December 2019, no dig ease and success, harvests all year from good timings

December 2019

The new gardening year is already underway, with winter’s simple and quick bed preparation of my no dig method.

1 Clear any plant residues and weeds – or if a lot of weeds lay cardboard

2 Mulch (cover) the bed surface with 3-5cm/1-2in organic matter, preferably compost of reasonable quality, though it need not be perfect, and don’t worry to sieve it. Compost shelters fewer slugs than undecomposed matter, and it can be of any origin such as homemade, leaves, wood chip, manure, mushroom and green waste compost you buy.

3 Same approach to path weeds, by hand or with cardboard, topped with less fine compost of wood chips no more than 3-4cm/1.5in, preferably part decomposed already.

3 Enjoy your Christmas.

Reasons for tidiness in the vegetable plot

I love wild edges, and I love tidy beds, you can have both and they complement each other. Any overgrown edges harbour the wildlife which is not in the tidy middle, and in damp climates that means slugs.

I was reminded of this while harvesting chicory, where some older leaves were decaying. Mostly we tidy plants of their older leaves, but had not got to these chicory plants. Their heart or head was still fine, but you get the idea of how slugs like to live and breed when given the right conditions.

Caterpillars are another matter, surviving our frosts which are only -2.5C/28F so far. They are making a real mess of chard and beetroot leaves in the polytunnel, and we find a few on lettuce and chicory too! Bright green ones are I believe from cabbage moth, am grateful to hear more if you know.

No dig gains ground, saves time and effort (1)

I was reminded of the effort part while digging (oh yes!) the dig bed of my trial, for the eighth time. At least the soil feels softer every year, perhaps from the compost I add in its trenches, but also I fear because of less crumb aggregation, as shown in this microscope study by Katelyn Solbakk (protozoa princess on Instagram).

  • The dig bed of my two-bed comparison takes two and half hours to dig, spread the compost in each trench as I go, then rake level.
  • The no dig bed takes 40 minutes to fill two barrowloads of compost, spread it and rake level.
  • Each year the dig bed needs extra time spent weeding, compared to the no dig. Weeds keep growing all year, it feels like the soil is healing (it uses weeds for that, such as “chickweed follows the rotovator) – and then I dig it again!
  • Harvests in 2019 were 91.5kg dig bed, 107.4kg no dig.

It’s such an interesting study of soil, and about why we do things we have been advised to do. My online course about no dig gardening is selling well and has a lot of information about al these things, including the history, how to clear weeds, details about soil and compost, and cropping plans.

No dig gains ground, saves time and effort (2)

My latest video covers this subject, about the ease of making new plantings in summer, to keep the plot full all year.

I love how some parts of Homeacres have a lot of fungi in the beds, perhaps from the woody bits in my homemade compost. Wood decays in a fungal manner and some in a compost heap is good, just not too much unless you don’t mind waiting longer for the compost to be ready.

On a recent course a participant works on a large vegetable farm where they are harvesting Brussels sprouts, and he sent me a photo to show the difficulty of field harvests in wet weather. He is using my approach in his garden, and there needs more work to develop no til for fieldwork.

In gardening it’s straightforward, and there is a surge of interest on Instagram for example, see this video interview at Homeacres by Lucy Start of @shegrowsveg.

Next April I am speaking at Highgrove Gardens, tickets are on sale 6th December.

Why use compost as the mulch, on beds

A compost mulch is like soft soil on the surface, always easy to plant into, quick to spread, helping to grow food all year. Any weeds pull out easily as well.

Compost is anything decomposed, such as the horse manure in my photo.

Compost holds its nutrients in water-insoluble form, hence the successful and strong growth of second plantings in summer, into beds where no compost is pre-applied. The photo below right shows growth in beds where no feeds or compost have been given during the whole of 2019.

Winter vegetables

This is not my favourite time of year, however there are recompenses in the harvests of such wonderful flavour. Homegrown Brussels sprouts are top of my list, followed by any root vegetable, and leaves such as kale and spinach which grow sweeter in cold weather. They use sugar as antifreeze, so cool 🙂

Yesterday I sauteed sliced carrots in a little oil, on low heat for 40 minutes. The texture and flavour are out of this world, a delicacy, so simple.  See Steph’s vegetable recipe book for many more ideas, it’s available on her website

For timings and general monthly advice

This leads me to shameless promotion of my 2020 Calendar, for its help with keeping your sowings on track through all of next year, even until autumn. We are running offers on larger numbers and on double packs, of which the Diary and Calendar combination is especially popular.

Salads through winter

I have most plants in the unheated polytunnel, planted mid October. A few are in boxes on greenhouse staging, where there is now free space. Plus some outside under fleece, mostly Grenoble Red lettuce.

and we have one more planting to make, of broad beans sown November, good luck with yours

11 thoughts on “December 2019, no dig ease and success, harvests all year from good timings

  1. Excellent advice as usual. Very useful video.

    Speaking at Highgrove Gardems is an amzing achievement Charles and a wonderful way to spread the message even further. I take my hat off to you for your quiet, yet obvious ability to promote no dig as the way to heal our soil and help heal our planet.

    Very well done indeed. You are doing great things. Many congrtulations. I’m in awe.

    Suella

  2. Hi Charles

    Did you wash the parsnips? will they keep a long time like that? Mine are still in the ground I am expecting lots of orders for Christmas and would like to get ahead with the harvesting. I still have fennel and beetroot out as well it seems OK though
    with all the best
    Ali

  3. I hear mixed views on using spent hops from breweries as a compost mixed in the heap and/or as a mulch. Does anyone have any views?

    1. You might refer to oneyardrevolution on youtube. Patrick has posted video on composting spent brewery grains as has the Alberta Urban Garden channel.

  4. I fight cabbage moths and their caterpillars constantly in summer (BT seems the best solution) but once the cold sets in they disappear. Those adult caterpillars are green with some yellow/black markings. I did however, still find smaller and thinner green caterpillars hiding in the depths of my recently harvested broccoli and Romanesco heads. It is definitely not a looper, and think it might be a diamond-back moth caterpillar ( see https://www.agricology.co.uk/field/blog/dealing-diamond-backs) I wonder if this is the same as you have and would be interested to know if I am correct in my identification.

    I’ve just read your soil analysis report written by Katelyn Solbakk. It made for fascinating reading (and re-reading in order to understand it all!) I finished it thinking how glad I discovered no-dig as a way to improve the ecological health of my soil. Thanks Charles!

  5. Just finished excellent autumn harvests of kale, carrots, radicchio and Valdor lettuce and we are now starting to move into parsnip, turnip and winter radish. Leaving the swede, Cavalo Nero Kale and tree cabbage for harvests in February and March, this year should see all year round harvests of several different vegetables each month for the first time.

    On that note, I am testing direct Soanish Round winter radish sowings from 17th July (after early dwarf beans), 10th August (after onions) and 10th September (sown after maincrop potato harvest). The first are big, but several lost in summer heat to pests. The second lot are perfect. The last sowing are just forming roots now, so we shall have to see if that is too late a date to sow direct. It would be really great if they just came ready in late January just as the others are finishing. So it looks like early August is optimal direct sowing date, maybe early September would be good for module sown plants? Looks like they should be sown the same time as autumn turnips…

    1. Thanks for the info Rhys, and lovely to hear your successes.
      Sowing dates in late summer to early autumn make so much difference.

  6. I’ve tried to omit straw or leaf mulch, but find my compost and soil dry out too quickly in summer’s full sun. Slugs and cutworms are an issue for certain. Currently I’m trying leaf mulch for overwinter and for next summer. (zone 6b in Western NC)

  7. Hi Charles

    I have just been offered the chance to take over a new bigger plot on our local allotment site, After speaking to one of the older plot holders (who boarders this new plot) I have been told that the plot has a issue with wireworm I was just wondering the best way of dealing with this.
    The new plot is 10m x 10m twice the size of my currant plot and has not been gardened for the past 16 months, apart from weeds the only plants in are strawberry’s which I will be removing, I will have enough compost ready in the spring to mulch about 1/2 the new plot and plan on adding a greenhouse or Polly tunnel within the next 6 months or so.

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