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Talkback: The no-dig method

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...

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


My borders are quite congested with shrub'd so I just empty my compost bin on the surface and let nature take place,I have three plastic compost bin's one filling one cooking one for emptying,after a year or so I have about two barrow's of compost very light in structure from each bin after the worm's have done there work.It's time for a good prune to get thing's back in to some sort of shape.

It is debateable, some say digging destroys the soils structure and others say it is necesarry to avoid creating a hard pan in the soil.Each situation is different depending on the history of your plot. I try not to dig my soil and simply mulch in the Autumn with well rotted compost or well rotted manure then cover these vacant areas with cardboard until the spring. The covering will protect the soil from erosion during the winter months and the worms will pull the mulch into the soil during this time. No weed seeds will germinate and no air born seeds can penetrate the covering. Come the spring I can remove the cardboard as necesarry and reveal lovely soil.

I tend to seek a compromise on dig/nodig. I believe it is important to airate the soil to improve the decomposition of organic matter so I tend to just stick my fork right in and wiggle it about. It disturbs the soil ever so slightly and loosens it up.

As Bob Flowerdew commented in his 'low input gardening' book a lot of horticultural & cultivation methods derive from large scale commercial practices, rather than for instance permaculture methods rooted in small scale gardening type cultivation. On an allotment infested with bindweed, and in heavy clay, I planted potatoes and sweetcorn through woven black plastic membrane over a large quantity of spent hops. the sweetcorn seedlings were a bit 'further along' than maybe otherwise normal, but the whole thing cropped fantastically and the bindweed was easily controlled. So for coarser crops I'd say try it. plus there are even more radical and fuhn methods like the 'hugel kulture' basically cultivating on piles of rotting wood/ logs covered with a thin layer of soil used in traditional eastern europe and amongst settlers in the States that give moisture and nutruition over seasons. So I'd say avoid turning over the soil unless compactions' a problem.
Adam Pasco

Good advice for weed control Daniel. Many thanks. So much can be achieved by adding material to the soil surface rather than digging.

Anyone taking over a weed infested allotment could well do with following your advice – covering the ground with compost (or spent hops) then a membrane, and planting through this. I've tried something similar in the past myself, and it really helps smother and kill problem weeds, and prevents more annual ones germinating.


I think planting through a membrane will help me in my extreme old age, Adam, and, as for extra watering ,I already have a large waterbutt by the which is filled from a caravan roof but I have a spare one in the butterfly garden which I will move down to the new beds and let it fill up over the winter.  Thanks for the warning, Adam.

I am definitely not an expert, but I believe a heavy clay soil benefits from digging, especially if  plenty of compost is well dug in. Once the soil structure improves, and that can take some time, then digging becomes not so important.

The no dig method it wonderful, preserving the soil ecosystem, saving backs and producing lovely organic vegetables and healthy flower gardens.  I have admired them at Belmont Garden where the head gardener described the method used there and at Capel Manor College where a no dig garden was created  directly from an area of lawn. Both these gardens are part of  large estates with copious supplies of rotted manure and compost.  But the problem for the small gardener and allotment holder remains - how to produce, or even import enough well rotten, bulky manure or compost to lay 3-4 inches on the beds every winter.  I just can.t make enough of the lovely stuff in my garden.  Our allotments import stable manure which rots to lovely stuff, but even so you can't make enought quickly to cover the space.   

Peat B

I have a nice size 'lotty, on a north facing slope, in Northumberland. it can be a real pain to grow stuff, but some summers are wonderful for lettuce, carrots, strawbs, currants  and suchlike. Then, broadbeans become a desperate fight for survival, the wind lifts panes off the glass house, and sweet corn loses the will to live ! I would love to no-dig, but the local farmer has lost interest in dumping an annual load of manure at the end of the path. ( Insufficient rendering of home made wines to his threshold !)

I have found over many years, that no-dig is either a complete waste of time if you want good healthy cropping, or a 'good thing' if you want to just let nature take it's course, and be happy with a reduced amount of crops or variety. Nature has a way of weeding out the weakest. 

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