Or­ganic Grow­ing

Lazy or the best thing since sliced bread? Charles Dowd­ing thinks that his no dig ap­proach is def­i­nitely the lat­ter and, thanks to his beds at Homeacres, he can prove it

Country Smallholding - - Contents - With Charles Dowd­ing

Ilook for meth­ods that have a clear rea­son be­hind them and work. From my ex­pe­ri­ence, that rules out an im­pres­sive amount of com­mon ‘good prac­tice’ which ac­tu­ally does not stand up to scru­tiny or yield the claimed re­sults.

This theme runs though many ac­tiv­i­ties be­sides gar­den­ing and since it is De­cem­ber let us men­tion bak­ing. I make sour­dough rye bread, ac­claimed for its flavour and rel­a­tive light­ness of 100% rye loaves. The se­cret? No knead.

Even though most recipes em­pha­sise the im­por­tance of knead­ing, I sim­ply stir vig­or­ously with a wooden spoon and dol­lop the damp dough into tins. Much time is saved, more bread is en­joyed and yet many peo­ple have no idea that this is pos­si­ble.

Gar­den­ing is choc-full of myths and mis­un­der­stand­ings and most of them re­sult in un­nec­es­sary time wasted. ‘Har­den­ing off’ is an ex­am­ple, with the in-and-out rit­u­als one of­ten sees ad­vised that take up so many hours. I just take plants from the green­house and plant them out­side, plus, in cold weather, I lay a fleece over for two to four weeks, de­pend­ing on the sea­son.

Sav­ing time

Let us look at more time-sav­ing meth­ods with ev­i­dence from my two Homeacres beds to com­pare growth in dug and un­dug soil. They are both 1.5x5m and are fin­ish­ing their sixth year of crop­ping: their growth dif­fer­ences of­fer new in­sights ev­ery year and 2018 has been ex­cep­tional for this.

No dig was un­til re­cently seen as a lazy ap­proach and not do­ing a proper job. Most gar­den­ing ar­ti­cles at this time of year fea­ture rou­tine pho­tos of fork and spade, man dig­ging and ad­vice to dig over, etc. At least the dig­ging rit­ual af­fords a photo op­por­tu­nity — but how to show no dig?

Re­cent changes in at­ti­tude come from the emerg­ing knowl­edge about soil bi­ol­ogy, such as my­c­or­rhizal fungi. Un­der­stand­ings of the wood wide web in soil con­tra­dict many tra­di­tional views about soil struc­ture, drainage, pests and how plants feed. Soil cul­ti­va­tion has the down­side of dam­ag­ing fun­gal net­works and other soil or­gan­isms — and the ev­i­dence of growth on my two beds re­flects this.

Faster start on no dig

In spring 2018 my dig/no dig com­par­i­son of two beds of the same size, with the same com­post saw the bed which I dig ev­ery

De­cem­ber be­gin woe­fully. Its poor growth in spring sug­gests that soil struc­ture is dam­aged rather than im­proved by dig­ging. Plants on the dig bed strug­gled to make progress dur­ing April’s cold weather com­pared to the easy growth of all veg­eta­bles on the no dig bed.

Yet weeds grew more vig­or­ously in the dug bed. Clean com­post on the no dig bed (horse ma­nure from a hot­bed) meant that al­most no weed­ing was needed. An­other dif­fer­ence was pest dam­age: Two rows of emerg­ing car­rots on both beds be­came one-and-a-half on the dig bed by late April due to slug dam­age. On no dig, all of the car­rots sur­vived.

Of six cab­bages in each bed, two out of six were dam­aged by wire­worm on no dig, while five out of six were eaten on dig.

I so of­ten hear at­tempts to jus­tify dig­ging, such as “birds eat ex­posed pests”. In this case, it was the other way around, with more pest dam­age af­ter dig­ging. More­over, the rea­sons for dig­ging in­clude no men­tion of how many worms and other ben­e­fi­cial soil in­hab­i­tants are dam­aged.

Ac­cess­ing mois­ture, bras­si­cas and pota­toes

This spring as April’s dull mis­ery trans­formed to a mag­nif­i­cent May, the dig bed’s plants grew no­tice­ably more slowly in the en­su­ing dry weather com­pared to the same veg­eta­bles on no dig. This was es­pe­cially the case with peas, spinach, beet­root, car­rots, cab­bage and kohlrabi.

I no­tice how bras­si­cas are gen­er­ally stronger on no dig, yet most writ­ings sug­gest that they do not use my­c­or­rhizal as­so­ci­a­tion to grow. How­ever, the bras­sica har­vests to the end of Oc­to­ber 2018 are 3.31kg dig, ver­sus 5.71kg no dig.

Pota­toes pro­vided relief for the dig bed and they yielded well. The no dig pota­toes were good, too, but the dif­fer­ence was 16%.

Au­tumn in a nut­shell

Fi­nally, by Oc­to­ber, the dig plants were mostly the equiv­a­lent of those on the no dig bed, al­though even then there were dra­matic ex­cep­tions. The dig bed cel­ery was pale and small and there were stunted car­rots with slightly more root fly com­pared to no dig. Har­vests by late Oc­to­ber on the dig bed were 60.68kg and 82.73kg on the no dig bed.

The dig bed needed two hours ex­tra work for its dig­ging and half-an-hour of ex­tra weed­ing. When wa­ter­ing, it needed more time be­cause the water pans on its sur­face and then runs off (the com­post is dug in), com­pared to rapid in­fil­tra­tion on the no dig bed. This has implications for ero­sion and flood­ing af­ter soil cul­ti­va­tion.

Clear­ing peren­nial weeds at Mot­t­is­font

For 26 years they had at­tempted to clear a bor­der of Ox­alis tuberosa (a weed with nu­mer­ous small tu­bers of brown that are dif­fi­cult to see and they keep break­ing when soil is moved), by dou­ble dig­ging ev­ery au­tumn at The Na­tional Trust gar­dens in Mot­t­is­font. The ox­alis sim­ply grew again ev­ery year.

In 2017, Jonny Nor­ton, the new head gardener, de­cided to mulch this bor­der in­stead, us­ing thick card­board and com­post on top. The gar­den­ers were un­sure as to what the re­sults would be, but they gave it a go and no­ticed how en­gaged the vis­i­tors be­came, ask­ing what they were do­ing. Above all, they were sav­ing much time, ef­fort and the lives of soil or­gan­isms.

Jonny Nor­ton wrote to me re­cently, say­ing: “The ox­alis is very much now un­der con­trol with reg­u­lar light hoe­ing ap­prox­i­mately bi-weekly.” The team is also cre­at­ing a no dig kitchen gar­den to pro­duce salad leaves for the restau­rant and for sell­ing. It is worth a visit if you are nearby.

Slugs and pest con­trol

Slugs are like us — they need a home. Slug dam­age is re­lated to the pro­fu­sion or scarcity of nearby habi­tats and tidy plots with tidy edges suf­fer less dam­age than un­tidy ones. Habi­tats and at­trac­tants in­clude: Over­grown edges, in­clud­ing long grass, sprawl­ing shrubs and hedges; Low grow­ing weeds, such as chick­weed; De­cay­ing vegetable leaves on the ground, a mag­net for mol­luscs whose life’s work is to process them into food for new growth; Weak plants which send a sig­nal of ‘eat me’ to slugs and snails. The last point re­lates to soil health and no dig helps by grow­ing stronger plants. An­other big help is to sow each vegetable’s seed at its best time, so that strong growth is less in­ter­est­ing to pests.

Charles Dowd­ing’s Vegetable Gar­den 2019 Cal­en­dar will make the per­fect gift this Christ­mas It con­tains 28 pages of pho­tos and in­for­ma­tion on grow­ing great veg­eta­bles, in­cor­po­rat­ing sow­ing tips through­out the year. Signed copies cost £10 and can be or­dered from Charles’ web­site www.charles­dowd­ing.co.uk/prod­uct/ charles-dowd­ing-gar­den­ing-cal­en­dar-2019/

Har­vests on 19 June from the same num­ber of let­tuce, pota­toes, peas, car­rots and beet­root, with no dig on the left and dig on the right

View of cab­bage, let­tuce, car­rots, beet­root, spinach and peas on 21 May: the no dig bed is in front, with the dig be­hind

Trial beds in mid May af­ter sun and warmth, with the dig bed on the left and the no dig on the right

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