The Simple Things
“There’s an arrogant assumption that we can improve on natural processes. The key is knowing when to leave well enough alone”
Growing your own needn’t be the hard work we often think it is, says Charles Dowding. An advocate of no-dig gardening, he talks to Jennifer Stuart-Smith about how doing less can get you more
When someone is described as a revolutionary, it’s easy to think of raised fists, angry crowds, perhaps even that iconic poster of Che Guevara. What doesn’t automatically spring to mind is a softly spoken farmer’s son from Somerset, whose weapon of choice – if action were required – would more likely be a well-aimed root vegetable or bucket of manure. “Why not a spade or fork?” you may ask... Surely, that’s a sensible weapon for a rebellious gardener? And, in the eyes of Charles Dowding, you’d be right. Spades and forks can do untold damage.
Untold, that is, until Charles brought the concept of no-dig gardening to the fore and, in doing so, prompted nervous whispering in horticultural societies across the land. “I gave a talk to the National Vegetable Society,” says Charles. “I was showing photos of how my garden had gone from really weedy ground to productive beds and a guy near the front muttered: ‘I bet he bloody dug it!’ He was totally disbelieving.”
And yet, through more than 30 years of practice – and more recently, through writing – he has attracted a growing band of followers including National Trust head gardeners, Sarah Raven and Monty Don who, along with the editors of Gardeners’ World magazine, listed Charles’ approach as one of the 25 key changes in gardening in the last quarter century.
AN ORGANIC APPROACH
For those unfamiliar with no-dig gardening, it is both wonderfully simple (for the grower) and fascinatingly complex – the key is having faith in nature and knowing when to leave things alone: “There’s this hidden assumption that soil needs to be loosened and aerated, that we can improve on nature and natural processes, which is quite arrogant really,” says Charles.
So, does no-dig also mean organic? “I would say so, yes,” says Charles. “No-dig is about soil life; enhancing and encouraging it. Most synthetic products are detrimental, in one way or another, to soil life, so by definition, it should also be organic.”
Charles advocates using compost, manure, fabric or cardboard to cover the soil and suppress weeds by starving them of light. “Fertility building from on top is a copy of natural processes, like on a forest floor,” says Charles. At the same time, worms and soil fauna are encouraged and, as they increase in number, the soil becomes better aerated, without the loss of moisture and soil structure that digging promotes. Weeds are discouraged and gardeners get more time for cups of tea and general perusing. What’s not to like?
So, how many years did it take him to discover that the no-dig method really worked? “I knew by the end of my first season, in 1984. I wasn’t promoting no-dig, I was just doing it – because it seemed like the right thing to do,” says Charles, who became interested in organic farming and growing while at university. Born on a dairy farm in Shepton Montague, Somerset, six miles from where he lives now, “farming and growing are in my blood” he says. Influenced by a book on animal rights by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, Charles became interested in nutrition, vegetarianism and organic growing. Soon after that he picked up a
book by American gardener and writer Ruth Stout – “Her book, No-Work Gardening, was a bestseller,” says Charles, who will happily admit that he was not the inventor of no-dig, but it was he who stuck his head above the parapet. “Until recently, I didn’t have the confidence to put myself out there,” he says. “I thought I needed more authority and evidence to back myself up, but I now feel I’ve got enough experience to put myself on the line…and say what I know is true.”
DISHING THE D I RT
The truth is important when it comes to growing vegetables for flavour and for health, says Charles, who remembers that when he was 15, his mother served homegrown broad beans with a flavour that was out of this world. “I see it with the people who come on my courses. One guy sowed a few carrots in a container by his back door. When he tried his first carrot, he said: ‘ I’ve never tasted anything like it!’”
More crucial perhaps, are the health benefits of homegrown produce: “Our guts have become sterile. Even fresh food, from the supermarket, has not been grown in healthy soil – it’s lacking microbes. When you grow your own, you’re getting the unseen benefits of microbes. Grow your own veg, and you will notice pretty quickly a difference in how you feel, physically and mentally. The gut is part of our brain, too.”
“There’s a saying, ‘In your lifetime you should eat a peck of soil’,” says Charles. “A peck is equivalent to nine litres. And why? They knew! It’s better when you pull a carrot out of the ground, just to eat it. Rub off the lumps of soil, obviously, but it doesn’t need to be washed. Just go for it.” His enthusiasm is infectious.
It’s a far cry from the stuffy, formal approach that can invoke paralysing fear in the novice gardener: “It’s a bit of a human trait – people use their knowledge to intimidate, deliberately obscuring things so that others are kept in the dark and they retain their power. And it happens everywhere... including horticulture.” Questioning authority is something that Charles encourages: “I’m not a very confrontational person, though,” he’s quick to clarify. “For me, evidence is more important than argument, if you like.” To this end, Charles continues to cultivate a ‘dug’ bed at Homeacres: “It’s such a useful thing to be able to show people.” Crops from this bed consistently weigh less than those from his no-dig patch.
His ‘less work, more time for other things’ approach doesn’t just apply to digging. He’s also willing to put his neck on the line when it comes to compost: “I’m still learning about compost-making. It’s a fascinating subject,” says Charles. He believes we’re too cautious about what we can and can’t compost, and mentions a recent talk in Bristol, where a woman asked: “Do you really put bindweed roots on your compost?”
“I could see when I was answering her question, that she wasn’t convinced at all,” he says. Adding this highly pervasive weed to your compost is OK, says Charles “because bindweed roots in compost heaps do not live for more than a few months. Either they are killed by a heap’s heat in summer months, or smothered as more ingredients are added to the heap.” So, we could simplify our lives if we worried less about the things we put on our compost heap? “Yes! Simplification! It’s empowering – leaving you free to do another job. That’s what I don’t like about rules. They waste people’s time.” It doesn’t take much to fire up the revolutionary who, in his own no-dig way, is radically changing the way we treat our soil.
Read more in Charles Dowding’s Vegetable Garden
Diary (No Dig Garden), which has an introduction by Darina Allen (see page 36); charlesdowding.co.uk.
“Simplification! It’s empowering – leaving you free to do another job”