Start with the soil
The health of our soil is essential to life. It provides 95% of our food, stores vast quantities of carbon and acts like an enormous sponge, soaking up water, filtering it and releasing it slowly back into the environment.
Yet our soils are in crisis. The equivalent of 30 football pitches are lost every minute due to degradation. This is mainly caused by deforestation, climate change and industrial scale agriculture which is reliant on monocultures and chemicals to maintain productivity.
Read more articles :
Healthy soil is a complex microcosm of minerals, water, air and organic matter which is full of life. It is estimated that a teaspoon of healthy soil may contain up to 10 billion microorganisms including extensive networks of mycorrhizal fungi. This life provides nutrients for plants and helps maintain a good soil structure. As we understand the importance of all this life and the myriad interactions that take place beneath our feet it has become evident that the traditional practices of ploughing and digging are in most cases counterproductive. Instead increasing numbers of small scale farmers and growers are looking at alternative methods to reduce or even eliminate the need for disturbing the soil. At the scale of a garden or allotment the benefits of adopting what is known as a no dig approach are even more obvious.
No dig, simply means disturbing the soil as little as possible, using various materials as a mulch laid over the ground in order to suppress weeds, retain moisture and add organic matter. By spreading a layer of compost on top of the soil we are nurturing the life within it and by not disturbing the soil, we are maintaining its structure. Sometimes digging is unavoidable, for example if your existing soil is badly compacted or is full of rubble or other material which needs to be removed. Likewise you will need to dig in order to plant trees or shrubs. However digging the ground in order to establish and maintain planting beds is not necessary.
can be homemade, or bought in and many growers will use a mix depending on budget and availability. Commercial compost mixes are available to buy in small bags. Other materials like spent mushroom compost, municipal green waste, animal manure and more recently, bio digestates can often be purchased in larger builders bags or even loose by the trailer load. As organic growers we do need to be aware of the source of any bought in compost. Avoid peat (see our article on Wildlife and biodiversity) and consider any potential persistent contamination. Some animal manures can contain residues of medicines/treatments that have been given to the animals or persistent herbicides such as aminopyralid which can stunt plant growth. If bought in compost is still fresh, it needs leaving to further rot down before use.
Tree surgeons are often pleased to deliver wood chip which they would otherwise have to dispose of. Wood chips are not only good on paths but if 2 to 3 years old, well rotted and sieved, they can also be used on beds.
No dig, sadly doesn’t mean no weeding, however, weed germination is much reduced by not turning the soil. Also, it doesn’t take much time to either hand pick or lightly hoe weeds when they are small.
Organic growing relies on soil life to feed plants, rather than applications of chemical fertilisers. Annually spreading about 2-3cms of compost on the surface in autumn or winter is sufficient to maintain fertility. Healthy plants are less likely to be troubled by pests and as compost acts as a sponge, less watering is also needed.
Eliminating the chore of digging and reducing the time spent on weeding, frees up more time and energy for the fun stuff of growing, harvesting and eating. It’s also better for your soil, which means it’s better for us and the planet.
For more information on soil visit the Soil Association and Garden Organic websites.
Dr Elaine Ingham explains soil life in much more detail on the Soil Food Web.
Charles Dowdin g has a website and YouTube channel which are very good and cover a wide variety of related topics. He has also published several books on the subject.
Huw Richards posts lively and informative videos on permaculture/no dig growing.
Stephanie Hafferty describes developing her new no dig garden in Wales online and has also published several books which are available through Permanent Publications.