Charles Dowding has been developing new ways of gardening since the '80s. His monthly update will dig into the benefits of No-Dig and healthy soil and how to grow the best organic veg.
No dig protects soil structure and life, the natural and easy way.
Most soil already has a good structure for plant roots to grow in and is full of growth-enabling organisms. Millions of fungal threads, nematodes, millipedes and earthworms, to name a few of soil's inhabitants, are being helpful out of sight right under our feet.
You have already started no dig without knowing! Since the last time you dug or tilled or forked your soil, it has been healing itself. Networks of fungi and health-bringing organisms have been growing, recreating a stable structure. No dig builds on this natural soil recovery, without the complexities of soil tests.
No dig’s advantages
- Start at any time of the year - just one bed to have a go and learn as you grow. There is no need to dig or weed first, except for woody plants: just add mulch.
- With compost mulches, you can plant beds the same day as you make them.
- You enjoy gardening more because fewer weeds germinate.
- Mycorrhizal fungi stay intact, so they can help plant roots to find more food and moisture. They are smaller than roots and can reach into tiny crevices.
- Moisture is retained and available at a considerable depth because there is no ‘shatter zone’ of different density soils, which happens after cultivations.
- Mud does not stick to your boots in wet weather because drainage is good and tools or machinery have not broken the soil's structure. Excess water runs through, and you can garden whenever you need to.
- You can quickly resow or replant at any time of year, with no soil preparation needed. Simply twist out the plants of the preceding crop to leave most of the roots in the soil.
- Warmth is retained by soil in winter because deep-level heat can rise, unhindered by damage from cultivations.
- Carbon stays in the soil, rather than being converted to CO2 by oxidation, after cultivations.
- You need less compost than if you were digging the soil, because of no carbon loss or soil damage.
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My word on SOIL TESTS
I have had some done over the years, and am not a fan. By all means, if you are more comfortable doing or paying for a test, carry on. However, I only recommend them if growth on your property or in your area is poor, perhaps because of acidic soil, which fortunately is rare.
Most tests cause worries because they easily and erroneously pick out apparent anomalies. Gardeners need merely to look at existing growth for reassurance and knowledge. When you increase soil life, nutrients become more available to plants, soil structure improves and growth balances out.
Almost every book says you need to check pH to know about acidity or alkalinity - but what should you do with that knowledge? Perhaps read another book to find out, and become immersed in complexities! Most of us do not need to test. Almost all soil tests are geared towards using fertilisers and amendments, and just a few can interpret soil biology.
The ones I would recommend, and they are not cheap, are biological tests along the lines of work by Dr Elaine Ingham. She has pioneered soil microbiology research and knowledge since graduating with an MSc in Microbiology in 1977. She founded Soil Food Web Inc. in 1996 and runs the Environmental Celebration Institute farm in Northern California.
My monthly veg growing tips
After a cool and windy March, we need a warm April! However, the weather does not often compensate so nicely, and there can be frosts into early May.
I therefore recommend waiting until mid-April before planting second early and maincrop potatoes. They grow so fast when it warms up, so there is no rush to get them in too soon. Leave your seed potatoes in a light spot before planting, so they continue to “chit” with stubby shoots, rather than the long and breakable ones they produce in the dark.
Tomatoes and other frost-tender plants may need covering by night, should they be in a greenhouse or polytunnel/cold frame where frost can still occur. Electric heating mats are useful for maintaining warmth, also for germinating seeds. In the second half of April you can sow courgettes, cucumber, squash and sweetcorn, but under cover only. These seeds need some unseasonal warmth to get started.
Sow peas and broad beans if you have not already - they grow in much cooler conditions.
Do not sow runner or French beans yet! Wait until 10th May at the earliest, under cover. They struggle in cold conditions so leave seeds in the packet for now.
New weeds are germinating throughout April. On a dry day, lightly run a rake or thin-bladed hoe through the surface inch of compost if you mulched with it, or soil if not. This is a great habit to get into. Do this before weeds establish - when they are barely visible, resulting in hundreds if not thousands dying before they cause any problems. As the season continues there will now be far fewer weeds, with more time to sow, plant and pick your produce.