2013 there was strong growth of veg­eta­bles and paths had been re-cov­ered with card­board

By mid spring all mulches are in place, some beds planted and some weeds still push­ing through

Mulching ground in Fe­bru­ary 2013 with card­board edges and old ma­nure for the bed

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