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