Posts Tagged ‘No dig gardening’

Charles Dowding at Homeacres Back in spring last year I went to visit Charles Dowding on his well-established ‘No Dig’ farm in Somerset. I’d read his books on ‘No Dig’ gardening, packed full of useful advice and information, but it was wonderful to see first hand how well his vegetables (and fruit) were growing on soil that had never been dug over.

However, this year Charles has moved a few miles away to a new farm, Homeacres, and I popped by recently to see how all was progressing. I was amazed to see how well everything is growing only months after creating his new beds.

Charles has used a 50:50 mixture of well-rotted manure (broken down over about 18 months) and the council’s recycled green waste compost to grow in, building up the new beds on top of grass to approximately 6 inches high. These new areas have been contained and defined using scaffolding boards and netting has been used to keep off pesky badgers.

Charles admits that it takes a lot of effort to initially build up the fertility of his soil, and luckily he had a plentiful supply of well-rotted manure from his previous farm. He keeps a sharp eye on perennial weeds, such as couch grass, thistles, bind weed and buttercups, pulling these out  as they pop up through the newly composted beds, and eventually these will be weakened enough not to return. Charles Dowding in his greenhouse Apart from a few experimental areas, all his new beds (outside and in his greenhouse) are ‘No Dig’, never once disturbing the structure of the soil beneath the beds, and his lettuces and other veg have been growing impressively well this spring and summer. (more…)

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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!

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Thinking ahead for next year, it’s great to see what courses are out there that can add to your gardening knowledge. I’ve been intrigued for a while now about the ‘No dig’ system of gardening, where soil is improved by adding compost every year to beds but without digging it in. My back supports this idea very much as all the hard work is done by worms gradually working the compost into the soil. No digging also retains the structure of the soil and if you can add a couple of inches of compost each year, will help to reduce weeds too. Charles Dowding (above) is a great advocate of ‘No dig’ gardening and has been operating a successful veg growing business for twenty-nine years using this system. I’m hoping to attend one of his courses running at Great Dixter in February next year. As well as books about ‘No dig’ gardening, he’s also written about salad leaves for all seasons, and so ‘participants will also learn about the importance of sowing at the best time of year for each vegetable crop, to help minimise pests and maximise yield, and there’ ll also be the opportunity for discussion about planting by the moon and biodynamics’. Planting by the moon -another topic that I’ve always meant to investigate (but often wondered if planting by the moon would be possible with my sometimes rigid gardening schedule), so I’m really looking forward to attending the course and learning from an expert in his field.

If you can’t make the course in February, there are many courses at Great Dixter (above) throughout the year that will tempt you and Charles Dowding also runs courses from his farm in Somerset which are booking now for spring next year.

West Dean Gardens, nr Chichester in W.Sussex are offering some really interesting gardening courses for next year including ‘Training trees and shrubs’, ‘Designing your own garden’ and ‘The organic kitchen garden’ (and lots more), and it’s worth keeping an eye on The Garden Museum in London too as they’ll be introducing more talks and events for 2012 soon.

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