Tag Archives: No dig gardening

Charles Dowding, the ‘no dig’ gardener

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As mentioned here, I’ve now gone back to weekly commuting, working three days in London. And whilst I’m definitely enjoying the work (so far!) I’m also enjoying having access to London gardening events, and attended my first on Tuesday.

The location was the Garden Museum, across the Thames from Westminster.  The museum was set up in 1977 to rescue the abandoned ancient church of St Mary’s (the burial place of John Tradescant c1570–1638), which was threatened with demolition.  The building now hosts exhibitions, talks, and holds “a permanent display of paintings, tools, ephemera and historic artefacts: a glimpse into the uniquely British love affair with gardens”.2015-03-10 20.04.55

I’d previously been to a couple of talks there, one by American lawyer, Barbara Paul Robinson, about her biography of Rosemary Verey, and another by a group of florists including the lovely Vic Brotherson from Scarlet and Violet.

Tuesday’s talk was a more hands on gardening talk, this time by Charles Dowding, who is well known in the UK for his ‘no dig’ approach to gardening.2015-03-10 18.37.08

What I hadn’t realised is that as well as writing numerous books and delivering many lectures and courses both around the country and at his home garden of Homeacres, he grows salad leaves commercially.

As with previous gardening talks I’ve posted about it’s frustrating not to be able to share more of the photos we were shown.  In Dowding’s case there must have been hundreds, which he moved through at an incredible pace, giving structure to his (no notes) speech of well over an hour.

Dowding is a passionate believer in ‘no dig’ gardening, feeding the soil not the plants.  He has undertaken numerous trials of different approaches and although the no dig approach doesn’t always produce the greatest harvest, it often does, and what harvest you receive is far less back breaking.

He showed photos of various beds he had transformed from ‘topped’ pasture to high yielding veg beds with his no dig approach.  The fundamental thing is to kill weeds by excluding light, whilst also feeding the soil.  Sometimes he uses cardboard, or even wool carpet, but mostly he just adds a compost layer.

When making the new beds from the pasture he added a 6″ layer the first year and then just a further 1-2″ per year after that.  For very difficult perennial weeds like brambles, ivy and hedge bindweed, it may take 18 months to ‘clean’ the soil and you have to be vigilant to weed them out as they reappear (he recommends a copper trowel for the task as the edges keep sharp), but he insists you can get rid of them.

With regard to his salad growing, he sows four times a year (early March, Early June, Mid July and early September I think he said) and this keeps him in salad leaves all year, albeit from November to April he is growing in an unheated polytunnel.  The varieties he grows also vary by season – Lettuce, pea shoots, sorrel and dill in the summer, with rocket, chicory and mustard in the winter.  He uses the ‘cut and come again’ approach where he harvests leaves rather than the entire plants and says this way it keeps the planst in ‘permanent adolesence’ and they just keep growing.  Also, by harvesting the outer leaves, it keeps the plants very clean and reduces the hiding places for slugs!

As well as trialling no dig versus dig vegetable gardening, he also showed photos of a trial he’d undertaken to see which medium seeds did best in.  It turned out in his trial that seeds sown in well rotted manure did better than John Innes number 1 or a Multi purpose compost.  You’d think seeds would struggle in something so ‘lumpy’ but perhaps his well rotted manure is rather more well rotted than mine!

And lastly, when you think you’ve made a decision, someone comes along and unmakes it for you.   Last year I wrote about planting by moon here, and how, having read Maria Thun’s book, I’d been impressed by the studies she’d done linking seed planting (and cutting taking, and grafting) to different phases on the moon.  Being back at work (and particulalry not even being at home three days a week) I decided that this was an approach I’d struggle to follow this year, and so decided to quietly forget about it.  Dowding however, is a fan, and of course, had done a trial.  And when I saw his two carrot harvests, the one planted by the moon 10% bigger than the others, it’s making me think again….

Do take a look at Dowding’s website, there’s an amazing amount of information there and also details of his books and courses.  He’s a very impressive man with a similarly impressive ‘back catalogue’ of trials and achievements.