Put simply ‘No dig’ is exactly that - a means of gardening without digging over the plot each year.
It is a a gardening method that is gaining popularity in sustainable gardening and farming communities around the world. It is the passion of award winning expert and writer Charles Dowding who runs courses on his farm in Somerset. In these he shares the technique with hundreds of new gardeners every year.
The basic principle of ‘No Dig is that rather than seeking to cultivate soil we should leave it to manage this process on its own. By simply weeding at surface level, minimising disruption to the soil and keeping the structure intact you can achieve a perfectly balanced medium for gardening. This will allow you to enjoy fantastic results, with a lot less back breaking work!
For years we have been told the secret to success is to dig over your soil and ‘improve’ it. The basis of this is that this promotes healthy soil and discourages weeds.
In fact, Charles Dowding’s research suggests the opposite is true. His work shows that intensive ‘dig’ cultivation is actually harmful to the soil. It promotes weed growth and leads to a reduction in crop production. And of course, it uses a lot of time and energy!
With a ‘No dig’ garden you only disturb the soil to plant seedlings and undertake some light hoeing. A Speedhoe or SpeedHoe Precision depending on the size of your bed will give you that light touch across the surface. The only extra work is to add a compost mulch once a year and that’s it!
How to Start 'No Dig'
Careful preparation of your growing area is the key. Starting with the removal/smothering of weeds, followed by a thick mulch of cardboard then compost. Your bed might be out of action for 6 months to a year so it might be best to do this one bed or portion of the garden at a time so you can carry on growing.
For those new to gardening - mulches are loose coverings or sheets of material placed on the surface of soil. They can be biodegradable matter such as compost, bark or cardboard. Or they can be non biodegradable matter such as gravel, sheets of cardboard, lino or landscaping weed barrier fabrics.
Whatever mulch you use, the purpose of mulching is to save water, suppress weeds and improve the soil around plants. It also gives your garden a neat, tidy appearance and can reduce the amount of time spent on tasks such as watering and weeding.
The key steps are:
- Clear the site a little if needed - there is no need to remove weeds, with the exception of tough woody species such as brambles which should be cut out as much as possible so that it is flat enough to lay your cardboard.
- We recommend cardboard as it will decompose. Avoid plastic as they may break down into microplastics which will stay in your soil. Carpet is often used but these days most carpet has been treated with chemicals which will poison the soil so its not a good option.
- Lay your thick layer of cardboard and cover with mulch. The mulch could be one or more of: homemade compost, fully-rotted manure, leaves or grass mowings. You need about a 15 - 20 cms (6" - 8") layer. The aim is to exclude the light so the weds can't grow.
- Most perennial weeds will be weakened and then killed off with the cardboard and mulch. Ground Elder, Bindweed and Mares Tail might need some additional hoeing, but all will be weakened over time.
- Now all you have to do is wait! It can take 6 months to a year for all the weeds to die off.
The focus is on feeding and looking after the soil, rather than the plants – the No Dig principle is that organic matter is all you need to provide all the nutrients for a healthy crop, fed by the soil.
- The mulch needs topping up each year to enrich the soil.. So, lay a layer of compost about 8cm (3") thick (laid on top - no digging in)
- Keep a clean and tidy plot - remove damaged leaves and hoe regularly to reduce the chances of pests
- Plant closely and harvest regularly leaving less space for weeds to grow and maximise your crop.
Whether you’re new to gardening and have always been put off by tales of backbreaking work or have been working your plot for years and keen to try something new – give No Dig a go!
Find out more about Charles Dowding and his work on his website https://charlesdowding.co.uk/