No-dig gardening guide with Charles Dowding

No-dig gardening guide

Learn all about no-dig gardening, with tips from no-dig gardener Charles Dowding.

The no-dig gardening method is one employed largely by growers of organic vegetables, though it applies to ornamental plants, too.

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Rather than digging the soil to remove weeds, this process involves applying organic matter, such as garden compost or well-rotted manure, to the soil surface, emulating the natural processes of decomposition, as plants die back and leaves fall. Instead of being dug in, the no-dig gardener allows plants, fungi and soil organisms to break down and incorporate the organic matter into the soil.

In doing so, the soil structure is not disrupted by being dug over. Likewise worms and other organisms are not disturbed, therefore the soil’s ecosystem remains intact. Yields of vegetables tend to be bigger when grown in no-dig soils. What’s more, it’s a great option for time-short gardeners who don’t have the hours to spend digging over beds and borders.

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Discover the benefits of no-dig gardening with help from no-dig expert Charles Dowding.


The benefits

Bigger harvests

Courgettes growing in a low raised bed
Courgettes growing in a low raised bed

In trials, no-dig beds have been shown to produce bigger veg harvests than those that are dug over. This isn’t universally true, for example potatoes often give a greater harvest growing in soils that have been dug.


Saving time

No-dig raised beds for veg
No-dig raised beds for veg

Taking up the no-dig gardening method means you’ll spend less time digging, weeding and watering – perfect for busy growers.


Less weeding

Spreading mulch over soil
Spreading mulch over soil

Digging can inadvertently bring weed seeds and roots to the surface where they can germinate and grow. By not digging, you leave these undisturbed. Applying a layer of organic matter, such as well-rotted manure or garden compost, to the soil surface also acts as a weed-suppressing mulch, making it much harder for weeds to get through. No-dig doesn’t eradicate weeds altogether, and some garden composts will still contain uncomposted weed seeds. However, perennial weeds are weakened by the mulch, and you can usually keep on top of them by pulling them out when they appear.


Good for your body

Gardening is great exercise, but the intensity of digging over a bed can be too much exertion if you’re not physically fit – particularly when the ground is still cold and wet. This can deter people from growing their own veg. With no-dig, the heaviest job is making your compost and spreading it over the soil – after that, only gentle maintenance is required.


Better drainage and less watering

Applying mulch with a spade
Applying mulch with a spade

Mulching soil helps to retain moisture, meaning you need to water less. A no-dig approach can also help to improve drainage. Digging, particularly on heavy soils, can sometimes lead to compaction, meaning that water cannot permeate through and instead sits in puddles or runs onto other areas of the garden. By mulching and not digging, you ensure water gets to where it’s needed.


Conserving soil carbon

Digging causes carbon that is stored in the soil to oxidise and be released as carbon dioxide. By not digging, this carbon stays in the soil. We can all therefore do our bit to limit climate change by ensuring carbon stays in the soil.


Less mud and easier access

Adding carbon-rich straw to a compost heap
Adding carbon-rich straw to a compost heap

On clay soil, heavy rain can turn your garden or allotment into a bit of a mud bath and stop you gardening. But a compost mulch doesn’t get sticky, like cultivated soil, meaning that as soon as the surface has dried out a little you can get out and do some gardening. No-dig beds have a firm but open structure, meaning that you can walk on them, when you need to, without compacting the soil or getting your boots caked in mud.


Earlier harvests

Harvesting carrots grown in a no-dig bed
Harvesting carrots grown in a no-dig bed

Not only will you be ready to start planting and sowing earlier, because you won’t be wasting lots of time digging, but the soil also warms up earlier too. In winter and early spring, the temperature of undug soil is higher than soil that has been dug or forked over. Earlier harvests are especially valuable in colder areas, such as in the north of the country, where the growing season is shorter. But they’re also useful in the rest of the UK too – for crops that need a long growing season; where harvesting earlier can help to avoid problems such as blight; and to give you time to grow a second crop in the same space, once the ground is cleared.


Stronger plants

Tipping a barrowload of mulch onto soil
Tipping a barrowload of mulch onto soil

By not digging, you preserve the organisms that live in the soil. These include mycorrhizal fungi, which team up with the roots of your plants and help them to access nutrients and moisture. Most soil life is found fairly close to the surface, where it’s readily accessible to new roots, but if you dig, you risk plunging those organisms deep into the soil, out of reach of your plants. Garden compost helps to feed these organisms and keep them plentiful, and by applying it as a mulch you’re mimicking natural processes, whereby worms and other soil life eat material deposited on the surface and excrete it into the soil. The result is that newly planted seedlings settle more quickly into undug soil and grow into strong, healthy plants.


Better flowers

You can apply the no-dig approach to your flowerbeds too. Ornamental plants are less hungry than vegetables and a 2cm layer of compost applied once a year is sufficient. The result will be healthy, well-nourished plants and less time spent weeding.


How to get started

Clear weeds

Weeding out a tap-rooted dock
Weeding out a tap-rooted dock

Clear the weeds on your plot by hoeing or pulling them out. Some, like brambles and docks, will likely require digging out. If you have lots of established weeds, cover the soil surface with a layer of cardboard, then cover it with the compost mulch – otherwise, just a 5cm layer of well-rotted compost directly on the soil is fine.


Mulch

Grey field slug
Grey field slug

Spread composted garden waste, composted wood chips or leaves, or well-rotted manure. Avoid un-decomposed mulches such as straw, because these create a habitat for slugs and snails.


Divide it up

Raised beds
Raised beds

Divide your veg plot into separate beds, with paths in between for easy access. Then, by mulching the planting areas, the beds will become slightly raised and clearly delineated. Alternatively, you can grow your vegetables in raised beds.


Sowing and planting

Sow or plant directly into your compost mulch – seedlings love it.


Weed-free paths

Keep your paths free of weeds and grass, too. You can use cardboard for this.


Frequent mulching

Mulching border roses
Mulching border roses
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Feed the soil life with more mulch once a year – late autumn, after your final harvests, is a good time. Cover the beds with 3-5cm of compost – there’s no need to sieve it, just use a fork to open larger lumps.