Earth First

No Dig’ Gardening: A Quiet Revolution

It has long been thought that soil must be physically dug to create a finer texture, amalgamate nutrients, and remove weeds. But does it really need this?

Ask anyone for a single image which embodies ‘gardening’ and they’ll probably choose a spade. It’s a concept so deeply embedded in mass consciousness as to be universal; gardening = digging = gardening. But the process of digging can make our precious soil less productive by damaging its intricate structure and vitally interconnected organisms. Drawing on the long history of ‘regenerative agriculture’ practices, ‘No Dig’ growing offers a potentially easier and more sustainable way forward. Chuck that spade aside for a moment and find out why.

Getting hands in the soil

Firstly, growing food is empowering. Produce cultivated with our own hands on our own patch connects us vividly with the natural world; its soil, its creatures, its seasonality and the nourishment that our own labour can produce.

Labour. There’s the rub. The very word ‘gardening’ suggests backbreaking digging, weeding and, for some of us, even a little guilt. Guilt that we haven’t invested enough in the project, that our produce will fail to flourish and that admission to that magical world of ‘gardening’ requires more than we can offer in terms of hours, energy, or knowledge.

In a world where we are so often challenged to do good by taking the harder path, it’s difficult to believe that adopting a far easier way of gardening can be better for wildlife, increase our yields, and save us huge amounts of time.

Charles Dowding, the disruptor

Seeking an alternative way to produce with lower impact, English organic food pioneer Charles Dowding, today known as the “Father of No Dig Gardening”, spent years as a voice in the wilderness, his methods cold-shouldered by the gardening establishment. From the late 1970s onwards, he continuously trialled and refined his alternative growing techniques, working in his own market garden. It took another decade before opinion formers started to espouse Dowding’s work and even then, his seminal book, ‘Organic Gardening’ wasn’t published until 2007.1 It attracted rave reviews, with one headline from The Ecologist stating “Charles Dowding thinks the received wisdom is wrong and he can prove it.”2 

Dowding’s approach is low-input, common sense and, despite deep roots in history, feels revolutionary. It’s founded on two key principles: disturbing the soil as little as possible and developing a cycle of natural enrichment through the gentle addition of nutritious, biodegradable materials. Instead of damaging the soil’s infinitely complex network of interdependent living organisms through aggressive digging or other physical interventions, No Dig sets plants directly into biodegradable ‘mulches’ heaped onto the topsoil’s surface. Literally turning gardening on its head.

Charles Dowding grew up in a farming family and established his first no dig organic market garden on family land in the 1980s. He now manages and teaches from his garden, Homeacres, in Somerset UK. (Photo by Charles Dowding)

Mulch, the beating heart of a No Dig garden

Alongside a more hands-off approach to working the soil, mulching also plays an integral role in the success of the No Dig approach. The organic components within biodegradable mulches can include compost, hay, leafmould, seaweed, wood chips and cardboard. As individual mulch components can be altered according to the organic matter available, and because it is heaped on the soil's surface (rather than dug in), it can be used in any climate and on any soil. Even heavy weed infestations can be eliminated through frequent and well managed mulching.3 It will also greatly boost the growing potential of ‘difficult’ soils such as heavy clay or sand, as worms, beetles and countless other smaller soil-dwelling organisms feed on and carry the mulch components down into the soil beneath, improving drainage and aeration. 

Fruit and vegetables grown in hearty mulches are more resilient to pests and diseases, can be 100% organic, produce excellent harvests and yield wonderful flavours, reflecting the high level of nutrition they contain.4, 5 Organic growing systems depend on naturally healthy soils. These invigorate and enrich the plants, which typically show higher yields and increased levels of many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants compared to non-organically grown produce.6, 7, 8

Sometimes equated with the natural-build up and rotting away of the organic matter on a forest floor, mulch coverings feed soil life and guard the structure of the soil beneath, protecting it from erosion, insulating it from climatic extremes (eg extreme heat/chill and drought/excessive rainfall), and allowing soil-dwelling organisms to fulfil their role of boosting fertility. Mulching also helps reduce weed growth by depriving them of light. It can be used to clear large areas of congested ground, leaving it ready for productive planting.7

1931-London, England: Left to right: Professor Nikolai Vavilov (Botanist)), A. F. Joffe (Physicist), and Nicholas Bukharin in London to attend the Congress of the History of Science.

Straw and manure used for mulch in a no dig artichoke bed. The use of mulch feeds the soil life and can protect the soil underneath from extreme weather conditions, including excessive rainfall and drought. (Photo by Citizen of the Planet via Getty Images)

Born from necessity, lead by intuition

The origins of mulching and No Dig are not a historically new concept. They derive from both an intuitive understanding and from necessity, responding to poor topsoils or challenging climates. In the rocky, sandy Scottish Hebridean islands, food crops have been cultivated for millennia using heaped seaweed to help create a growing medium.9,10 ‘Hügelkultur’, currently enjoying a resurgence, is said to have been used in German and Eastern Europe forest regions for centuries, deploying decaying wood and other organic matter to build fertile mounds for crop production. Rudolph Steiner’s 1924 biodynamic agricultural system uses mulches in hillocks formed with soil and compost. Later that century, many countries including the USA, Australia and Japan, saw the birth of natural agriculture and organic food production movements. Much like No Dig and other regenerative approaches, many of these movements were grouped under a larger umbrella of ‘permaculture’ - agricultural ecosystems that are developed to be self sufficient, sustainable, and socially just.11

The No Dig approach to growing our food in home settings shares important characteristics with the ‘no till’ movement in agriculture.12, 13, 14 Both are part of a booming regenerative agricultural consciousness, shunning reductionist mechanical and chemical interventions to focus on naturally-built vigour in soils, plants and animals.11

An army of people selling things you don’t need

Fondly known as “The Guru of Vegetable Gardening”, Charles Dowding and has amassed a large following in recent years - with over 600,000 youtube subscribers eager to learn from his approach. But despite having become such a powerful force for change in this space, he remains modest and free-thinking. He gently lays some of the blame for aggressive gardening techniques on commercial interests, saying: “there’s a whole army of people out there trying to sell you things you don’t need, because there’s this belief that products can solve problems.” But he shies away from all prescriptive gardening systems, including his own. “What I’ve noticed is that these things always get codified, pared down into a system of rules which allows people who follow them to look down on people who don’t follow them. For me no-dig gardening is about staying positive about the world around us, empowering ourselves, developing a relationship with the soil and the plants and finding our own way.” 

Charles continues, “A key thing in my work is enabling people to understand what they are doing. Rather than giving them a recipe, I want to give them the knowledge.” He is somewhat saddened though (now that his life’s work has become one of the most popular conversations in horticulture) that it took so long for the gardening community to acknowledge the power of working from the soil upwards. He attributes much of the turnaround to digital media, enabling less commercial solutions such as his own to be seen, shared and put to the test.

Low investment, high returns

In return for minimal investment, No Dig offers significantly reduced labour and the potential for naturally enriched soil and food to sustain us and our environment.15 It’s gentle on the land, productive and in theory, endlessly renewable. Importantly, it also makes gardening accessible to the less physically able and lends itself well to raised beds and even containers, making it as relevant to small-scale plantings as to allotments and kitchen gardens.

Charles Dowding points out that “recent research has shown our gut biome having a great deal in common with the soil biome. So that well-nourished soils really can lead directly to well-nourished bodies and brains.”16 Combine that positive thinking with the sheer ease of his approach and you have an exciting way forward into growing your own food.

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