Thursday 25 October 2012

Converting to a no dig system

You don’t just stop digging!

I am delighted some gardeners are now considering stopping digging. Perhaps I might review some of the most important advantages that I have discussed so far.
  • significant reduction in time and effort.
  • access to the soil in wet weather.
  • it is more natural than cultivation and encourages wildlife within and above the soil.
  • plants will be healthier, far healthier and sometimes when no dig is practiced in permanent borders it may be the difference between a plants’ life or death.
  • as the years pass weed control becomes much easier.

There will be more worms for him!
I am absolutely convinced that deep cultivation amongst established plants is very bad practice. I am more relaxed about digging in the vegetable garden. Personally I am very keen on the merits of ‘no dig’ in the vegetable garden, but am happy to concede that skilled practitioners in traditional systems will achieve equal and, in some cases, better results.

Making the change

I would like to point out that if you take up ‘no dig’ you will have to be patient and make some changes to your gardening philosophy.
  • Some benefits of ‘no dig’ occur straight away, others improve with time and continue to increase for many years.
  • Many cultivations ‘sow the seed’ of the need for the next cultivation. The first cultivation might give short term benefit but long term harm. These ill effects take some time to be worked out of the system.
  • You have to change your perception of a healthy soil.
  • You must rid yourself of myths and notions about aerating the soil. Yes, cultivation will aerate it, but with unfortunate consequences.
  • Your weed control needs to be excellent. Do not let weeds seed. Eliminate perennial weeds at the very start: constant forking-out of weed roots is as bad as digging! This advice might daunt you, but as time passes weed control becomes swift and easy. 
  • Dug soil in ornamental borders slakes down with rainfall and in dry conditions becomes hard. This makes it appear necessary to dig again to undo the damage. It’s like a junkie needing another fix. ‘Cold turkey’ is often needed. It might come in the form of a surface mulch such as bark or garden compost.

A mulch will start to undo the 
damage done by previous digging
You do not need to use glyphosate but it certainly helps

I have expressed my own philosophy in the post ‘Batting for glyphosate’.

It is possible to eliminate perennial weed by non chemical methods. Organic gardeners do it all the time and it’s hard work. Go to Charles Dowding’s wonderful organic no-dig site to find out how to do it. It sometimes involves the successful use old carpets, plastic mulches and newspaper.

Allotment gardeners frequently tell you about old carpets ‘wick with wicken’ (couch grass) and other perennial weeds. They are usually on abandoned plots of would-be organic gardeners! I must admit, I cannot understand anyone refusing to use glyphosate when they use environmentally suspect polythene. Newspapers? I am, myself, keen on the many garden uses of newspaper and recycle all of ours this way.


  1. No one is sure who started the no-dig revolution, but many attribute Australian, Esther Deans, a writer and conservationist who outlined a method of heavy mulching over newspaper to prepare garden beds for planting. Others insist the invention of no-dig gardening belongs to the Japanese microbiologist, Masanobu Fukuoka. His book, The One-Straw Revolution, advocates a similar method of natural soil building.

    1. In the United States, the origins of the no-till method are more often attributed to Ruth Stout. She advocated fighting weeds and improving soil condition by piling on a mulch of straw, pine straw, leaves, and compost.

    2. My own interest in minimum cultivation systems emerged from the early research 50 years ago on the use of herbicides in commercial horticulture. Herbicides were starting to become available at that time. The question was that as it had become possible to control weeds without soil cultivation, was there any longer a need to cultivate at all? Much to the surprise of many the answer was 'no there is not'. It took soil science text books 30 years to catch up the numerous advantages of no-til methods.Thanks Sonja and Maryanne for some of the early history of no dig.Many innovative ideas on soil management have come out of Japan. A book that had a great early influence on me was written by a Japanese rice grower! I dearly wish I had details of the book now.

    3. I agree that herbicides, glyphosate in particular, has popularised the no-till method. As previously mentioned on your blog, there is certainly an unresolved worry about surfactants added to the formulation, but it is still the easiest form of weed control. As indeed, is mulch. My personal preference is shredded wood (untreated!). It provides lots of carbon as well as many other minerals, and decomposes slowly over time.

    4. I suddenly feel a little embarrassed. I think the book I have just mentioned might have been 'The Straw Revolution!
      And sorry Maryann for not spelling your name correctly!

    5. I've been called worse!

      It's a wonderful book. The New York Review of books calls it Zen and the Art of Farming.

      If you go to this link, you can read it as a PDF file.

    6. Sorry I have not thanked you for this Maryann. Its going to be a great read.

    7. I have now read Fukuoka's Straw Revolution which is a 'must read' for any no digger. I can now see that he has influenced my thinking much more than I remembered.It must be an earlier book I read as I can date it precisely to 1961. It gave more detail of his methods and a little less about his despair about the agribusiness complex.
      I share with him the fact that I have 'tested to destruction' so many established horticultural ideas that I have had many of my own gardening disasters!
      My own ire with 'the establishment' concerns healthy food. Since the disastrous 1970 'Seven Country Trial' there is an entrenched position, pro sugar/anti-fat, cemented by unholy alliances of the food industry, big pharma and the week-kneed health establishment . The latter seems to respond to dubious well funded research from industry and little to less well funded and promoted independent
      research with no lobbying power.

    8. I have an old copy of The One-Straw Revolution that I picked up when I first started out on the path of self sufficiency. Those were the days when it was deeply unfashionable! Along with John Seymour, it's the one book that I wouldn't be without.

    9. The only one of Fukuoka's books published in English prior to 1975 was The God Revolution. Trying to get hold of it is impossible - it's like hen's teeth!

    10. Thanks Rick for the mention of John Seymour. That's more reading up I need to do. They do say you can judge a person by his/her bookshelf!
      When I looked Seymour up in Wiki I see he was a Wye College student. I was there too.

      And thanks Jerry about that book. I seem to remember that my original reading was a book that had not been published in the UK or USA.

  2. There are two main weapons in the toolkit for those on soils like clay. The application of a really thick mulch – at least 12 inches, is the first. The earthworms will do most of your tilling for you with a thick mulch. The other thing is to plant a soil-busting cover crop – Daikon radish (sometimes called mooli) is brilliant for this.

    1. Oscar Jensen, Wisley26 October 2012 at 14:05

      Any mulch must contain enough fresh ‘green’ clippings or other sources of nitrogen to supply decomposition micro-organisms, or it will temporarily rob the soil of nitrogen. (As plants begin to fruit, nitrogen should not be added.) Grass clippings are an excellent mulch. Hay is also a good mulching material but can introduce weed seeds. Straw is better. It’s a good source of carbon.

    2. It's interesting that a mulch on the surface can rob the soil below of nitrogen. I believe it is at least in part explained by nitrogen being drawn up by fungal hyphae.

    3. Random reply from me on this old blog!

      I'm struggling to understand denitrification. I found this chart which explains the nitrogen cycle very nicely. But I can't see where robbing the soil of nitrogen comes into it. According to the chart, nitrates either undergo assimilation by plants or denitrification by bacteria. Would that not mean it is just a race between the plant and the bacteria already in the soil to grab the nitrates?

      I'm sure it is more complicated than this. Otherwise these naughty bacteria would eat up all the nitrates in the compost bin, leaving nothing for the garden plants. Roger, you might have to expand on your fungal theory. Do fungi use much nitrogen?

      I've read that fungi can break down lignin, whereas bacteria aren't so good at doing this. Might this have anything to do with us burying wood and newspaper, and there is more going on than just it's capacity to hold water? I often read comments that 'burying wood will deplete the soil of nitrogen' and wonder if it's true or just a myth. Wood is low in nitrogen, and perhaps it's fungi not bacteria that are breaking down the wood, so the whole process might be entirely different from that going on in the compost pile.

      Oh dear, looks like I've been thinking too much again.......

    4. As I understand it Sue, fresh organic matter decay starts with many organisms including many different bacteria and fungi. As decay progresses, the end phases for nitrogen rich material include ammonification to inorganic ammonium compounds and ammonium ions. Nitrification by nitrifying bacteria converts ammonium to nitrate (via nitrite).
      En passant I might mention that when you add ammonium fertilisers its ammonia too is usually nitrified before plant absorption. As ammonium ions are positive charged they are held by clay and organic matter until they are nitrified. This process is slow in winter and leaching of nitrogen in this form is not as great as I have suggested for nitrate. Useful.

      Denitrification is the loss of soil nitrogen back to the air as ammonia gas and nitrogen. It is most rapid in anaerobic conditions. I know your soil Sue, is not very well drained but I don’t expect you will lose as much nitrogen to this as you will to leaching!

      Nitrogen fixation is a very important process but is more of a challenge to we amateur scientists to explain. I was initially confused myself by your chart about this.

      Yes if soil organic materials are short of nitrogen, then bacteria and some decay fungi do rob the soil to compensate. It is usually small and can be ignored or adjusted by a little fertiliser.
      My buried newspaper or in other gardens, peat decay so slowly that nitrogen loss is completely negligible. I was reading today an article by a hugelkultur gardener that buried wood depletes the soil less than the literature suggests. And of course this depletion is only temporary.

    5. Thanks Roger. I'm following you happily until the last paragraph. I just don't get this 'robbing the soil' thing, but I think I was looking in the wrong bit of the cycle. Perhaps what happens is that there is a reduction in 'available' nitrogen, i.e. nitrates, and not that the nitrogen has gone awol into the atmoshere. That would explain why you say it is only temporary. I'm just curious to know what that process is. So that the next time I read 'it will deplete nitrogen' I know what is fact and what is fiction.

      Time will tell if leaching will be a problem for my garden, I'm too much of a beginner to worry about that yet! It was a problem for the pond receiving it, but I removed the blanket weed a few times and then it sorted itself out. Denitrified perhaps.

    6. I am actually telling you porkies Sarah, well drained soil will leach more a poor drained one!
      Think of decomposition as an overall process, don't worry which bacteria are involved, there are very many!
      Most require a ratio of about 20 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen to work. if they do not have enough nitrogen they take it from where they can and rob the soil.
      It is temporary because at the end of the overall process nitrification releases nitrate!
      If their is too much nitrogen e.g. in chicken droppings, ammonia gas is released!
      As to your pond, peats classically form because of lack of oxygen that prevents overall decay occurring.
      Its a bit complicated!

  3. Great blog. The Permaculture movement, a world-wide organization, has always promoted natural gardening or no-dig techniques.

    1. Agree. No-dig very good for sustainable gardening.

    2. Thanks for the compliment CJB. I have left a link on your Facebook page

  4. Thanks for your comment 晴菜, 遥菜, 春菜. Its great to know someone is reading my blog in your country.

  5. Since my garden is almost all ornamental, I guess I stopped digging a long time ago. Though I don't really dig up even my tomato and herb patch - just layer on the compost.

  6. I have not needed to convert you Jason!!


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