LAY DOWN YOUR SPADES

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Life Gardening -

New year res­o­lu­tions usu­ally con­tain good in­ten­tions and there are few truly more pos­i­tive pas­times than veg­etable gar­den­ing. Charles Dowd­ing has made it even more worth­while with his new book Veg Jour­nal. He cuts a path through the un­der­growth of gar­den­ing lore and outof-date prac­tices and shows how you can max­imise the re­wards and min­imise your re­grets. This is des­tined to be a cof­fee-stained book rather than a cof­fee-ta­ble book, as it is highly ac­ces­si­ble in a jour­nal form that nudges you along month by month. Charles started mar­ket gar­den­ing in the Eight­ies, tend­ing seven acres, but us­ing lit­tle ma­chin­ery – he sim­ply does not feel at home with it. He then cre­ated a one-acre gar­den at Lower Farm be­fore mov­ing to his cur­rent onethird of an acre patch at Homeacres in the vil­lage of Al­hamp­ton, near Cas­tle Cary in Som­er­set. In his first year here he pro­duced £7,000 worth of veg from his plot. Dur­ing his 30 years of veg­etable grow­ing he has ex­per­i­mented widely but al­ways in a non-me­chan­i­cal way. He is in the un­usual po­si­tion that spans the gap be­tween do­mes­tic veg­etable grow­ing and mar­ket gar­den­ing. For the likes of many am­a­teur gar­den­ers what he has learnt is a rev­e­la­tion, show­ing how we can reap big re­wards for far less ef­fort. The no-dig method has be­come as­so­ci­ated with Charles. This means the soil is left un­turned, or not dug, and you make the beds ac­ces­si­ble from side paths so you do not walk on the pro­duc­tive land. He has car­ried out ex­per­i­ments over many years com­par­ing yields from dig and no-dig plots. The no-dig con­sis­tently pro­duces equiv­a­lent or bet­ter re­sults and the labour in­put is rad­i­cally re­duced. Even so, many gar­den­ers find it dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that you can grow crops with­out dig­ging. To prove his point, Charles took on a plot of heavy clay soil a few years back. It had been com­pacted by trac­tors over the years and wa­ter would lie on it in win­ter and in sum­mer it be­come a hard block of solid clay. Even Charles doubted its prospects. But by adding or­ganic mat­ter to the top, not walk­ing on the soil and us­ing his no-dig prin­ci­ples he got re­sults. Ad­mit­tedly the first year they were poor, but by the sec­ond year they were nor­mal and the third year they were good. I have of­ten heard gar­den­ers tell me that you have to have good soil to start with in or­der for the no-dig method to work, but Charles’s work re­in­forces that you don’t. Add the or­ganic mat­ter to the top and let the worms, mi­cro or­gan­isms and fungi mix the com­post into the soil. Con­fine your dig­ging to the plant­ing of trees and shrubs and then only when the soil is dry. In my own gar­den, my veg is mainly in raised beds. Their man­age­ment is a breeze and they are in a prime po­si­tion and look good all year. The down­side of raised beds is they are more ex­pen­sive to form and pos­si­bly, in very dry weather, will dry out quicker than beds at ground level. But of course you have the lux­ury of perch­ing on the side, chat­ting while pick­ing, plant­ing or thin­ning. In a gar­den, mak­ing the veg space a place to linger is top pri­or­ity for me. Charles has mostly fixed beds, which are at ground level. They are of a size that al­lows ac­cess via struc­tured paths to the crops with­out walk­ing on the soil. One of my big prob­lems is slugs. My veg gar­den is a few me­tres from a wild-flower meadow that fringes a wood. As I plant out young plants, I can hear the slugs rac­ing across the stretch of lawn, like pigs re­spond­ing to the noise of the swine­herd’s bucket. My re­cent cop­per pipe and mounded cof­fee grounds bar­rier is help­ing though. Charles’s ap­proach re­lies on bare soil for two to three weeks be­fore plant­ing out a crop; this way there is no habi­tat for the slugs, and no leaves to hide un­der. He never uses green ma­nures as they are ideal slugfest sit­u­a­tions. He keeps the ar­eas sur­round­ing the beds closely mown. If af­ter plant­ing it is su­per slug weather, then he will go out af­ter dark with a torch and bi­sect them. He will never lose more than five per cent of his crops this way. The old walled gar­dens were ideal in this re­spect, with their in­hos­pitable gravel paths of­ten be­ing the only way in for our slimy friends. Many gar­den­ers for­get when to sow what. Charles’ jour­nal is a good aide me­moire, pep­pered with tid­bits of use­ful in­for­ma­tion and a blank, lined page per month en­cour­ages you to use the book as a di­ary. We al­ways as­sume it’s our fault when we have a fail­ure, but this might not al­ways be the case. Keep­ing records is vi­tal, es­pe­cially if you are a pro­gres­sive gar­dener, who is al­ways try­ing dif­fer­ent spac­ings, va­ri­eties and tech­niques. Charles’s re­cent “new” veg is oca, a yam orig­i­nally from South Amer­ica but grown com­mer­cially in New Zealand (avail­able here from re­alseeds.co.uk). This ap­par­ently amaz­ing veg, Ox­alis tuberosa, has edi­ble, lemony flavoured leaves (for sal­ads) and tasty tu­bers. Plant the lat­ter in spring and leave them in the ground un­til late – the tu­bers start to grow in Novem­ber, but then swell fast so you can lift them a week or so af­ter the fo­liage is killed by a hard frost. Pro­tect against early frosts with fleece. The tu­bers can be used raw in sal­ads, their zingy taste adds an in­ter­est­ing di­men­sion or they can be cooked where they have a sweet taste. With our strange weather, grow­ing with fixed beds and us­ing plug plants means that a healthy plot is a more achiev­able and the great­est de­mand on your time is the sat­is­fy­ing task of har­vest­ing. You find that the jobs that need do­ing are spread more through­out the year, al­low­ing you to pick the best weather days to do them in. There is no bet­ter time to start than now. It will be a rev­e­la­tion. Course dates with Charles Dowd­ing at Homeacres, Som­er­set (up to six peo­ple) are Wed Fe­bru­ary 26, Sun March 2, Wed March 12, Sat March 22, Sat April 5, Wed April 9. Also a mar­ket gar­den­ing course SatSun March 29-30: ‘Veg Jour­nal’ by Charles Dowd­ing (Frances Lin­coln, £14.99)

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