‘No Dig’ for Victory (against weeds!)

Since I made my first few tentative steps towards clearing the vegetable patch (see 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.


Leafmould – Gardeners’ Gold

Leafmould is one of the best free resources for your garden. Simple to make, leafmould improves your soil structure, is an excellent mulch and weed suppressant, and, sieved, can be also be used as seed or potting compost.


Leafmould (internet photo)

Being surrounded by acres of woodland, and with oak, ash and Montpellier maple leaves starting to cover the lawns, I decided it was time to take action before I missed the opportunity to make this black gold. Considering the quantity of leaves that I hope to collect, a wire mesh cage seemed the most appropriate container to build.

My leafmould cage is in a clearing in the woodland, backing onto the vegetable patch. The hardest part about the whole construction was trying to find six spots where I could bang in some angle iron pickets without hitting tree roots or bedrock. That done, it was just a case of tying some wire mesh to the stakes with cable ties or wire, and job done.

Leafmould bin stakes in

The stakes in place in the clearing, and the wire mesh ready to go on

The bin is about 3m x 1.5m, with the dimensions determined by the location I could get the stakes in, and the length of wire mesh I had bought (10m). The mesh is 1m high.

Mowing the clearing in the woodland to pick up the leaves, and mowing the front garden, provided a significant start to my first batch of leafmould, which should be ready in about 2 years. The leaves need to be damp to break down, so I will leave the leaves uncovered to allow the rain to do the job naturally. I will probably also need to build a second bin next year, for next year’s leaves. With luck, my first batch of leafmould will be ready before year 3, alleviating the need for a third bin.

Leafmould bin filling up

Leafmould bin starting to fill up

At least while the leaves are dry, I find mowing by far the easiest way to pick them up. Raking and bending down to pick them up by hand are all hard on the back. Mowing also has the advantage of shredding the leaves slightly, which will make them break down more quickly.

The other advantage of collecting your leaves to make leafmould, is that it makes the garden look much tidier!

Lawn covered in leaves

Garden covered in leaves

Lawn part cleared of leaves

Guess which bit I’ve mown…?

Lawn cleared of leaves

Tidy lawn!

Magic Mushrooms

Although we are coming to the end of the mushroom season – when the French countryside teems with wild mushroom pickers – a spell of warm sunshine followed by a day or two of light rain this weekend provided the ideal conditions to cause mushrooms to push up through the earth overnight, as if by magic.


A mushroom that popped up in the lawn overnight

Although the ones that we get in the garden look nice and harmless, and quite likely to be edible, I don’t plan on taking any chances. The Connexion reported yesterday that:

“One person has died, and two more have needed liver transplants after eating poisonous mushrooms since July…  In total, 32 people have been treated for severe fungal infection at the 10 poison centres in France since the start of the annual surveillance period.”

‘Severe fungal infection’ sounds like rather odd phraseology, but this is no laughing matter – the Direction Générale de la Santé (DGS) received 1,179 reports of mushroom poisoning in the three months to October. The DGS recommends taking mushrooms to a pharmacist for identification before eating them, and ideally photographing them before cooking them, in case of mishap.

Propagating Hibiscus

One of my favourite plants in the garden is my hibiscus by the front door, which I think must be Hibiscus syriacdus ‘Oiseau Bleu’ (Bluebird).

Hibiscus 'Oiseau Bleu'

Hibiscus syriacus ‘Oiseau Bleu’

Of course, I’d love to have more of these in my garden, and as with everything else I have inherited and would like more of, I have decided to try to propagate it. In the early autumn I took semi-ripe cuttings, although I have a feeling they may have been over-ripe, as most of the stems were already quite woody. Of all my cuttings, these are the only ones to have lost all their leaves already, and I’m not sure whether or not this is a bad sign.

I also read that you can propagate from seed, so have given that a go as well. The ‘problem’ with propagation from seed is that the seedlings may not be true to the parent plant, but I don’t mind the idea of some different variations.

The seed pods have been on the shrub all summer, and are now very brown and dried up. The advice I read said to get them once they had turned brown but before they split open, so again I don’t know if I was a bit too late.

Hibiscus seed heads

Hibiscus seed heads

When you pick and crush these seedheads, you will find numerous small, flat, fluffy seeds amongst the debris.

Hibiscus seeds

Hibiscus seeds

Scatter these on top of some moistened seed and cutting compost…

Sowing hibiscus seeds

Then simply sprinkle soil on top to cover them, label the pot, and hope for the best!


Strawberry Delight

I thought I had discovered all the plants in my garden by now (see my Garden Plants page for details), but when clearing out a lot of the self-seeded and overgrown plum saplings from one of the garden boundaries, I was amazed to discover a small strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) smothered under the other bushes. It is more of a strawberry shrub at the moment, being less than three feet tall, and the main stem is growing at a 45 degree angle where it was trying to get some light, but it is smothered in flower buds and has a few fruits on it.

Strawberry tree

The flowers and leaves are a bit reminiscent of pieris, which is what I mistook it for at first.


Interestingly, the berries take about a year to ripen, so are found on the plant at the same time as the next year’s flowers.

Arbutus unedo fruit

They are edible, high in sugars and said to be similar in flavour to a fig, but they are more often eaten cooked, or made into jam. I tried one, and found it to have no flavour at all really – a rather thick skin, the inside with the texture of a peach, and altogether fairly nondescript. Still, I am pleased to have it for its decorative value, as I suspect it will be decades before it bears enough fruit to make a jar of jam!

IMG_20171018_173829641_HDR (2).jpg


Braving the veg patch

Autumn is now upon us, with a long spell of beautiful sunny days and cooler, or sometimes chilly, nights. The most obvious change is the colours of the trees, but I have also been noticing where and when the last rays of sun fall on the garden. The sun drops behind our trees just before 7pm now, whereas a month ago it was 8pm.


October sunset

Just recently I also noticed that the overgrown vegetable patch is now in shade towards the end of the afternoon which, seeing as temperatures are still in the high 20s (°c) at the moment, makes it feasible to get in there and start doing a bit of work. So today I made a start. Just a small start, as I think it is a job that will take all winter. Here are the results of an hour’s work:

Veg patch before clearing

Before. This is just the top third of the vegetable patch.

Veg patch before clearing

Before – you can hardly even get in there.

Veg patch after an hour's clearing work

After an hour’s work, you can at least get in to see what’s what.