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No dig gardening: How to get started

No dig gardening: How to get started
Want to give no dig gardening a go? Charles Dowding shares some no dig tips from his new book so that you can save time and effort

What is no dig? 

No dig means leaving soil undisturbed, with a surface application of organic matter. That’s it! Sometimes we need to make holes for plants and trees, and the surface compost may need light hoeing if it had many weed seeds. 

No dig benefits 

No dig soil grows many fewer weeds than the same soil after digging or rotovating. It retains moisture while allowing excellent drainage. In spring, the surface warms readily thanks to compost’s dark colour, which absorbs sunlight and converts it to warmth. 
Charles Dowding author, image credit Jonathan Buckley
Charles Dowding's new book, No Dig, is a definitive guide to no dig gardening. Image © Jonathan Buckley. 
For gardeners, there are huge savings of time and effort. No digging, less weeding and watering, easy sowing and planting into the soft surface compost. 

Importance of soil life 

Until recently the advice has been to feed plants with nutrients from fertilisers. The results from no dig, however, show that when soil biology is preserved and increased, growth happens without using fertilisers. The mycorrhizal network, for example, helps plants to find nutrients and moisture which might otherwise stay unavailable. 

Hence, an annual feed of compost 

This feeds the billions of organisms which inhabit all soils, and enables them to maintain structure, aeration and drainage, and to organise plant feeding. A surface layer of 2.5 cm each autumn or early winter is enough to keep soil in a state of high fertility.  
Compost bin
Compost is any decomposed organic matter
For pathways and shrubby plantings, including fruit buses, the mulch can be woodchip of a reasonably fine grade. 

What is compost?

Compost is any decomposed organic matter. You can make it and buy it. Suitable ingredients are garden wastes including lawn clippings, tree leaves, old animal manure, kitchen wastes, also commercial materials such as coffee grounds and spent hops. 
"No dig means you spend less time weeding, more on making compost!"
Garden compost heaps can include diseased materials and weeds of all kinds with their roots. No dig means you spend less time weeding, more on making compost! 

Tips for seed sowing 

You sow and transplant into the surface compost. Seeds and seedlings love to start life in a surface rich in organic matter, just as happens in nature where we have not intervened. 

How to create a no dig bed 

Grow your own potatoes with no dig gardening
You can grow your own potatoes with no dig gardening
The approach varies, according to what is currently growing.  
  1. If starting with reasonably weed-free soil, no dig is as simple as raking the surface level, then spreading 3–5 cm of reasonable quality compost on top.  
  2. If there are many weeds, you can place thick cardboard on top of them, then 7–15 cm compost on top of the cardboard. Wet it thoroughly and you are ready to plant! Weeds die while your plants are growing in the compost. After 10 weeks the cardboard is degrading and some weeds appear from below, which you need to pull. This means that plants can now root into the soil below.  
  3. For areas with persistent perennial weeds, spread 3–7 cm compost and then lay black plastic on top. This is a start-up phase to eliminate weeds in the first year, while you can also grow vegetables such as potatoes. Simply make a slit in the plastic and pop your seed potato into the compost below. Its leaves soon appear above the plastic, while potatoes swell underneath. 

Links to plant and our own health 

Soil in top health is full of microbes which are similar to the those in our guts. It's healthy to eat a little good quality soil because this improves digestion
"It's healthy to eat a little good quality soil"
Soil microbes improve our mood too. Examples are Bacillus vacca and L-tryptophan, which among other things enable our bodies to produce the hormone serotonin, which helps us to feel content
No Dig by Charles Dowding out September, published by DK, priced £30
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