Friday 22 February 2013

Catching up. No dig: the story so far

When I plucked up courage and started to blog we discussed several titles. None were satisfactory. Brenda suggested that what defined me as a gardener was the fact that I almost never cultivate the soil. As a consequence of my passionate interest in healthy soil and minimum cultivation, I am able to manage large wildlife-rich areas of garden (five acres) to grow thousands of plants - many rare- in a natural manner. I also wanted to pass on the methods I use in my cemetery gardens. I am proud that I created and maintained the once famous Bolton Percy cemetery garden in little more than one hour a week and have continued to maintain it for the past forty years.

I have not yet run out of issues to discuss in my parallel series, ‘Reasons not to dig’ and ‘Why gardeners dig’, but perhaps it is time to summarise and link back to what has been said so far. My posts are rather fluid as to my definition of digging. Sometimes I refer to pure traditional digging, at other times I discuss other deep cultivations such as forking and rotavation
I acknowledge that we gardeners sometimes need to disturb the soil. My fundamental message is that minimum cultivation techniques are best and that contrary to a common opinion that cultivation improves the soil, the opposite is true.The less the soil is disturbed the better it will be. New readers, who quite rightly, associate me with the use of glyphosate, will perhaps be surprised that I fully endorse the proper use of the hoe.
An old fashioned dutch hoe can be use to sever weeds from the ground. But no ‘fluffing up’ please. Note the straight-through action of hoe with no upturned leading edge

Reasons not to dig Why minimum cultivation is best
Bulbs can naturalise in none dug beds

  • Uncultivated soil has a beautiful structure. There is structure at the micro-level, which goes right up to the macro-structure of the whole soil profile. Such a profile is interlaced with connections and channels that provide  aeration, drainage and root penetration going down to considerable depth. Such soil is a living ecosystem for life. 
  • One cultivation creates the need for another. I have not emphasized this enough. When the natural structure is ripped apart, natural processes need to start again. Exposed loosened soil is subject to slaking down in rain, damage by compaction and erosion by both wind and water. Sometimes plough and rotavator compacted pans are so severe that even the none digger might need to dig once in a new garden! Those who cultivate too much are like junkies stumbling from one fix to the next.
  • Clay soils benefit most.The damage to clay soils by cultivation is so great that the soil profile either becomes a structure-less rock in summer or a  wet sloppy mess in winter. The only way out is to cultivate again! It will take a year or two to break out of this vicious cycle but the benefits are huge.
  • Weed control becomes easy. Weed seeds buried in soil might survive for a hundred years. Provided they are not brought to the surface they will remain dormant, After a year or two of preventing weeds seed, surface weed seeds will work out of the system. Apart from time-saving considerations this enables broadcast sowing and self seeding of desirable plants.
  • You can walk on the soil when wet. Because an uncultivated soil is settled and cohesive it will not easily sustain damage when subjected to foot pressure. It is not compacted as you will invariably be told. Compaction is what happens to cultivated soil when wet. In contrast to normal practice I rush out to plant and sow after heavy rain. I always invite garden visitors to walk on my soil to inspect plants.
  • It saves hard work and time. 

Bolton Percy soil is firm and settled but not compacted
Weed free conditions enable winter aconite to self seed
Note the soil brought to the surface by worms

  • There is more life in soil undisturbed by cultivation. More worms and very significantly more mycorrhiza. Gardeners are stilling learning about the benefits of arbuscular fungi which produce glomalin, a hugely important agent in soil formation.
  • Intrusive cultivation oxidizes organic matter away. In none dug gardens the soil frequently become black! I get carried away in my enthusiasm to emphasis how soils become rich in organic matter merely by recycling organic matter naturally produced in situ by photosynthesis. As a result of this prejudice, I have so far failed to emphasize how plots can be speedily converted to no-dig by an extremely thick mulch of well rotted manure or garden compost. Beware however of quick-fix additives frequently found in the trade.
  • In beds and borders cultivation can damage or kill plants. A feature of my own gardens is that plants are healthy.
You might not like the liverwort
Put a mulch over and ensure the soil is undisturbed

It is sometimes necessary to disturb the soil
Healthy sweetcorn


  1. might convert you yet then, Sue. Why not have a little trial?

    1. I don't think that Martyn would be convinced and he is the digger!

  2. I must say, I was thoroughly intrigued Roger. You know how to get those little grey cells working!
    I will admit to knocking the heads of weeds - I find it quite therapeutic! but must also admit to fluffing the soil up in places too!
    I'd be quite willing to give this a wee go on part of the garden. At the moment I've a half empty border (flooded last year) and lost a few plants.
    I planted a few supermarket Astilbes to see how they fare - but have not touched the ground since autumn, as I've been leaving it to see what comes back. Would I simply just mulch with some well rotted manure (I don't compost)or do I need to put some goodness back into the soil?

    1. I have read about your astilbes on your blog. I can't quite answer your question as I have not seen your soil. With my own methods I prefer for my organic matter to build up naturally and rather step back from bringing it in from elsewhere. If you are just starting 'no dig' the well rotted manure as a mulch will be superb - except for the wretched weed seeds it will contain. It must be very well rotted to go around the astilbes!
      Like you I do not have a regular compost heap as I strive to directly recycle ALL my organic matter. (You might occasionally see a short term heap of debris on my veg plot!)

    2. Thanks for answering my questions Roger - much appreciated. Yes, difficult to comment without seeing my soil, I should have thought of that :)
      I'm sure that within the next few weeks all that is going to appear will appear and I want to plant a Cornus to replace the Cotinus in the border. Once I've done that I can mulch and leave. Thanks again.

  3. I very rarely dig. The main exception is when I am planting, removing, or dividing plants. I assume you feel such exceptions are necessary?

    1. Oh yes, Jason I agree absolutely. (What I mean is I am prepared to disturb the soil to do these things-if you mean by digging, turning over the soil and reworking it, the answer is no!) If you have followed my why-dig series there are a number of other circumstances where I might disturb the soil and more to come! As I have said in today's post I am fairly flexible in my interpretation of digging.

    2. After further reflection Jason I think your excellent question deserves a better answer. After all the operations you mention are quite fundamental to everything I do. Indeed the answer deserves two separate posts!
      I disturb the soil to do these operations, but minimally. The picture on this post of my cuttings is of about a square metre and you can see the soil is quite disturbed as I have slit them in side by side!
      My methods vary with circumstances. Where possible with young plants I just slit them in or make a small hole. With division I might have to lift out clump to pull it apart although quite frequently I will just slice out a piece and replant. I rarely remove a dead plant but just cut it off at ground level with secateurs, hedge trimmers or even a saw! Any dead roots are a precious source of organic matter.
      Just a further couple of examples. I scratch out a seed-drill with any handy tool such as a stick, trowel or spade. I plant potatoes by using a spade and levering up an otherwise piece of undisturbed soil and hooking in a seed potato with my other hand - very quick and easy.

  4. Interesting post and I agree with you. I never dig in my borders. But the vegetable area? I do dig this part of the garden, may be it is not necessary ?

    1. If you retrace some of my previous posts you will certainly find I believe digging of vegetable borders is quite unnecessary and have not done so myself for forty years- in different places and on different soils. I am however less of a zealot about this than you might think. Gardeners who use more conventional digging regimes with all their attendant skills will often get quite superb results. There are lots of different methods of achieving success in gardening and if you change to no-dig in your vegetable garden it is necessary to amend your other growing techniques too.

  5. Hello Roger - I like your style of gardening! I hardly every dig, unless to plant something, or dig up something to move.

  6. Hi Roger, Great info thank you have signed up for further installments.
    Wanted to mention the link to The Chicken Whisperer is out on your site

  7. Wow wonderful reading and so interesting thank you jl

    1. Thanks for the compliment Julia. I hope you like the rest of my 207 posts!

  8. I am color blind. It is almost impossible to read this with the flowers in the way.


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