less work, healthier soil: no-dig gardening, with charles dowding
PROMISES OF LESS WORK with more garden productivity often raise my suspicions as perhaps sounding too good to be true, except when the subject is no-dig gardening. The no-dig method of caring for our vegetable beds, which Charles Dowding has popularized, is not just good for maximizing output while minimizing labor, but also of great benefit to the soil and the greater environment. I learned more about how to get started from Charles.
Charles Dowding is often called the guru of no-dig gardening, which he practices today in his organic market garden in Somerset, in South West England. He began experimenting with no-dig in 1982 and, over the years since, in his many books and in person and online teaching, including his massive YouTube channel, Charles has brought countless people into the no-dig fold.
His most recent book is “No Dig: Nurture Your Soil to Grow Better Vegetables With Low Effort,” about making and managing a vegetable garden without tilling.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of “No Dig” (affiliate link) by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the January 30, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
no-dig gardening, with charles dowding
Margaret: Welcome, Charles. I was delighted to find names of familiar heroes of mine among the people whom you credit as having provided you with early inspiration. And behind me, on the bookshelf, if you could see, are vintage copies of all of Ruth Stout’s books [laughter]. And I felt a me-too connection also when you wrote that you became a vegetarian decades ago, and how that led you to explore organic gardening. Me, too. So, yeah, so tell us: This has been a life path, yeah?
Charles: Yeah, very much so. Yeah, but I only got on it quite late it feels, like when I was at university I was 20, so it took me a while to get there.
Margaret: Yeah. So, often, the first task we have on the sort of to-do list for “as soon as the soil can be worked” is to till, as we say here, till, and … or otherwise turn the soil in our vegetable gardens, so we can sow our peas or lettuce or other cool-season things. But I thought, instead, you could, to start, maybe give us the short pitch in favor of no-dig, about adopting that practice, instead of turning the soil this coming season.
Charles: Yeah, well, actually, autumn is the time to begin, if any time, in terms of getting ready for spring. So, we aim to spread all the compost or whatever organic matter you’re using. For damp climates like here, particularly where slugs can be a problem, I find that compost gives best results. So, we put that on the beds, around an inch, before Christmas generally. And then, basically, the ground is prepped.
Then, what we do in the spring is, we go out with a hoe or a rake, just to tickle, very light disturbance of that surface matter, to break up lumps which frost will have opened up, if there were any lumps, and also, to disturb weed seedlings that might be germinating, if you have weed seeds in your compost, and it’s not a frightening thing. People do worry about that, I’ve noticed.
Charles: But if you catch them small, that lovely old saying we have in England, is “Hoe your weeds before you see them.” And that’s the ground prep in the spring. We also put a bit of wood chip on pathways, and basically that then all of the ground through the winter is covered or mulched. And if there’s any mild weather, the soil organisms carry on feeding, and it’s ready for spring. It’s very quick prep in the spring.
Margaret: Yeah. So, that’s a little bit of the ideal process, if we started last fall. And that’s what I always do. I topdress with compost in the fall before … when I’m closing up the garden for the year and so forth.
But what are the benefits? I said a couple of the things in the introduction briefly, but this method really has advantages, and so, the attraction to it has environmental attractions, but also … and it minimizes some of our workload. So, just give us that little sort of pitch of what it is that… why we would want to try this?
Charles: Yeah. The biggest one is time-saving, I reckon. The number of weeds which grow with no-dig is so many fewer than you get when soil is disturbed. And then, it’s so interesting to wonder why. So, you got no-dig’s soil left alone. It’s kind of calm. Here, in the UK, we have a saying, “Chickweed follows the rotovator.” I don’t know if you call it chickweed-
Margaret: We call them rototillers. And yes, we do have chickweed, Stellaria, yeah [laughter].
Charles: We share a language, but so many words are different. And then, so disturbed soil grows weeds. That’s the other way of looking at it. With no-dig, you really get few weeds. If you haven’t tried it yet, well, I reckon you’ll be amazed because your soil doesn’t … Why do weeds grow? So, weeds grow to heal soil of disturbance. They’re part of the recovery process, literally, in this case.
And then, other benefits of no-dig is actually you get improved drainage. It might seem, at first, counterintuitive, because people think, “Well, I’m digging, I’m rotovating, whatever. That will open up the soil and improve the drainage.” Actually no, because you’ve caused … You’ve got zones of different density, and you’ve fluffed up the top, but you haven’t changed the bottom. So, the water makes a capillary boundary or layer, when it trickles down through the top layer. And you actually end up with worse drainage.
So, with no-dig, it’s better drainage. It’s very even all the way down. I think you get better temperature rising as well because you haven’t broken the soil zones at all. We notice that I’ve got two trial beds here, and in the spring, the no-dig bed warms up more quickly. Or in the winter, sometimes, we’ll see the snow melting on the no-dig bed, but remaining on the dig bed, just for example. [Below, side-by-side trial beds, one dig and the other not, at Dowding’s garden.]
Margaret: Ooh, signs of life in it. It has signs. It’s got something living.
Margaret: It’s like underneath trees, underneath the big tree, the snow melts around the sort of inner root zone first, before it melts in the outside the perimeter of the tree.
Charles: Yeah, that’s very interesting, isn’t it? All the things that we could learn, just by watching. That’s one of the lovely things again about no-dig, is you’re not … you’re leaving it alone, and you’re not disturbing, so you can just look and see what’s going on.
When we’re watering, the water goes in more easily. We’ve got the organic matter on top. It holds moisture more better. We find that, again, with my trial beds, I can see that in the summer, like last year, it was really dry. I don’t water very much here. I’ve got a third of an acre of cropped beds. I’m selling a lot of vegetables, and I’ve just got one … a hose, me and a hose, because I just don’t need to water a huge amount.
Margaret: Yeah. So, let’s sort of dig in, ha ha, to the how-to a bit more. And you mentioned some of it earlier, but many of those listening to the program or reading the transcript, already have vegetable gardens, but they may be very well be starting the season, as I said earlier, by turning and tilling.
So, if we didn’t know this is what we want to start doing, and we didn’t apply or topdress with our compost in the fall, can we get started now in an established garden? And then, after that, let’s talk a little bit about first-timers, who maybe want to start a new bed. But yeah, how would we get started, if we didn’t do that topdressing in the fall?
Charles: Yeah, really straightforward, actually. You can start a no-dig bed or a no-dig garden at any time of year, and if it’s going to be, in this case, probably then early spring, so, you’ll go out, and the snow is melted, and you’ve got ground which may or may not have weeds. So, that’s the first step: to work out how you’re going to control the weeds, because you’re not going to turn them in or bash them around.
If there’s a lot of weeds, that’s where the cardboard can come in, just as a one-off. It’s not an every-year process. But often, you could hand-weed or lightly hoe, and then put some compost organic matter on the surface, and that is it, basically. There’s nothing complicated about this. What does no-dig mean? It’s just leaving the soil alone as much as possible and feeding the surface, so that the soil life does the work for us.
Margaret: So, compost, you’ve said a few times. And it struck me in reading the new book, “No Dig,” and some of your other books as well: When one is getting started—say, for instance, I didn’t have an established vegetable garden that I wanted to transition to no-dig practice, but I wanted to start a new bed or turn a bit of lawn into an additional bed or something.
The first time around, it seems like I’m going to need more of this compost. I’m going to need a little more than I will need in subsequent years for sort of the maintenance of an inch or so, topdressing, kind of, as I would call it. So, is that true? Is it in the first-
Charles: Yeah. Well, that’s what I’d recommend, anyway. You could start no-dig with just, say, an inch on top of existing soil, but it’ll be difficult, because you haven’t got that lovely depth of organic matter that’s really soft for pulling weeds out of and also for making your crops grow more.
The way I look at it is, it’s an investment, and actually buy some compost at the beginning, in that first year, to lift the fertility significantly of your plot, and that will carry you through many years to come as well.
So, yes, I’d recommend buying some compost. We use, actually, as much as 4 to 6 inches sometimes, on beds. Some people find, “Is that a lot?” I don’t think so actually, because we’re not using any other inputs. I’m not using any feed or fertilizers. I’m not using any slug pellets. I’m not using any herbicides. I don’t go into the store for anything, except for one initial dose of compost. And then, probably, you will find you can make enough for going forwards when you don’t need so much.
Charles: Sometimes, people say to me, “Well, I couldn’t do no-dig because I haven’t got enough compost.” Well, it needs a lot of compost.
And actually, that’s not true, but you might … It’s because of the way I present it, I think. Because I’m advising this higher amount at the beginning, which is basically, I think, just good gardening or good vegetable-growing. Vegetables really respond to a high organic matter in the soil.
And what we’re finding here with my dig, no-dig comparison beds, one I dig every December, and one I leave alone, and they both have the same amount of compost. What we find is, the bed I dig actually gives 10 percent and sometimes even more lower harvest compared to the no-dig, which means, for the same amount of compost, you’re getting less produce.
In other words, no-dig is really efficient way of using organic matter, and I think that’s because of keeping carbon in the soil and all those other great benefits.
Margaret: So, if I had a piece of lawn I wanted to transition, I could mark off my area, lay down the cardboard, put the 6 inches or so of compost for this first time. And again, that means I probably am going to have to … although you haven’t seen my compost heap, Charles, which is 40 feet long [laughter]. I’m a little bit of a madwoman over here with compost production.
But at any rate, so I’m going to need to do that. And then, how soon can I plant into that?
Charles: Yeah. This is another benefit of the 4-to-6-inch dose that you could plant… You could make a bed like that on the first of March in the morning, and you could plant, put your plants in on the first of March in the afternoon. You haven’t got to wait for the weeds underneath to die, because your new plants, or seeds, even current seeds, they’re going to start growing in the surface compost. And then, by the time they’re rooting at deeper levels, the cardboard will be decomposing, and the lawn weeds or whatever it is underneath the cardboard, will also be decomposing. And the soil will be opening up for receiving the roots of your new plants.
Margaret: Should it be moistened? Is that-
Charles: Well, yeah.
Margaret: Is there a watering stage, because I would imagine, you don’t want it to be sort of … repel the moisture or the …
Charles: It depends on the weather. If it’s a damp spring, then you won’t need to water, actually, because-
Charles: … you’re putting cardboard on damp soil. It very quickly softens and stays moist. But yeah, if it’s really dry, then give it a bit of water. That really helps.
If you use less compost, which is still possible, it just means that does increase the time before you can plant. And say, you put cardboard on your lawn, and then only 2 inches of compost, it’s just physically quite difficult to get a plants in the ground. But there’s not much compost to hold their roots before they hit the cardboard. So, that’s where that higher dose initially also comes in.
Margaret: Yeah. I was fascinated in the new book, looking at the index in the back, you don’t even have an entry for “cover crops,” which is sort of a hot thing here among organic vegetable gardeners and so forth, and has been among farmers for a long time: cover cropping, green manuring, growing a legume or a brassica or something, for a part of a year, and then turning it in, to improve tilth and fertility. And you don’t even cover that because you are doing this topdressing thing. You’re using the compost. Yes?
Charles: Yeah, absolutely. And I reckon I’m conserving my compost through no-dig, so I’m getting more value from the same amount of compost. And I reckon it’s better to crop a smaller area and do it more intensively.
So, I’m finding that compost, the 1 inch a year, on this soil anyway, gives enough fertility for two, even three crops, a year. So, we’re doing the second planting or sowing as more vegetables, not a cover crop. So, basically, gardens can be full of vegetables and, yet, you haven’t got time to sow a cover crop. When are you going to grow it? Because as soon as the onions are finished, we’re planting Savoy cabbages or whatever it might be. There’s literally no growing time for growing a cover crop or green manure, and we don’t need it, I find.
So, that’s why, it’s not exactly an omission, but it’s a very interesting debate to have because I think, I’m going to branch out a bit slightly differently here [laughter], but I think cover crop comes more from farming.
Charles: And I know this is language, again, but in the UK, farming and gardening are two different worlds that don’t overlap very much. And farmers are people who drive tractors, have herds of cows and sheep. And gardeners are people like us more, who are cropping fairly intensively smaller areas. And cover crop seems more appropriate and applicable, to me, for farmers.
Margaret: Yeah. So, you just kind of spoke to this a little bit, but I wanted to ask more. You talked about having one crop following another and so forth, and you don’t really preach sort of the resting the beds, or even crop rotation. You speak about this soil, that’s being cared for in this way, being able to stand up to and perform continuously and kind of intensively. Yeah?
Charles: Yeah. Well, this is what I’m finding, Margaret. The rapid replanting or even interplanting, which means you’re overlapping them. I’ll pop kale between my onions, for example. At first, you can hardly see the kale because the onions are finishing growing for about a month. And then you harvest the onions, and lo and behold, whoosh, the kale’s already got its roots down, and it grows away really fast.
And it’s what we’re learning. It’s related to your previous question, I feel, the cover crop, green manure thing, that one of the understandings in that is that you want roots in the soil or plants growing as much as possible of the growing season. In a way, the more roots you can have in there, the better, within reason [laughter].
And, so, that’s what the repeat planting and the very rapid replanting is doing. Yeah, I think it’s better for soil not to rest, actually. I think it wants, and the organisms in the soil is the way to look at it, I think that they want plant roots there all the time.
Margaret: Hmm. And, so, even in terms of the sort of crop rotations, if you’re growing tomatoes or other Solanaceous things, you grow them … You can grow one after another, year to year, or do you rotate that way, for pest and disease maintenance?
Charles: Well, again, really interesting question because, with no-dig, it seems that a lot of what we’ve taken as rules, become less important. There’s still truth in them, but rotation, from what I’m finding, is much less important than it’s been made out to be.
And, for example, I’m doing a trial. I’m always keen to, if I want to test something, well, I’ll try it out. And we’ve got now a piece of ground, where I’ve grown potatoes this spring. I planted them for the eighth year in a row in the same place. And I come from a farming background, where this was not the done thing. So-
Margaret: No, no. I know. That was a no-no.
Charles: I always ask myself: “What am I doing? I’m putting in potatoes in the same bit of ground, for the eighth spring in a row?” And I grow second-early, so that they’re harvested by mid-July. And then we can plant leeks after that. But every year, I’m doing potatoes, leeks, potatoes, leeks, in that same piece of ground.
And this year, which was the eighth year in a row of potatoes, we had the best crop ever. And it was super-healthy, and I’m saving my own potato seed as well, which, again, we’ve been told not to do.
So, yeah, I’m inclined to question things. I’d encourage your listeners to question a few things as well, not everything [laughter]. But it’s very healthy because it gets you involved and interested and curious, and being curious is a really good state to be in.
Margaret: Well, I think what you’re speaking to in all of these answers is that, if your soil is vibrantly alive, if it’s really healthy, if the whole, sort of, I don’t know if it’s a microbiome or what we would call it, but if that’s really teeming with life, and everybody in that community in the soil is doing its thing, some of the rules are not rules anymore, because the soil’s able to work that extra amount. Right? I mean, to provide the support.
Charles: Yeah, that’s a really nice summary. And, so, like in my book and my advice generally, what I’m wanting people to … the point I want them to get to is exactly that. And, so, that’s the advice I’m giving, how to start out. And that’s where the higher amount of compost comes in at the beginning, and then, just how to look after your soil going forwards.
Margaret: Are your beds always mounded up slightly? I should backtrack and say, I have, maybe 35 years ago, I built raised beds, so I garden in raised beds that I don’t till or turn, so mine would be an exception. But if they were not raised by walls, wooden walls or stone walls or whatever, do you always kind of slightly mound up the beds, relative to the path level? Or what do you recommend that way?
Charles: Not necessarily. I would say that’s only actually necessary if you’re on boggy ground for-
Charles: But otherwise, in dry weather, actually, it can be an advantage to be, not exactly level, but I like to have a slight mound. It partly helps to see where the beds are, and also because we’ve put a bit of wood chip in the pathway, and I don’t really want too much wood getting in the way of things that are happening on the beds among the vegetables. So, having the bed slightly raised helps. And that’s where putting on a higher dose of compost at the beginning comes in. It’s not mandatory to have them raised at all if you don’t want to.
Margaret: In the new book, you go into sort of a lot of crop-by-crop recommendations as well. This is a crazy gardener to crazy gardener [laughter], lifelong gardener to lifelong gardener question, is there something you’re particularly obsessed with or in love with? Is there a group of crops that’s your thing, Charles? Do you know what I mean?
Charles: I love Alliums, actually.
Charles: Out of all my vegetables, garlic is the favorite. I wouldn’t be without my garlic. I eat some every day. I eat a little bit of raw garlic in the morning.
Margaret: Hardneck or softneck? What kind of-
Charles: Well either, but do you know what we’ve been finding recently is the soft neck is more resistant to rust, or mainly because it crops a bit earlier in the summer, and then the hard neck catches rust. And I don’t know if it’s the same with you, but rust is becoming quite a problem here. And I’m hearing this from all over the world. I’ve been getting comments from New Zealand. Had a guy from a farmer from Uruguay asking me on Instagram, “What can you do about rust?” He said, “It’s just struck me for the first time.”
Margaret: Interesting. Yeah, so the Alliums, you like the Alliums?
Charles: I love the Alliums. And onions all the year around.
Margaret: Now, you’re much earlier. Your frost-free season and so forth is much different from a lot of the northern United States, where some or many of the listeners may be. For instance, my frost-free date isn’t until mid-May or later. And, so, even my early season crops wouldn’t go out until April, late March, or even mid-April, and so forth. But-
Charles: Margaret, there’s the thing there, which is my dates are quite similar to those, I think, actually because-
Charles: … my last frost date is 15th of May, even 16th.
Charles: But what we don’t have before that is loads of frost. So we’ve got quite, quite mild, temperate winters. And that’s where these numbers can be difficult to assign, can’t they? The zone numbers and that kind of thing, because they don’t give the whole picture. I’m Zone 8 here, officially, but so is Texas. The summers I get do not correlate with what happens in Texas.
Margaret: I’m a 5b, so I’m a-
Charles: You’re a 5b? Right. Well, that’s the same with Maryland, I believe, isn’t it, for example-
Margaret: No, I’m way up in New York, the middle of New York State. Yeah. So, I’m in … up the Hudson.
Charles: I only mention that because I know some people in Maryland. They came on a course here, actually. It was really nice to meet them and swap notes, and they can use the same planting dates as I suggest, just so you know.
Margaret: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So, I mean, everyone has to figure that out for themselves. And as you say, there can be even microclimates within the zones and so forth, or there are. What’s sort of underway there? Are you seeding a lot? Is it a lot of indoor seeding now?
Charles: Well, no, actually, I’ve found, over the years, that it’s just not worth starting too early. You can, in theory, but just … and you end up with plants that are too early for the conditions outside. So, I don’t start sowing until roughly the middle of February. I call it Valentine’s Day, love your garden, start in February. That just works.
It’s a nice time for sowing onions, spring onions, spinach, lettuce, coriander, early cabbage, early cauliflower, Calabrese broccoli, that kind of thing, all the frost-hardy plants. And then, I don’t sow tomatoes until roughly 20th March, even sometimes mid-March. And squash, cucumbers, and all of those, mid-April, actually. So, yeah.
Margaret: Right. Yes, you’re right. It’s similar, although I can have a lot harder frost where I am, in the early spring part, yeah.
Charles: Yeah, exactly. And I was just going to say, at the moment, we’ve got … I’ve got salad onions, spring greens outside, looking quite healthy, although we had 20 degrees Fahrenheit this morning. We do get frost, but it’s not hanging around perhaps quite as long as it does for you, I think.
Margaret: My parsley made it all winter this year because we’ve had a very mild winter, so I’ve been enjoying my big parsley plants all winter, picking off them. So, that’s been something that-
Charles: Isn’t it a wonderful winter herb? Yeah, I love parsley.
Margaret: Yeah, it is.
Charles: Coriander, too.
Margaret: It just feels like you can’t believe it’s the dead of winter when you have that flavor, that burst of flavor, in your mouth. It’s just amazing.
Charles: Yeah, exactly. And I think they’re sweeter. Do you notice that, with the cold.
Margaret: Totally. So, in the last couple minutes, I just wanted to just ask you about the foundation of a lot of what we’ve been talking about, which is compost, compost, compost. So, do you have any sort of tips for us, any advice for us? I saw, I think it might be in … Is it in the book or in the website? I’m not sure. You’re kind of layering your browns and greens, as we say, your carbon-rich materials and your nitrogen-rich materials.
Do you have any sort of advice for us? Because that’s the other thing, that once clean-up begins, people are going to be adding to their compost heap. And I’m afraid, I think people dump everything in big piles, individual ingredients, too much in one place, and so forth.
Charles: Well, I’m glad you asked that because, also, I mean I haven’t really defined compost, and I think it can be off-putting for beginners, like “What do you mean by compost even?” And for me, it’s anything decomposed. So, it might have been leaves even. We call it tree leaf mold. At the beginning, it might come from trees or plants or whatever, but it’s organic matter that is reasonably well-decomposed and not perfect.
I had a guy come on a course here, and he said, “I can’t make compost. I want to find out how to make it.”
And after he’d seen my compost heaps, which are not perfect, he said, “I’m doing all right.” [Laughter.]
So, it can be slightly lumpy, it’s a wooden … whatever. So, don’t worry about setting the bar too high. But yeah, as you say, don’t be too random about it, but you can’t be too scientific, either, because garden waste vary all the time. So, just be aware of some basic principles, like if you put in a lot of green leaves, and especially grass clippings, then you need to add some brown fibrous material, which could be paper or cardboard, but also, it could be tree leaves that you kept from the previous autumn, bits of woody prunings, that kind of thing.
During the winter, make sure you have a stock of what we call brown, which is the woody stuff, in small pieces, that you can add to your green, that you’re going to be putting a lot of in the summer. And that will help you to make more compost, of a high quality.
And we reckon to turn heaps once. I find that that’s enough; don’t do any more than that. But you don’t have to turn a compost heap. But if you can turn it once, I find that makes a worthwhile difference.
Margaret: Well, Charles Dowding, I’m so glad to connect. And I look forward to talking to you again. I mean, the YouTube channel alone is just such a treasure for so many, I would imagine, millions of people. So, thank you, thank you, for all the learning that we can do.
Charles: That’s lovely, Margaret. It’s been a great pleasure speaking with you.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the January 30, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).