I was intrigued by this method of gardening as a sufferer of periodic back spasms; I'm always on the lookout for ways of preventing a relapse (other than relying on Mr G).
Dowding has not dug his own garden, other than to clear perennial weeds (docks, dandelion, etc.), for over 25 years. He crops almost an acre of land, selling vegetable boxes and salad bags from his farm. In his book he advises that gardeners 'forget all the rules' and instead learn and develop a better understanding of how their soil, plants, seasons and garden work - figuring out their own rules.
So what exactly is No-Dig Gardening?
As the title suggests, the basic principle is that the gardener does no digging at all, allowing the worms and other soil bacteria to do all the 'digging', keeping the soil aerated and open.
A system of permanent slightly raised beds are used, using the soil from what will become the permanent pathways to fill the new beds.
A top dressing of compost or well-rotted manure at a depth of about 25-50mm is added to the beds in late autumn or early winter, and nature is left to do her work. Charles refers to Charles Darwin's book written in 1882, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, with Observations of their Habitats. In this book Darwin comes to the conclusion that between 25-50mm of topsoil is added to, every year in healthy pasture, as a result of the action of worms.
So by adding plenty of organic matter to the soil, the need for digging is eradicated.
This was one of only a couple of queries I had with this method. Not everybody is able to provide that much organic matter to their beds every year, certainly not in the first couple of years. Most keen vegetable gardeners do their best to make as much of their own compost as possible, but it can take time (and space) to build up a good supply. Likewise, unless a friendly farmer has been actively sought and persuaded to part with some of his/her well-rotted-manure in the early days, a ready supply might not be available at the beginning. That said there's no reason why organic matter can't be sourced or built up over time.
Dowding also addresses my query about spring dressings for those of us who didn't have time to prepare our beds in the autumn months. As long as the compost is not too rough (slugs can hide under large lumps), seeds can still be sown.
So what about the weeds?
Dowding explains that few weeds grow because the soil is not 'panicked by being disturbed into re-clothing itself'. In every soil weed seeds lie dormant until they are exposed to light, which is what happens when soil is turned over and dug. If weeds are not allowed to grow then they won't be there producing seeds. He feels that weed germination is a defensive reaction by the soil when it is disturbed. That they are there to protect our planet's skin, the soil, whenever it is turned over and exposed.
What about green manures?
Green maturing is a much talked about and practiced method of organic gardening, but on the whole, most are dug into the soil before they seed, which of course they cannot by using this method. Frost tender annuals such as mustard are the exception however, as they dies off at the hint of a frost and can be left on the beds until the worms take them into the soil.
Sowing at the right time
Dowding is a strong advocate for sowing during the season that's best for the plant (and not necessarily for the gardener). Many of us are plagued by the cabbage white butterfly for instance, but if varieties are chosen that grow before or after they lay their eggs, the need for netting, biological nematodes or sprays are avoided.
Likewise he advises we learn the best growing seasons for our plants before we impulsively buy them. Just because they're for sale in a garden centre doesn't necessarily mean that they will thrive in our gardens.
So my conclusion... I really enjoyed the simplicity of this method and the book explains the reasoning behind the ideas too. The fact that it works so successfully for so many indicates it’s certainly a technique worth trying. I foresee picking the book up many more times over the coming months.
Dowding has learnt from practice that no-dig gardening works for him. What surprised me is that we are pretty much following these methods in our garden without realizing it. If we can just discipline ourselves to get outside in the autumn months and cover the soil with compost or manure we'll be pretty much there.
I'm keen to try the suggestions he makes on biodynamic gardening too that use the moon as an influence.
The easy method is to plant anything that grows above the ground such as leafy crops during a waxing moon (which occurs between the new moon and the full moon) when it's considered to have an uplifting effect as the moon is rising, and therefore pulling upward. As the moon wanes (between the full moon and new moon), it's said to favor the root crops, as the pull is downwards.
The moon has such a powerful influence on our tides amongst other things that its effects on crops should not be dismissed out of hand.
If you'd like to find out more about Charles Dowding, see pictures of his garden and his did/no dig experiments, his website is here.