The no-dig method

Posted: Friday 9 December 2011
by Adam Pasco

Can you get away with not digging, or is it an essential job?

digging - soil in a spade

Can you get away with not digging, or is it an essential job? If you've heard about 'no-dig’ gardening, perhaps your ears pricked up at the prospect that this arduous chore could be ignored.

What exactly is 'no-dig' gardening, and what are its pros and cons? As gardeners we want to sow, plant and nurture in sympathy with nature. But where in nature do you find digging? I'm talking about the kind of digging that gardeners do, rather than moles and other animals burrowing into the ground.

In the wild as plants grow and die, leaves and debris are dropped onto the soil surface, where they decay, or are taken down into the soil by worms. This creates a fertile surface layer where plants can thrive.

'No-dig' gardeners broadly follow this action by adding compost to the soil surface. Far from benefitting the soil, they say digging damages its structure, burying topsoil and bringing less nutritious subsoil to the top.

Having said that, many cultural operations do require a spade, fork or trowel. Potatoes and root crops require lifting, bulbs need burying, and planting can’t be done without digging a hole.  However, most of this cultivation is done near the surface.

Advocates of 'no-dig' gardening do admit that soil needs to be in good condition before you can hang up your spade.

Heavy soils can benefit from digging to improve drainage, while poor and free-draining soils need compost adding deep down for better structure. Bad weed infestations of ground elder or bindweed may require digging to remove roots. However, some gardeners prefer smothering the weeds by covering whole beds with black polythene or cardboard.

So where do I stand? I believe there is a place for digging, but you do not have to dig beds and borders every year. In my garden, I dig to incorporate compost and well-rotted manure deep down where roots can grow into it. This is particularly important when making new flowerbeds, as once a bed is planted it's much harder to improve the soil.

Frequently, established borders only need a layer of compost spread over the top, and lightly forked in, or simply left for worms to feed on.

As I live in the East Midlands where we've experienced two very dry years, I'm seriously looking at things I can do now to help my soil retain more water. Of course I make as much compost and leaf mould as I can, and spread this on as a mulch.

I've already started preparing the soil where beans and other greedy crops will be planted next summer. All my kitchen waste will be tipped into specially dug trenches, then covered with a little soil.

I’m going to plant crops in this bed, and the contents of the 'compost trenches' will provide food for soil organisms, rotting down into a water-retentive layer that the roots of beans, courgettes and other veg can exploit.

And one final festive thought - for some, digging is a great excuse for escaping from the family over the Christmas period, and excellent exercise for burning off calories, so don't be too hasty to give it up!

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Talkback: The no-dig method
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Baloo66 12/12/2011 at 17:46

I love the idea of kitchen waste trenches for beans, courgettes etc and will certainly be trying that next year. Now all I have to do is dig the trenches ready to be filled - another job for the winter!

Diggetty 13/12/2011 at 01:01

I've never done more than is called for, being a rather fair-weather gardener, so I don't dig empty beds over for the sake of it. But I did my back in this year leaving me out of action for a couple of weeks - that was from digging up roots & weeding to prepare a bed and that pain & helplessness was enough to convince me to go no-dig. On with the plastic & winter mulch!

Adam Pasco 13/12/2011 at 13:06

Ah. Back pain! Now that's a topic for another blog.
Yes, do be careful everyone. Visiting the physio is very expensive!

happymarion 13/12/2011 at 17:28

At the age of 83 I am ready to try the no-dig method. Luckily 47 years of manuring my clay soil with cow,horse,poultry, manure and mushroom compost has given mr the good soil to do it in. Sometimes back pain is caused, not by overworking muscles not used to such exertion but too low temperatures so always remember to warm up. When I belonged to the Keep-fit Movement I learnt to do 15 minutes of warm up before I tackled big jobs and still do my "Bend, Stretch and Twist".
Bean trenches I gave up when I got myself a wormery some ten years ago and they gobble up all my peelings now, but I'm still giving away loads of runner beans every year.
I went to a lecture on the No-dig method and the slides showed beautiful veg. but the secret seems to be ever vigilance with the weeding. You will still get the seeds brought in by the wind.
Anyway , watch this space, Adam, as I nearly have enough saved for my deep beds to be built and I will save all the cardboard I can at Xmas.
Incidentally, in Edmonton, Canada, where my sister used to live, the only way to grow veg. outside, because the permafrost did not disappear till May. was in compost on top of the frozen ground - no digging possible and they grew runner beans in their front gardens for display and the hummingbirds!

Adam Pasco 14/12/2011 at 21:46

You've raised a very interesting point HappyMarion, and that is the benefit of creating raised beds. The soil in these warms more quickly, and this encourages faster root growth and plant development.
The only word of warning I'd add is that while raised beds benefit from offering improved drainage, their soil can dry out more quickly and needing extra watering.

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