We haven’t had any rain for the past 3 months here in London and this has resulted in the earth being extremely hard to penetrate. Not wanting to lose any growing time I thought I would turn an area of the garden over to ‘no dig’.
Nearly 10 years ago I interviewed a man very few people had heard about on social media. His name is Charles Dowding and he is the UK pioneer of the ‘no dig’ method. Since then his fame has grown and along with his gardening methods they have both become very well known throughout the gardening scene here in the UK. In the USA and Canada he is similar to the earlier pioneer of no dig (no till), Ruth Stott.
What is No Dig Gardening?
No dig gardening is exactly that, a method of gardening where you don’t dig the soil. On top of a weedy patch of earth you place layers of cardboard, this will help suppress the weeds and exclude light getting to them so over time they weaken and die. On top of the cardboard you put a few inches of compost and in this you sow your seeds and plant.
Where to get compost for No Dig Gardening
Ideally you would use your own homemade compost but in the beginning it’s a case of chicken and egg. You can’t make compost if you aren’t growing anything. In my situation I bought in a ton of organic compost mixed with top soil. Being in London this wasn’t cheap but the best supplier I could find cost £49 per ton and £15 for delivery. Search on google for local bulk soil delivery. This was by far the cheapest way so I ordered 1 ton and it arrived a week later to my allotment site gate.
How to start No Dig Gardening?
Prior to the compost/top soil arriving I walked over the area I wanted to develop and removed any large bricks/stones, old plant pots and pieces of wood. I didn’t cut the grass first, I thought this would spur it into making new growth so I just left it as it was (see picture above). On top of the grass I placed layers of cardboard which I had sources from a local cycle shop, they are nice large pieces of thick cardboard. I laid these of top, making sure to double up where two pieces would meet each other. I also layered the adjacent path with cardboard. From experience I learnt that if you are too strict with only keeping the cardboard on the growing area then weeds and grass will creep back in from the path.
Once the area was covered with cardboard I then placed woodchips down to mark out the paths. Our site gets free woodchips from the local tree surgeon who drops it off every few weeks. I didn’t make the beds too wide as I want something which is comfortable to sit down on the path and work the beds without stretching too far.
Along with help from my plot neighbour Paul, we barrowed the compost/top soil and placed it between the woodchip paths. Having help certainly makes the task get done much quicker so it wasn’t long before all the compost/top soil had been moved to my allotment.
Once all the materials were on the ground I watered the entire area so that everything would settle down. Once the water had soaked away I slowly walked over the paths to firm them down and went over the compost/top soil beds with the back of a rake in order to level and firm the areas.
By the time Paul has gone home I was exhausted so after a well earned cup of tea I sat back and smiled at how beautiful this area is now looking. At the moment I’m not sure what crops I’ll grow here, maybe some carrots and parsnips, but that’s for another day.
No Dig v Weed Membrane
I admit that buying in a ton of compost is expensive. I remember back in the 1990s a new product came onto my gardening radar, weed membrane. Like everyone else at the time I bought some and put it down in my garden. Within a few weeks I found that weeds still came through the woven plastic sheeting and wasn’t any good at all. So for me I haven’t spoken very highly of the stuff since. But in recent years I’ve seen more plot holders using it and they seem to have great results.
Around 10 years ago I tried again with it. I pegged it down and made slits where I planted crops through, straight into the soil. On top of the membrane I scattered some woodchips to make it look nice. Experience now tells me this was the wrong thing to do. You see the woodchips over time do keep the weeds down but it slowly turns into compost itself. Then into this new compost weed seeds can take a hold and in no time you’ve got weeds again but with the added problem of them being difficult to remove because the weed membrane is underneath. You end up with thin strings of plastic clogging up your garden tools and it gets so frustrating you end up ripping the whole lot up and having to start again.
Next to my new no dig bed there is another large area of earth. Here I want to grow my Winter Squash and decided to give weed membrane another change but this time I won’t be covering it with woodchip but leaving it exposed. Research conducted by Which? Gardening magazine concluded that exposed weed membrane helps to reflect light back under the plants and retains heat in the soil which is slowly released as the evening temperatures drop. Ok, it doesn’t look good in the early days but hopefully the Winter Squash will love this new home and in no time at all their big leaves will cover the area to hide the black plastic beneath.
So here I am, sat outside my shed with the radio quietly playing in the background and the birds chirping their own evening musical melodies as I look out upon two large areas of the garden which are ready for planting. What a glorious day it has been. Time for another cup of tea me thinks.