Written by Charles Dowding
No-Dig, Starting Out
Do you need to loosen the soil first?
The answer is absolutely not! It’s better to preserve the existing soil life and structure and simply apply organic matter mulches to the surface. This will feed soil organisms, whose activity creates a healthy structure for growth, even in clay - as I know from extensive experience.
It’s a terrible and arrogant assumption that only humans can create soil suitable to grow plants in. Just look at the wonders of growth in nature and copy what happens there: leave soil undisturbed and encourage soil inhabitants to feed at the surface.
The first step in no-dig is to mulch with as high-quality food as you can: compost comes top, including old animal manure, leaf mould and composts that you can buy. Undecomposed mulches, like hay, will work too but encourage slugs in damp climates.
An exception to commencing without soil disturbance, is if you start with a plot of uneven ground, whether this is a ‘lunar landscape’ or just hollows that feel awkward to walk on. In such cases, I recommend using a sharp spade to slice off the peaks and place that soil in the hollows until you have a level surface. Then mulch.
Level does not mean there has to be no slope. It’s fine to make beds on slopes, preferably up and down. With no-dig’s undisturbed soil, erosion barely happens.
Somebody asked me the following question on YouTube:
I am making a garden on the west coast of Canada from land that has only been a forest. It has been logged and tortured by heavy machinery, is mostly sand and gravel with a great many rocks. Before I found you, I was digging six inch trenches and filling them back up with sifted soil and manure, removing a great many rocks in the process. How does no dig work with such rocky land?
- My answer is to remove any protruding rocks and stumps, then mulch.
Earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris, different to compost or red wiggler worms Eisinia fetida) are surface feeders, yet often live quite deep in the soil and therefore travel up and down to feed on mulches. This movement maintains and increases their network of channels, which endure many years longer than any temporary “aeration” after digging or forking.
Loosening of soils by tools creates only a short-lived tilth, which collapses after a few months and needs remaking every year or more. Diggers are on a treadmill. By comparison, by not digging and adding a surface mulch of organic matter, soil structure continually improves.
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There are exceptionally few instances where any mechanical loosening would improve soil structure. If you have any doubts about your soil, I suggest to leave well alone and just mulch the surface.
My trial results
show every year how plants are rooting more successfully into undisturbed soil. No-dig carrots are a graphic example - long, fat and of deep colour. Carrots from the dig bed of my trial tend to be paler, and their leaves less glossy.
From this, it's clear that rooting downwards is easy for plants when the soil is left undisturbed.
Or look at compost making?
Veg growing tips for May
What you sow in May will define many summer and autumn harvests. For example, the month’s first half is just brilliant for sowing summer beans, autumn cabbage and Brussels sprouts - do try Doric F1.
My preferred date for runner and French beans is the 10th of May, strictly under cover as the soil is not yet warm enough outside. Set the plants outside towards the end of May. If you prefer to sow these beans directly, early June is perfect because they can grow strongly without being damaged from late cold weather.
From mid-May, we should have no more frosty nights. It’s then possible to set out plants of courgettes, squash, pumpkins, sweetcorn and even outdoor tomatoes. Celery and celeriac can go out too. In contrast, cucumbers need extra warmth and are best planted in June.
If you have been planting vegetables such as lettuce, beetroot, calabrese, summer-hearting cabbage, peas and coriander throughout April using fleece covers, they can come off by mid-May.
Module plants waiting to go out, often because of needing more warmth, can be kept happy by moving them to larger pots and pushing compost on top. Best results are from two gradual moves into slightly larger pots, rather than from one move into a much larger pot.
The extra work is because most plants, especially basil and cucumber, do not like sitting in large pots of moist compost. Too much moisture rots their roots and plants suddenly fall over, dead.
Keep your cucumber, melon and basil plants slightly dry. Even peppers and aubergines prefer it on the dry side, except in hot and sunny weather.