Ditch that spade!
Easy ways to have few weeds with the ‘no-dig’ method
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.
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!”
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