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!
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.
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.