‘No Dig’ Gardening

What is ‘No Dig’?

‘No dig’ gardening is just what it says on the tin—don’t dig! Composted mulches are laid on the top of the ground, for example compost or well-rotted manure. Traditional methods would recommend that these are ‘dug in’ by turning over the soil during spring to incorporate the organic matter into the structure of the soil.

In a ‘no dig’ garden you just leave the mulch on the top of the ground letting worms, and other invertebrates, in the soil do the work for you. Charles Dowding is a pioneer of the ‘no dig’ approach. He has written many books, made TV appearances and teaches all over the UK and Europe.

What are the principles behind this technique?

Soil is also a very complex ecosystem. There are many living creatures working together which all have very specific roles. When organic matter is placed on the top of the soil invertebrates like worms will travel to the surface and incorporate this organic matter to improve and aerate the soil. Microbial activity in soil is particularly important in plant health. Scientists believe there is a very complex relationship between plants and microbes in the soil. Fungi, called mycorrhizas, play an vital role in enhancing the efficiency of a plant’s access to nutrients, water and it’s resilience against disease. Mycorrhizas are disturbed by digging so this makes good logical thought that digging disturbs the structure, and thus health, of soil. Secondly, when you turn over soil you bring weed seeds to the surface which will then germinate! Finally, plants need light to survive. If you exclude light, using the mulch, the plants will die. According to Charles’ experience with a thick-ish mulch (e.g, 6 inches with cardboard underneath) most weeds, including perennials, will die.

However, it is not as simple as just covering and leaving. Some weeds, like bindweed, can be quite persistent and will pop through the mulch, but they will be much less vigorous and you should be able to keep pulling the tops out until they give up. He does recommend that you should use e.g. a pick axe to remove very woody weeds like brambles before covering with the mulch. If your area is weed free then a thinner layer of mulch and no cardboard is required—2-3 inches.

In climates with much less rain (than Northern England) sometimes using non-composted mulches can work well. This could include straw, leaves, woodchip bark etc. However, in England’s climate this can really increase your slug populations so it is best to use a mulch that is fully composted.

In summary, no dig doesn’t mean you cover with a mulch and do zero weeding. Weeds will come through, but there will be less. You still need to pull these out, but as the micro-organisms have well aerated the soil it should be easier to lift out weeds without the need for digging them out.

You can find out more information on the role of mycorrhizas here.

Our experiences of ‘No Dig’ at Don’t Crop Me Now:

We had had plot 4 for quite a long time. The plot was completely infested with bindweed, brambles and couch in 2005 and it took quite a while to get on top of the weeds. However, the plot is pretty much weed free for a number of years now. We keep on top of annual weeds and the only real problem is marestail which pops up at one end of the plot. In the past, we have tended to go for a big thick layer of well rotted horse manure every other year over the main part of the plot which was dug in during spring. We also use our own compost which has chicken manure and bedding added from our chickens that we keep at home. We have supplemented this with leaf mould and fertilisers (usually organic e.g. chicken pellets).

Barrowing and spreading of huge volumes of compost is pretty hard work in my opinion! The ground on Granville park is very easy to turn over so it is not like the actual digging is that bad!! Therefore I certainly don’t see no dig as an ‘easy’ option. I like the idea of the principles of no dig. For me, my scientific background is telling me that it is logical.

Initially in about 2014 we started to trial ‘no dig’ on some of our beds. The crops in the no dig beds were brilliant—healthy and I haven’t really had to do much hoeing or pulling of weeds so this was a real time saver during the growing season. There is a lot of effort covering all the beds with compost or manure in the winter/spring, but perhaps less effort throughout the growing season with hand weeding or hoeing. Since 2014 we have increased our usuage of the ‘no dig’ method so all 3 of our established plots are now not dug!

So far I haven’t trialled this on areas that are infested with real problem weeds so cannot comment on the success of the method in that respect. Having seen so much positive feedback on how successful this can be we have decided to give this a go on the new plot we have taken on, plot 5b.

Where can you find out more?

Charles’ website about his personal experiences with ‘no dig’ gardening –very informative and kept well up to date

A facebook group dedicated to the ‘no dig’ principles. Friendly and very active.

Charles’ youtube channel. Lots of videos with guides on technique, composting and planting various crops.