“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.”

Monty Don
BBC Gardeners World

Introduction to No Dig

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.

The quality of harvests is often better with no dig, for example the root vegetables come out cleaner, and I see less slug damage to the no dig vegetables.

No dig/no till saves time, gives bigger harvests, is ecologically beneficial and keeps carbon in the soil. But how did I discover that?

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Homeacres September 2018: total area 3000m2 or 3/4 acre, no dig beds are 1000m2 or 1/4 acre, compost bays are lower middle, small garden is to right of house.

1982, why no dig?

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.

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.

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1983 market garden, Somerset. Charles Dowding's first crop of lettuce
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Charles' market garden 1988. Photo by Ann Swithinbank who co-presented with Geoff Hamilton

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.

Talks, videos, books and TV

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.

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Charles and Geoff Hamilton being filmed for BBC Gardeners World, August 1988

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 sadly is now not available.

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BBC Gardeners World at Homeacres 2016, filming me fill a no dig bed. Edward my son is on left.

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.

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Steph preparing food for a course lunch in November 2017
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Lunch for course participants, March 2018

With Steph, I run day and weekend courses from Homeacres, and I travel around the country and abroad giving seminars and advice on the methods I have elaborated.

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.

Eric Brooks-Dowsett
Day Course Participant