I’ve been looking forward for ages to this course and Mr. Dowding and his ‘no dig’ farm did not disappoint. Growing in just under an acre, Charles Dowding makes £30,000 a year selling salad leaves to local customers within a 4 mile radius of his farm. Very impressive!
All organically grown, successional crops of salad leaves, pea shoots and herbs can be picked all year round. With thoughtful planning, some beds will be able to produce three crops within one year. Seeds, such as endives, ‘Grenoble Red’ lettuce,
‘Red Frills’ and ‘Green in Snow’ mustard leaves are sown in September, planted out in polytunnels in October and are still cropping in April. Only outer leaves are picked, allowing the rest of the plant to continue to grow.
Charles Dowding uses no liquid or indeed pelleted feeds, but believes adding well-rotted manure or compost to the soil in between crops is enough to keep the soil in good health. By adding organic matter on top of the nutrient rich clay soil, the undug soil below retains its structure and vigilant weeding in the beds and paths provides immaculate conditions for veg to grow in.
I and fellow course attendees were encouraged to tread o the firm soil, safe in the knowledge that we would not be compacting this precious structure beneath.
As we were introduced to different production areas on the farm, I was amazed at how this small greenhouse provided enough space to start off most plants for the outside beds and two large polytunnels. Seeds are pricked out when very small into multi modular trays and kept on a heated bench for a month in February and March to produce small but strong and healthy seedlings.
Charles Dowding says he can have up to 1,500 tiny seedlings growing in his greenhouse at one time! Having a heated propagator or two at home is great, but after a couple of weeks, light levels by windows just aren’t high enough and seedlings will become leggy. Unfortunately, unless you too have a greenhouse, this type of production becomes impossible to achieve.
Having said that, these tiny modules are a revelation, and no longer will I be pricking out/potting on to such space greedy 3 inch pots.
Now every grower seems to have a bete noir in the vegetable world, and mine is beetroot. Others seem to find this the easiest of veg to grow, but for some reason I always struggle to get a decent crop. I was therefore relieved to hear that Mr. Dowding doesn’t have much success with sowing into the ground either and always starts his beetroot seeds in modules. Off to do the same as soon as this post is written!
In the outdoor beds, newly planted out leaves and other veg are all covered in horticultural fleece, not only to protect from the cold nights and wind, but also to keep pests such as rabbits, badgers and rats at bay. My urban pests, foxes and cats, are equally destructive and this duel purpose covering seems a great practice to adopt to get your veg off to a flying start.
Charles was very generous in sharing results of his many experimental practices throughout the day. On a grassy area in between apple trees, cardboard was used to cover and weaken grass for a few months. Potatoes were planted directly on top on the yellowing grass, NO DIGGING, and then well-rotted manure heaped on top. The result was plenty of potatoes! As long a 5 or 6 inches layer of soil/compost or well-rotten manure is placed on top of grass, Charles explains that planting directly on top of grass should be not be a problem, even experimenting this year with a recently constructed 6 inch raised bed for ‘Early Nantes’ carrots on top of grass. Curious to know what will happen there!
Charles Dowding is now well-known for practising and writing about the no dig gardening system and has perfected this art as well as his veg growing knowledge over many years to develop a very successful salad growing business. I picked up many growing tips during the day and will try to put some of these ideas into practise during the rest of the year. Sowing mustard leaves and hardy lettuces in August and September for winter leaves is definitely on my list, and although not a possessor of a polytunnel, I’ll be eager to see if these leaves survive outdoors in our urban climate. If I’ve learnt one thing from Mr. Dowding, it’s that it’s always worth experimenting!
Courses run on his Somerset farm throughout the summer. Well worth making the trip!