Gardening: Ditch the digging and go natural

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Put away your spade and fork, apparently less is more when it comes to garden groundwork.

Imagine a garden where you never had to do any digging. No more sore lower back, aching legs or plummeting spirits when faced by a vast area of soil in need of turning. The idea that we can have a thriving garden, and in particular, a productive vegetable garden, without digging seems to go against traditional gardening wisdom.

Speak to Charles Dowding, and you’ll discover that giving up digging could actually be just the thing to improve your plot. This month sees the publication of a newly revised and updated version of his book, Organic Gardening: The Natural No-Dig Way (£14.95, Green Books). So has there been a change in attitudes since it was first published? “Six years ago, an organic approach to gardening was widely accepted, but not always well understood or practised,” he says. “I wanted the book to make organic more achievable, practical and less mystical, with emphasis on creating health as much as coping with pests and disease.”

They say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating and Dowding has been running an experiment since 2007 with four beds – two have been given the no-dig treatment; the others regularly dug over. He says that the results are interesting, with less weeds and fewer slugs; slightly higher yields and faster spring growth on the undug beds. “Digging is certainly ingrained as a habitual practice,” says Dowding.

“Perhaps in saying that, I risk offending some readers who have always dug the soil, and always grown good plants. But the point of my book is that even if you are sceptical, why not give ‘no dig’ a try? It clearly works so well; for instance in the horribly wet weather of 2012 my undug clay was incredibly bountiful and clear of weeds, when a lot of diggers were complaining of mud, weeds and slugs.”

Organic Gardening acts as a guide to all aspects of growing vegetables, including sowing seed, raising plants, and making compost, but the real lure is in this examination of the no-dig method. Having adhered to the philosophy for many years, Dowding easily lists the key benefits. He says that undug soil grows fewer weeds – once you have mulched existing perennial weeds in the first year, a challenge which needs patience until the weeds’ roots are exhausted. He says that undug soil doesn’t stick to your boots quite so much, making a plot more accessible in wet weather.

Keeping compost on top provides a darker surface which warms up more quickly in spring and then there’s something that will appeal to all gardeners: “undug soil with a thin surface mulch of compost seems less attractive to slugs than dug soil where the organic matter is incorporated – I discovered this in the experiment I run where the same vegetables are grown in both dug and undug beds,” says Dowding.

Having turned his back on digging 30 years ago, Dowding is able to address many of the common misconceptions as to why digging is seen as essential. Soil loosening is one reason to dig, but he points out that if your soil is so hard that plant roots cannot penetrate, then something has gone very badly wrong.

It may be that you’ve inherited a garden filled with builders’ rubble, in which case importing a large quantity of compost (up to a 15cm covering) is the way forward. It soon becomes clear that the creatures doing all the work in “no-dig” gardening are worms, which Dowding points out are far more efficient at digging than humans. An annual mulch of 5cm of compost will provide worms with the cool, dark, moist humus-laden food they enjoy and in turn will ensure your soil becomes more fertile as the worms work their magic.

The question of weeds is one that Dowding is often asked about. His advice is to act preventatively – doing occasional weeding during the darker months, picking that occasional small clump of grass, chickweed or bittercress to stop them from seeding. A little and often by hand or hoe will go a long way to keeping weeds in check.

One of the most valuable sections of the book looks at dealing with pests. Dowding says that after slugs, most difficulties seem to be caused by cabbage family caterpillars and for that reason he rarely grows late-summer cabbages and calabrese.

Rather than take steps to keep the cabbage butterflies out of crops, he chooses instead to grow cabbages and brassicas in the winter half of the year, when it’s far rarer to find their predatory insects. Similarly, peas sown in March have a good chance of cropping before pea moths lay their eggs; and carrots sown in mid-June avoid the spring flights of carrot root fly, and should be clean until October. It’s the sort of down-to-earth advice that the book is full of.

Dowding’s enthusiasm comes across at every turn as he encourages readers to try out new techniques and not to worry about potential failures. He points out that you might want to buy in good compost when you’re starting out, but encourages you to make your own if you can, saying “top dressing with your own compost is satisfyingly productive, and the beauty of no dig is that you can put imperfect, lumpy compost on top of the soil in late autumn, then find that winter weather has made it soft and crumbly by spring, even for sowing carrots and parsnips into.” It’s clear that his organic, no-dig approach hasn’t been adopted to make a statement, but rather because it works.

What does he most enjoy about growing his own? “The freshness and flavour of what I harvest, the joy of seeing it growing, an appreciation of compost’s ability to transform waste into something hugely valuable, and I love the beautiful forms and varied colours of so many vegetables.”

Organic Gardening is a book with soil at its heart and a philosophy that’s impossible to resist. As its message gains in popularity, the gardens of Britain might well have to get used to a lot less digging in the years to come.

• Organic Gardening: The Natural No-dig Way by Charles Dowding (£14.95, Green Books) is out now. Buy it for £9.95 with free UK P&P from; enter SCOTOG in the promotion box to activate the discount.