Charles Dowding’s Organic Gardening begins and ends with soil health. He focuses on the biomass beneath our feet, from: ‘bacteria and fungi to earthworms and spiders. It is truly and literally alive, as much as a person or animal.’ The book explores how digging - the traditional method of soil cultivation - has a damaging effect on soil ecosystems, destroying mycorrhizal networks that help feed the plants, bringing weed seeds to the surface and breaking down the aeration structures created by earthworm activity.
Earthworms help to aerate the soil.
Charles offers advice based on 30 years of experience of organic, no-dig methods that feed and support soil ecosystems. Key to his no-dig system is adding an annual mulch (5cm of compost) and leaving the worms to take the organic matter down into the soil. Spreading mulch mimics the natural process of falling leaves being incorporated into the soil by earthworms, allowing these soil aerators, fungi and bacteria to feed on the decaying matter. Interestingly, Charles explains that he now views soil fertility as ‘having more to do with biology than chemistry’, pointing to its function as a living organism, rather than an inert growing medium.
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Organic Gardening is ideal for new gardeners as it explains each step involved in creating a productive garden: from siting and creating beds, through to which crops to choose and when to sow. It also offers advice on a wide variety of vegetables, fruit and herbs. There is plenty of information for gardeners wishing to transition to organic, no-dig gardening, with many useful tips, such as ways to reduce the impact of pests and diseases without having to resort to chemical treatments. One method that Charles advocates is to sow seed in pots or trays and plant out seedlings later when they are robust and growing strongly. I have also found this hugely successful in my slug and snail-ridden garden.
'Charles advocates is to sow seed in pots or trays and plant out seedlings later when they are robust and growing strongly'
Throughout the book, Charles shares his personal experience of growing an enormous range of crops in his garden. I’m now keen to try out new varieties, especially as many of his recommendations select the most robust and delicious-tasting produce. Sweetcorn ‘Sweet Nugget’ has been added to my list for its ‘fantastic flavour’, and I like the sound of ‘Greenshaft’, a second early pea with a sweet taste and wrinkled seeds. Organic Gardening is also full of practical tips such as ‘smaller, red squash varieties ripen better than butternut squash in colder regions’. This is useful when selecting varieties in different areas of the country.
I was, however, disappointed that the advice for choosing good growing media referred to multipurpose, organic compost, but omitted any mention of peat-free alternatives. It also had no reference to the immensely damaging effects in terms of both ecosystem damage and carbon sequestration caused by peat extraction. Whilst it is good to support soil ecosystems in our garden, biodiversity elsewhere should not have to suffer because of our gardening choices.
Overall though, I enjoyed Organic Gardening and have identified many helpful tips that I’ll be trying out in the garden next season.