Throwing in the trowel

WHEN I first heard of ‘no-dig’ gardening, I felt a little unresolved, if not dubious about this seemingly laissez-faire approach.

How could one possibly sow and grow vegetables in heavy clay soil that has not been worked meticulously to provide the perfect tilth?

Well, I recommend a visit to the outstandingly pretty, yet practical, well-established, no dig gardens at Glebe House in Baltimore. It’s beautiful, dark, crumbly soil has definitely resolved all my no-digging doubts.

So how does it work in practice? No-dig gardening, sometimes referred to as lasagne gardening due to its layer approach, takes the most effort in the first year as some initial clearing and organic ingredients are required before you are up and not-digging. Keep in mind you are layering for the future and in subsequent years, things should become significantly easier.

No-dig works best if started in the autumn in a raised bed system with all perennial weeds such as docks, nettles and dandelions cleared. As always, thoroughness at the beginning will be amply rewarded later.

Level off the bed, loosen soil if there is compaction and knock out the largest lumps, but do not worry about making a fine tilth. Next comes a layer of cardboard, which should be soaked with water to help it rot. Follow this with several inches of well-rotted manure, garden compost, grass clippings or semi-rotted leaves, inter-mixed with layers of wet newspaper, cardboard or weed-free straw. These layers will keep earthworms active, who in turn draw the compost into the ground and incidentally aerate and break up the clods as they work. Some books will tell you to plant directly into your lasagne, but in reality, this is not good practice as the carbon-rich cardboard temporarily robs nitrogen as it decomposes, thus immobilising nutrients.

Other no-dig methods advise to simply place well-rotted manure or compost on top of the soil, prepared as above, and allow worms and other organisms to work on it for at least 3 months before sowing or planting.

This is worth starting now to have beds ready for pumpkin, courgette and other transplants later in the season.

Apart from cutting out labour intensive digging, no-dig methods preserve and enhance soil structure while allowing beneficial soil organisms to flourish in the stable conditions of an undisturbed habitat while they do the hard work for us.

Nutrient and moisture losses are also reduced, as is the need for weeding, as fewer weed seeds are brought to the surface.


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