“Charles has become the guru of no dig gardening. He’s a really good grower, organic, has fabulous produce and we went down to Somerset to see how he does it…. I’m a convert now, I want to dig as little as possible.”
This website, my books and my garden share the knowledge I have accumulated since I started growing vegetables in 1981. By 1982 I was creating a 6000m2 market garden, the first of four I have established and run, in two countries and on a range of soils, using a no dig approach.
No dig makes it easier to grow the same amount of food in a smaller space, and with less time needed for weeding. No dig can be practiced without spreading much organic matter, but at least some on the surface is good. An annual dressing of compost improves soil structure, and is particularly worthwhile for growing an abundance of healthy vegetables.
My dig/no dig experiments at Homeacres and Lower Farm show that most vegetables grow more strongly and healthily on the no dig beds, for less effort and time needed. I enjoy discovering more about this and am working with a scientist through 2021, measuring dig and no dig differences.
How did I get into this?
At this time, it was already revolutionary to be organic, let alone no dig. The plan developed while I had spade in hand. These podcasts one and two with Joe Lamp’l (@joegardener) cover my story of growing and methods.
No dig has a history which I have only uncovered recently. They have always been a few people practising it, but without any official recognition and no digig was always seen as a marginal exercise for slightly left-field people. Perhaps the “mainstream” still has that viewpoint.
Here are some pioneers who preceded me.
A history of recent no dig
It would be fascinating to know the full human history of not working soil. Here are three gardeners who enjoyed amazing results, but were only on the fringes of mainstream gardening and farming.
In the 1940s, gardeners practicing no dig in the UK included Arthur Guest, a miner from Yorkshire and in his sixties by then. His results were so good that he kept winning prizes at horticultural shows. Then he wrote a book which sold worldwide, and he became a BBC presenter late in life, espousing what he called ‘natural gardening’, and not being a ‘slave to the spade’.
Guest had used to dig in a ‘traditional’ way. After adopting no dig, he writes that he uses 40% less compost, thanks to soil organisms being healthier, and compost being used to “maximum advantage” on the surface.
Guest’s small book has been reprinted by the UK seed firm Marshalls, and it’s a great read if you ever find a copy. As well as compost from his own garden and some horse manure, he used a fair amount of sawdust mulch. One amazing statement is: “I had club root fairly badly, but compost treatment cured this in two years”.
King was head gardener at Levens Hall in Cumbria, UK for three decades. He visited many gardens and had the resources to trial no dig in the 1940s. His books are full of good ideas: they include “Gardening with Compost” and “The Weed Problem, a New Approach” (both Faber & Faber, 1951). Quotes below are from the latter.
“These and many similar results which I have witnessed confirm my opinion that less digging means fewer pests and diseases” (p83)
“At the approach of spring, the difference between my dug and undug plots is truly remarkable… the undug portions of the garden are always infinitely drier and in better condition for planting or sowing than are the plots that have been dug (which) often resemble a quagmire.” (p85)
“The general conclusions I have drawn after many years of patient investigation of the value of no-digging are:
- this system offers many advantages over regular digging in the control of weeds
- contrary to popular belief, such land is well drained and capable of producing excellent crops, showing signs neither of asphyxiation nor of chlorotic conditions
- the soil is appreciably warmer in winter and spring
- the earthworm population is increased, judging by the number of casts found on the surface
- less labour is required in the preparation of better seed-beds
- a well-defined zone of dark rich soil is formed, which absorbs rather than reflects sunshine
- good control is maintained over sucking insects, aphids chiefly.”
Like Guest, King answers the question I am often asked about the supposed “extra compost needed for no dig”.
“Garden soils are more often over-cultivated then under-cultivated. Even in the palmiest days of horticulture this was true, and the credit for the abundant production of days gone by should rightly be given to the large quantity of organic matter that most gardens received. Regular cultivation without an adequate supply of organic matter, is likely to upset the natural balance between mineral and organic matter because cultivation must increase the rate of decomposition of the organic matter in soil while affecting the mineral content very little. [Therefore] the less we dig, the longer will our supply of humus last”. pp 76-7
A contemporary of King was William Shewell Cooper, described by Val Bourne in the Oxford Timesof 18th November 2010:
“My gardening guru of the 1960s was Shewell Cooper (1900-1982) who wrote at least 30 books, including a gardening encyclopedia. Shewell Cooper was famous for pioneering no-dig gardening in Britain.
“He founded the Good Gardeners Association (4,000 members in the 1950s) and was a founding member of the Soil Association in 1946. His garden, at Arkley Manor near Barnet, attracted 10,000 visitors a year and he travelled the world explaining organic gardening. Recently I came across his son Ramsay while in conversation with a modern exponent of no-dig gardening — Charles Dowding. Ramsay still practises no-dig gardening and he has a demonstration plot at Capel Manor College in Enfield. The picture shows them both.
“Modern gardeners could do with more of this practical wisdom, instead of the celebrity-led television that seems to impart little.”
Arkley Manor had to be sold to pay taxes when Shewell Cooper died. The GGA continued but declined and then died in 2015, perhaps from confusion over what it stood for. Shewell Cooper for some reason did not use the phrase “no dig” to describe his association, perhaps showing what an “unsexy” phrase it was at that time, with little interest in soil apart from as a ‘bank for nutrients’.
I enjoyed conversing with Ramsay, still gardening at 80 years old.
After I had rotovated 1.5 acres/0.6ha, I used the spade to shovel the loamy, stony soil and shape it all into raised beds. Two months work, spading topsoil from path to bed, beautiful beds and paths, plenty of time to reflect on the next step.
In particular I was worried about weeds growing! This arose from my learning which consisted, not of attending horticultural college, but of visiting and observing organic market gardens, where I was unimpressed by masses of weeds, often swamping the crops.
Therefore I committed to be in control of weed growth, including in the permanent pathways between beds. I accepted my brother’s offer of free straw, although it was not organic. He was running a 990 acre/400ha dairy and arable farm, and had more straw than he needed for bedding cows, so I could fetch enough to mulch my paths.
While making the beds, I was envisaging them as somehow being permanent, plus I had come across Ruth Stout’s “No-Work Garden Book” (Rodale 1971). Her wisdom came from long experience of gardening in Connecticut, where her husband was farming cattle, and he gave any spoiled hay to the vegetable garden. Ruth worked out that mulching with old hay was both feeding her soil (and therefore plants) while also maintaining its structure, with no need for tilling.
However I quickly discovered the limitations of hay mulches in the damp, UK climate. Unfortunately this was after I purchased and spread 400 bales of half-rotten hay, much to the hay merchant’s delight. Slugs loved living under the moist hay, and then popped out to eat many of the early plantings. I returned to Ruth’s book to see how she coped with slugs, but she “never had any slugs” in her dry climate, so she offered no advice except to set beer traps.
This led me to search for a mulch to feed and protect soil, which does not encourage pests. I want to build soil structure the natural way, yet also to do the somewhat unnatural thing of growing abundant vegetables.
The advantages of no dig which I list here are the discoveries of long experience. I have come to appreciate the elegant simplicity of what is needed from us gardeners, to grow more healthy plants, in less time. It’s a lot easier than is often described. At Lower Farm I cropped an acre of beds with myself full time, and part-time help of 30 hours weekly in the growing season. At Homeacres the garden needs around 70-80 hours weekly, much of which is harvesting the £25k annual output of vegetables.
My own time in the garden is limited by other commitments, to around 35 hours weekly in the summer. Every hour is precious, no dig saves me so much time and I use the knowledge I gain from my gardening to share these wonderful methods with a worldwide audience.
Thanks to my long experience and successful results, including that my gardens have so few weeds, I am frequently asked to talk and give advice to individuals and groups who seek better results, for less effort. My public speaking received a big boost from a whole programme of Gardeners World with Geoff Hamilton in 1988.
The producer of Gardeners World hopped over my fence (literally) in June 1988 and declared an interest in filming. I was too busy to watch the programme, still am (have no tv in fact) but was certainly interested to be filmed and explain my methods. Organic and no dig, with no or few weeds, was arousing much interest locally, partly from my giving many talks to garden clubs.
What interested gardeners in the 1980s and ‘90s was that I could grow lovely and healthy plants without using artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Amazingly, they had come to believe that this was not possible or was exceptionally difficult and risky. On the Gardeners World programme, Geoff asks me (archive clip):
“Charles, the crops are looking really good, what type of fertiliser are you using on them?
C: I’m not using any Geoff, it’s good soil* and we’re putting on quite heavy dressings of manure and compost and that’s enough.
G … No chemicals at all, that’s really quite remarkable! Some show and tell.”
*Grade 3 Cotswold Brash, full of limestone. Before I broke up the pasture with a rotator (my method of starting in the 1980’s, not now), I used manure spreaders to apply 2in/5cm of cow manure from the family farm.
The 1988 Gardeners World film (broadcast as a whole programme in March 1989) was about Geoff’s conversion to organic gardening. Nowhere in that episode do we discuss no dig, and this was picked up by BBC producer Andy Vernon and the Gardeners World team in 2016, when they came to Homeacres to interview me about no dig. A day of filming and careful editing gave a six minute summary of why no dig, on Gardeners World 21/04/2017, which should be available to view here.
However, you can see it all explained on You Tube! Since 2013 we have created numerous videos on the Charles Dowding Channel, to demonstrate and explain the methods and virtues of how I and a growing number of gardeners save time, for better results. Word is getting out: Kew gardens went no dig in 2016 in their kitchen garden, and since 2018, no dig has arrived at RHS Wisley where they demonstrate a range of approaches.
Since 2006 and well before we made any videos, I have been distilling my experience into a number of books on vegetable growing. Plus I have written for many gardening publications, including Gardeners World, Kitchen Garden, Country Smallholding, Permaculture, Grow Your Own, Which? Gardening, The Daily Telegraph, and RHS The Garden.
Thank you both for a wonderful day yesterday. It is rare that you look forward to something knowing that you will enjoy it, and it’s even better than you expected. This ranks with our holiday in Iceland!
And your website is the best gardening website I’ve seen.