21: Episode 21 – No Dig Gardening

Ever wondered if you could grow vegetables without the backbreaking job of turning soil or digging up potatoes? Well you can, and in this episode we discuss how.

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No-Dig Gardening

If you’ve ever grown your own potatoes, chances are you have dug them into the ground
and over time you’ve mounded up over the potatoes with a lot of soil as they grow. Then when they’re ready, you’ve put off the inevitably back-breaking job of digging them up and in doing so you’ve probably stuck a fork through several and wished there was another way. Well, what if I told you there was?

Today we’re going to talk about no-dig gardening. Now, no-dig gardening is a term used frequently to describe a way of growing annual vegetables without digging up your soil. There’s no working of the soil with a fork, or tilling, there’s no digging things up in the manner that you might usually. All of the growing and planting we do is done right in the very top of the soil. So, it’s either literally at soil level or even in compost above what you would normally consider to be the ground that you’re going to grow your vegetables in.

There’s a community online that’s grown up around this and it’s been made famous by, among other people, someone called Charles Dowding who is a leading proponent of his no-dig gardening method and he’s very easy to find online. However, I didn’t actually come across him
or his way of doing things; I sort of stumbled across it on my own through just experimenting with different things. So, I’m going to tell you how I do it and why I do it and how I decided to try different things. If you want to know more, you can find lots of articles online relating to how to use no-dig gardening in different ways and for different crops.

The Benefits of No-Dig Gardening

The first thing I want to do is explain why we no-dig garden, what the benefits are, what the thinking was, and then we’re going to talk a little bit about how those benefits work and how we actually do the process. So, why should you no-dig garden? Well, the obvious starting point is the amount of effort involved. It’s far less back-breaking work. No one that I know actually enjoys tilling soil, especially by hand and everything I do is by hand – we don’t have a tractor or machinery. All the forking that we did to originally establish our beds would all have to be done by hand. Anything I could do to reduce that was certainly a benefit.

The thing that actually pushed me over the edge and made me think, “Right, we have to do this,” was when I was digging up potatoes and I actually started to experience quite a lot of pain in my back, despite the fact that I consider myself to be physically fit. It was such an arduous task; I just thought there has to be a better way. So, I started trying out a few different options and it turns out that I’ve actually had great success, and yields can be increased. All the things that you worried about when you initially think of the idea of a no-dig gardening plot, all those things actually aren’t a problem and some of them turn into benefits. So, things like yields can actually go up. Pest control is actually sometimes simpler or a lot of the time simpler, and there are a lot of diseases that seem to be much less prevalent with a no-dig gardening system. That’s the main reason that I got into it and once you start thinking about it, there’s a lot of side benefits to it as well.

If you are not using the method of loosening up all your soil to allow that growing medium for your plants to grow in, then also you don’t have to worry about soil compaction. You don’t need to worry about keeping off your beds and walking in very strict lines up paths, because compaction isn’t really an issue. You’ll find that most plants that grow are quite happy growing in compacted soil in a no-dig soil. Now, of course, we add lots of organic matter to our soil over time – all gardeners that really are trying to get decent yields and do things the right way will be doing that anyway, so this is going to create that soil environment within which plants are really going to thrive in, without you having to loosen the soil.

There’s no back-breaking work, there’s no need to avoid compaction, and there’s no disturbance of the mycorrhizal fungi and the soil food web beneath the top layer of the soil. For me, that is the most important part.

Permaculture Principles

Along with my thinking of trying to reduce the amount of physical labor involved, I was also doing a lot of work in other areas of the garden with a lot of permaculture principles. Now, if you’re not familiar with permaculture, we’re going to do a much more in-depth article on permaculture in the next coming days, but the basic principle is what you’re trying to do is create systems that look after themselves. You’re always trying to reduce the number of inputs, be that labor, be that things you need to buy in, or things you need to add to a unit of space, be it feed for animals, you’re trying to reduce them while maintaining your outputs and have everything just working together in a symbiotic relationship, so that it just carries on. In a permaculture system, you would create a guild of plants that all work together really well and help each other, and you don’t need to weed and do all those kinds of things.

The Soil Food Web

Through learning about permaculture, I became familiar with the soil food web. Now, the soil food web is everything that’s happening just below the soil and it’s a fascinating subject in and of itself. Just below the top layer of soil, you’ve got fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and nematodes, and all sorts of other organisms that are all working in symbiosis with the plants that you’re growing.

They support the plants, which in turn supports themselves. So, the plants support the soil food web by photosynthesizing and in doing so, some of the sugars that are created through photosynthesis are deposited into the soil. That’s what the mycorrhizal fungi distribute and all the organisms in the soil food web need, and in return they raise things like nitrogen levels and help to feed the plants. Mycorrhizal fungi on their own are a fascinating subject. Some types – there’s lots of different types types of fungi obviously – but some types actually form a symbiotic relationship with plant roots and they literally penetrate the plant roots with their mycorrhizals and they will communicate with the plants in such a way that they can take excess nutrients from different plants and different spaces within the ground and deliver them to the plants that need them.

It really is a fascinating area and every time you till your soil and you turn it up, you disturb that environment. Just by forking over an area of ground that’s not been worked for a long time, you can do so much damage to that ecosystem. That’s why on a lot of monoculture farms the system is completely different, and they need to add fertilizers and commercial products at such a high rate because they are tilling the ground, they are spraying the ground with pesticides and they’re doing everything to basically inhibit this culture below the ground.

By not disturbing this ecosystem and allowing it to do the job it wants to do, which is to support your plants and have your plants support them, it’s already doing so much good and that more than makes up for any good you’re going to do by tilling the ground and disturbing it.

Creating a No-Dig Gardening Bed

Those are the reasons why I started looking at different ways of growing without disturbing the ground and ultimately came to no-dig gardening. I’m going to start talking about how you actually go about no-dig gardening, how you can turn an area of lawn into a vegetable bed without putting a fork in the ground.

To create a no-dig gardening bed, you take any piece of land and usually it would be something that’s got grass on it, but it might be a vegetable plot that you’ve already had. If you have grass or something there that you don’t want, then the first thing to put down is some kind of barrier that’s going to stop that grass growing up through your mulch. What we use is feed sacks; we buy animal feed that comes in paper sacks, but the paper is quite thick, so we cut those in half and lay them out and then we put on top of that some mulch. I have seen online lots and lots of people recommend using cardboard. So, that’s another method you could use and it’s really easy to get hold of cardboard. If you don’t have any lying around, it’s quite easy to find businesses that have lots and lots of boxes that you can take home to make your new bed.

One of the benefits of doing it this way is it’s going to biodegrade and it’s going to keep your weeds down without installing a weed-proof membrane, which doesn’t make any sense for what we’re trying to do. What we want is it to break down over a season or so. The best time to do this would be in the autumn, before you’re planting the following spring, but you can do it anytime. The reason autumn is the best time to do it is because that allows the cardboard to degrade to a point that you can plant above it and your roots are going to have no trouble getting down through it, but it’s had time to inhibit that weed growth. If you do it later, and you can do it today and plant tomorrow, just be aware if you’re planting that you’re going to want to create pockets where your new vegetables can get their roots down through that membrane, whatever it is that you’ve used.
Once you’ve done that, you then put a nice thick layer of mulch on top. When you’re thinking of planting, you’re going to want to be using compost as that mulch. But if you’re doing this in the autumn, or you’re doing it over a large bed and you’re not planting all of it straight away, which is how I tend to work, then we use woodchip, but you can use any mulch, any kind of loose organic matter that is going to break down and feed your soil. If you’ve used woodchip or straw or some kind of mulch that isn’t compost, then you have to effectively think about that as going to be next year’s compost. So, we’re always a year ahead.

When you’re ready to plant, you just pull aside a row wherever you’re ready to plant and you put your compost in that row. Effectively, what you’ll have is your soil and then you’ll have your cardboard or paper which has degraded, and then above that you’ll have four or five inches of mulch, and if that mulch is not compost you will have just pulled aside some of that and you’ll have filled that hole with compost. So, effectively what you’re planting into is four or five inches of compost and this is all above your actual ground level. Whatever you’re planting, you plant into there and it will quite happily get its roots down into the soil which hasn’t been disturbed, so it already has all the benefits of having the food web working for it, ready to go, just waiting for your plant to deliver its end of the bargain. You’re going to find that you get at least as good yields as you do in any uncompacted, loosened soil without hardly any of the work.

<2>Harvesting Time

Once you’ve done that, when it comes to harvesting it gets even better, because most of your root vegetables are going to be in that nice loose top layer. You’re not going to have to dig down through to get hold of them, even for things like potatoes. We mound up our potatoes using just mulch. Again, it can be anything, because the part of the plant that is seeking the nutrients in the soil is either going to be in that small layer of compost or down below in the original soil. That’s where it’s drawing all of its nutrients, but the bit that it’s delivering to you is going to be in that easy to get hold of section in the loose upper layer of compost or mulch. So, when it comes to harvesting your potatoes, nine times out of ten you can literally just pull the plant out and most of the potato will just come up with it without any effort whatsoever, and certainly without any digging.

This works for all plants, but the reason I keep referring to potatoes is because potatoes are where you feel that benefit the most, I think, insofar as harvesting. I got so put off harvesting potatoes when I experienced the back pain that I spoke about in the start of the article, that it made me consider not planting them again if I couldn’t come up with a different way.

Once you have an understanding of the soil food web and how it works, to me, it just doesn’t make sense to garden any other way. We only use no-dig gardening now for all of our vegetables and it’s not a case of it’s a garden hack and it can save you time by cutting these corners – it’s quite the opposite. It’s just the best way of doing it for your plants. So, the corners that it cuts are just a side effect of, I believe, giving your plants an even better growing environment.

Increased Yields and Decreased Crop Rotation

Now, there’s lots of evidence online that suggests that your yields will actually increase. Now personally, we don’t have the data and evidence to tell you that ourselves. Yields can go up and down over years and we don’t control that; we don’t have an area that we no-dig and an area that we dig so that we compare the difference. But online, there are lots of people who have done that and they will tell you that their no-dig gardening yields actually increase year on year against standard methods.

Also, there is less requirement for crop rotation and pest control measures and things like that. I believe on Charles Dowding’s site, he controls for no-dig versus dig gardening over five or six seasons. It’ll show you that his potato yields have gone up, but also that he’s not rotating his crop for several years and not having issues with blight and things like that, which you would normally associate with growing potatoes in the same place over two or more seasons.

There’s lots and lots of ancillary advantages beyond the actual main advantage of growing your crops in a fashion that’s a lot less work and does the right thing by them. It encourages your soil health and encourages your vegetable health, without you having to do nearly as much work as doing it the other way. Hopefully that’s all food for thought and you find that interesting and if you’re not already doing it, then I hope you think about doing it in the future. I’m certainly a massive proponent of it.