Is No-Dig Gardening a Better Way to Grow?Colin Campbell-Preston
No-dig gardening may feel like a new technique with all the buzz it’s generating at the moment, but this is an organic gardening style that actually aims to work alongside the natural processes of your garden. If you tend to see in the new season by working up a sweat with a spade and thoroughly digging over your garden, then this technique may seem a little daunting.
However, no-dig gardening can actually be an easier way of managing your garden, taking away the need to spend long hours on cultivation. We spoke to award-winning no-dig expert and writer Charles Dowding to get the low down on no-dig gardening and find out some top tips on how to make it work for you. Read our full interview with Charles below.
What is no-dig gardening and why should people consider it over more mainstream methods?
No-dig gardening is a method that aims for minimal disturbance of the soil, so that the natural processes can be preserved. This allows the natural organisms to thrive, increasing the soil’s overall health and therefore that of your plants. An example of these organisms is mycorrhizal fungus, which forms a mutualistic relationship with plants and aid in root growth.
Digging your garden can break up the fungal threads in the soil, meaning that your plants don’t benefit from these helpful organisms. No-dig gardening allows natural relationships between organisms to flourish and preserves the overall structure of the soil, leading to improved plant growth.
Is no-dig gardening more difficult than other gardening methods?
No-dig gardening takes a little bit of time to establish, but once you have mastered perennial weeds by mulching (as described below) it is actually much easier than traditional methods. No digging is required in the winter and much less weeding in the summer, so it saves a lot of time throughout the year. For example, on a digging vs no-digging trial between two 1.5 x 5m beds, I found that I spent an average of three hours less per year on the no-dig bed.
Is it possible to practice no-dig gardening even if you have very compacted soil?
Yes. If soil is truly compacted, rather than just firm, it takes a while to recover no matter what method you use. Mechanically breaking it open won’t yield better results than allowing the soil to recover naturally. If you have compacted soil, earthworms are your friend. They have an amazing ability to travel upwards in search of organic matter, which establishes air and water channels in the soil. Whilst your first year’s harvest will be smaller using a no-dig method, your soil will recover and support plants well in the long run.
How can you control perennial weeds without digging?
Mulching is the best way to control perennial weeds, as it starves the weeds of light. Using this method, you can expect lawn grasses to die within 8-12 weeks and dandelions in 4-6 months. More stubborn weeds such as couch grass and bindweed may take over a year to die off. Crops can still be grown as you mulch, either underneath a mulch of 7-15 cm of compost or through holes in polythene mulches. Keep removing any regrowth of perennial weeds and in time the parent root will exhaust itself.
Does no-dig gardening make it more difficult to incorporate manures?
No-dig gardening removes the need to incorporate manures. Soil organisms incorporate organic matter from the surface, which adds nutrients to the soil – hence why mulching with organic matter is so successful. In the UK, I would advise mulching once a year with compost, which not only improves the soil but results in less slugs than straw or cardboard.
What advice would you give to beginners wanting to get into no-dig gardening?
The first step is to get some materials to mulch the weeds. One large sheet of black polythene is a cheap and effective place to start for something like a weedy allotment. You can cover half of the allotment whilst still cropping the other half and then have clean soil where the polythene was by year two. It’s an easy method that yields good results.
Another essential component is compost, so locating a cheap source of compost is a key step. You can look out for local compost makers and store sell-offs, or simply make your own from animal mature, which turns to compost within 1-2 years. Using a mulch compost makes weeding much easier, as few grow and those that do can be removed with little effort.
For someone that is just starting out, try filling just one bed with compost. You’ll be amazed at how much you can grow in such a small space, plus the small size makes it easier for a beginner to stay on top of sowing and harvesting.
Pop into one of our garden centres by Alexandra Palace, Wandsworth or Berkhamsted and our helpful Plant People will be more than happy to advise you on getting started with your new organic gardening technique. Alternatively, head over to our homepage for further inspiration.
Image credits: Flickr Creative Commons