The history of no dig pioneers

The history of no dig pioneers

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.

Arthur Guest

In the 1940s, gardeners practicing no dig in the UK included Arthur Guest, a miner from Yorkshire, in his sixties by then. His results were so good that he kept winning prizes at horticultural shows. Then he wrote a book that 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 wrote that he used 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’.

F.C. King

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). The 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:

  1. this system offers many advantages over regular digging in the control of weeds
  2. contrary to popular belief, such land is well drained and capable of producing excellent crops, showing signs neither of asphyxiation nor of chlorotic conditions
  3. the soil is appreciably warmer in winter and spring
  4. the earthworm population is increased, judging by the number of casts found on the surface
  5. less labour is required in the preparation of better seed-beds
  6. a well-defined zone of dark rich soil is formed, which absorbs rather than reflects sunshine
  7. 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)

Shewell Cooper

A contemporary of King was William Shewell Cooper, described by Val Bourne in the Oxford Times of 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.

10 thoughts on “The history of no dig pioneers

  1. Wonderful piece of UK history here – I didn’t know it so great learning! This will hopefully shape the future of growing Vegs with “free education” and even better, “free practices that work”!

  2. Thanks Charles for the history tour of no-dig. We probably can’t say that those gardeners were ahead of their time – I am wildly guessing that the concept had been used even long before the 1940ies. Why do humans keep digging the soil I wonder. Do we have a built in automatism which tells us to do this, like children just like to use a shovel? And “big children” build ploughs and tractors to still satisfy that call?

    Since soil science has moved forward, although rather slow – snail like rather than like rocket science – it would be great if TV celebrity and events took up the new wisdom, took it seriously for once and made it part of their mission to educate their followers. Regular drops of exciting information about soil, presented through various formats in a thrilling and engaging way, even animated bits in between broadcasts of famous flower shows… yes! I mean, soil doesn’t look as nice as an iris’ showy petal, but media has the power to add drama! It has to be authentic though and garden gurus would have to change their ways first I guess. It felt so good seeing the no-dig veg garden at Wisley’s new science centre last summer!

    From gardening with primary school children I can say: They love digging. So, not giving out any trowels does feel a bit mean – but then there is plenty of other things to do. And there is one advantage in this age group: The creepy crawly contents of a bucket of home made compost win the competition over flower petals every time!

    1. Thank you for your comments Steph and I agree with all of this, except for one thing. I’ve come to the sad conclusion that media is mostly not driven by a desire to form people, but by the need to make money. I’m not blaming them for that but it’s how the world works.
      Therefore it’s up to people like us to educate as best we can and it sounds like you’re doing a great job there. Very interesting about the kids wanting to dig, and I so agree about the creepy crawlies!

      1. Thanks Charles, you are right, no one can be blamed for the need to earn money. I’m not convinced though that there is no space for education on popular garden programs or flower shows. If they can promote peat-free, so they can do the next step and promote to keep carbon in the soil by not digging. It helps your back and the planet – what’s not to love? They can’t be the old fashioned ones that keep doing things because they’ve always been done – yawn. People actually want to learn. Presenters and producers have to recognize new best practice and get their programs up to scratch.

        1. Hi Steph, that is nicely put, what not to love. There must be obstacles in the way and maybe one of them is a fear of contradicting what they have been repeating for such a long time in the past. I agree that it’s highly frustrating and I’m grateful for social media at least.

  3. 3 men of wisdom…I have an original copy of “Gardening without digging”(revised edition …printed 1949ish and priced at 2 shillings).Its held together with sellotape but it is an amazing read.

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