‘No dig’ for victory (against weeds!)

Since I made my first few tentative steps towards clearing the vegetable patch (seeĀ Braving the veg patch) I have been wondering what on earth I have let myself in for. There are 18 months’ worth of weeds there, growing up to six feet high, and I dread to think how many more years’ worth of weed seeds in the soil. I was envisaging a hard winter of digging and weeding, with the weeds taking over again any time that I dared to take my eye off the area for a week or two. That was until I was recently reminded of the “no-dig” approach to gardening.

A wealth of information about no dig growing – pioneered by Charles Dowding in the 1980s – can be found on the internet, so I will not try to repeat it here. However, I will list what I consider to be the main principles of it from a practical point of view, and the main benefits.

No dig basics:

  • A no dig bed can be established on almost any surface, including a lawn, a weed-covered veg patch, or even on concrete.
  • There is no need to ‘prepare’ the soil that you already have, because the no dig bed will essentially be established on top of it. If it is built on soil (as opposed to concrete) this will eventually be incorporated into the bed, and any weeds composted, by the action of worms and soil organisms, giving an even greater depth of well-structured, fertile soil.
  • Existing weeds can be suppressed by a layer of cardboard. A good depth (8-10 inches or more) of compost, manure, leafmould or similar is then layered on top of the cardboard to create the beds. The areas that are to be paths – it is very important not to walk on a no dig bed as this compacts the soil – can be covered in wood chippings or straw.
  • Your plants are then planted directly into the compost, allowing good root formation, a good supply of nutrients, and greatly reduced competition from weeds, which will be suppressed by the compost ‘mulch’.
  • At the end of each year, after cropping, another several inches of mulch (compost, manure, leafmould) are added on top of the beds (NOT forked in!). The worms do the job of mixing the layers, creating drainage and aeration channels, and converting nutrients into a form easily absorbed by plants.

The benefits are numerous, but include:

  • No digging! My back, for one, will thank me.
  • Not having to worry about clearing the weeds from the area before you start.
  • Healthier and stronger plants, because of the healthy soil and abundance of nutrients.
  • No requirement for expensive chemicals.
  • More fertile soil allows for a greater density of cropping (the ‘square metre’ or ‘square foot’ approach – growing more plants in a smaller area, but mixing up different types of crop to reduce the likelihood of pest and disease occurrence, as well as growing successionally to reduce wastage).
  • Far fewer weeds to contend with. Weeds that were in the area to start with will be smothered by the cardboard and mulch, and will die off. Any weed seeds that land on the no dig beds will be less likely to germinate because the top inch or so of the no dig beds will dry out a bit, whilst maintaining good soil moisture underneath for your plants to tap into. Any weed seeds that do manage to germinate will be easy to remove from the compost-like bed.

So, I’ve made a start, collecting cardboard from the recycling bins beside the road to suppress the weeds. It’s amazing how much you can find – sometimes only limited by the size of your car!

I have prepared one half of the vegetable patch (or potager) – the other half may have to wait until next year. I did pull out some of the tallest and woodiest dead weeds, just to gain access, and then I went in with a lawnmower and mowed down the weeds. Goose grass, purslane, fat hen, thistles – you name it, I’ve got it. I’m putting my trust in this system – and a lot of mulch!

Potager - as was

Potager – as it was originally

Potager - structures removed

Potager – structures removed

Potager - weeds mown

Potager – weeds mown down

With the weeds mown down (but not collected up), I started laying down the cardboard, at least a couple of layers of thick cardboard deep. The bamboo poles are just to weight it down so it doesn’t blow away before I get the manure in.

Wheelbarrow full of cardboard

The first load of cardboard

First cardboard

Laid two or more layers deep

Cardboard weighted down

And temporarily weighted down against the wind

More cardboard

After a few more loads of cardboard, and a bit of rain

A few more sessions of cardboard collecting should do the trick, and then I will be onto my next challenge – sourcing a load of appropriate manure (fumier) from a local farmer, and somehow transporting it down to my potager.





Madonna unveiled

I have just got around to storing some seeds from a mystery plant that I found in the garden a couple of months ago. While clearing away some of the wild plum saplings from one of the borders, as well as a Strawberry Tree (see Strawberry Delight), I found several clumps of strap-like leaves growing, with some old flower stalks and seed heads still on some of them.

Lilium candidum leaves

Lilium candidum dead flower stalks

The flower stalks, brown and dried, were well over a metre tall, and quite sturdy. The seed heads looked a bit like daylilies (Hemerocallis), but the leaves are too short and wide, and the seeds did not look right either once I had extracted them.

Lilium candidum seed heads

I picked the dried seed heads at the time, and they have been sitting around drying further.

Lilium candidum seed head

Today I broke them open and found a large number of flat papery seeds in each head. After sorting the seed from the papery chaff, I have a decent pile of healthy looking seeds from just three seed heads, which I will store until spring or the appropriate time to sow them.

Lilium candidum seeds

Lilium candidum seedsI have found Facebook to be a wonderful resource for identifying mystery plants (search for plant identification groups), as well as all manner of other things, and it was Facebook to the rescue again to solve this mystery. What I have are in fact several clumps of Lilium candidum – the Madonna lily. These are the only lily to grow a basal rosette of leaves during the winter, which then die the following summer.

Lilium candidum - Madonna lily

Lilium candidum (internet picture)

I am pleased I decided to clear away some of the overgrown plum saplings, as I would never have found these otherwise, and any flowers they had next year would probably have been hidden. I will probably clear a bit more space around them now that I know what they are, and hopefully a bit of space, light and TLC will encourage them to put on a wonderful display next summer.