Mervyn’s ‘no-dig’ allotment

We’ve had enquiries in the Stores about ‘no-dig’ growing. At Rosendale Allotments we have several members who cultivate crops on their plots in this way, and we are very pleased Mervyn Hartwig of plot 162 has written a feature about his own ‘no-dig’ method to share here with us all.

Please note. There are six steps to Mervyn’s no-dig method but you don’t have to complete each step before moving to the next. The idea is to work at a number simultaneously.

1Dig the beds. Apportion your plot into four foot beds, leaving a path of about eighteen inches between and around them, and dig the beds. This is the last time you should dig them. Of course, you’ll need to dig potatoes etc., but ease them out without turning the soil over. The idea is to disturb the soil as little as possible. Never walk on the beds again; if you have to go on them, use a plank. If your plot is on a slope, run the beds and paths between them across the slope to minimize erosion.


2Dig the trenches. Dig a trench of a spade’s depth and width right around your allotment and between the beds, throwing the soil up onto the beds, more or less like this (the lines = the trenches, the space between = the beds):

3Defend against couch grass etc. Line the outer side of the trench that goes right around with something to prevent couch grass, bind weed etc. from getting in. I’ve taken to using sawn up discarded real estate agents’ signs and other heavy-duty plastic, because it lasts. But you can use wodges of newspaper, cardboard etc. if you’re prepared to replace it after nine months or so.

4Fill the trenches with best Queen’s manure (stable sweepings). Actually, I use any organic material that’s available: kitchen refuse, leaves, woodchips (preferably radial ones, ie. with plenty of leaves), etc. (Hereafter any or all these things or their result = compost).

Although woodchips are beneficial over the longer term, in the shorter term they deplete the soil of nitrogen, so if you use them you need to top up nitrogen levels by other means; chicken pellets are a good source of nitrogen.

5Use the filled trenches as paths. The trenches filled with compost are now your paths; don’t walk on anything else without using a plank. Walking on the paths can be a bit wobbly, but you can tread them firmer or put some planks on them (worms breed like crazy under planks). As the material in the trenches composts (and the path sinks), top it up.

6Spade the compost up onto the beds and refill the trenches. When the material in a trench is composted, spade it up onto the beds, and refill the trench with fresh compost; repeat indefinitely. Plant into the compost on top of the beds, don’t dig; I use a heavy rake to make a row for seeds and seedlings; use a dibbler if necessary for seedlings, potatoes, etc. – I’m increasingly finding that I can just use my bare hands. Pplant intensively and not necessarily in rows, minimizing the possible space for airborne seeds from weeds and grasses. Keep the soil covered with compost (worms etc. will drag it down). Use compost from the trenches to hill potatoes, etc.; if it goes on top of the soil when plants are established, it doesn’t matter if it’s not fully rotted.

Some benefits. A big increase in productivity, at least 100% increase in productivity from a given area above what I achieved using traditional methods. Every square inch is utilised and no-dig lends itself to successive sowings and a shorter rotation cycle.

You can round the beds up into a curve over the years, creating more surface area turns your whole plot into a worm farm and a paradise for other creepy crawlies and zillions of micro-organisms. All this seething life helps to keep the soil healthy and both creates and turns itself into humus and builds up topsoil (clay was showing everywhere at less than spade depth on my plot ten years ago, now there’s no sign of it). Millions of worms do the digging – the only digging you do is spading up the compost from the trenches and easing potatoes etc. out of the ground (don’t turn the soil over).

Minimal digging keeps the carbon locked up in the soil where it should be, minimizes erosion, protects all the living creatures in the soil, and generally makes for sustainable high-productivity gardening.

I make an exception to no-dig in the case of pumpkins, squash and baby marrow; here I follow the British-Caribbean method of digging pits in autumn, filling them with compost, covering them with soil and marking the spot to be planted into in spring. But pumpkins etc. can of course be planted into compost heaps, which involves no digging, and I’m watching my friend Tony’s experiment, planting them in April into a ten inch layer of well rotted horse manure on top of hot compost, with great interest!

The compost in the trenches and on top of the soil helps to keep the beds moist, minimising watering. No-dig makes it much easier to keep the beds weed- and grass-free. It takes a lot of work to dig the trenches initially, but when that’s done, gardening becomes a lot easier.

Some things continue as with traditional digging methods: eg. I lime all the beds annually except where I’m going to plant root crops; I use ash and soot as a source of potash, etc.

Disadvantage. If everyone adopted this method, there probably wouldn’t be enough organic matter to go around! This notwithstanding the wonders wrought by Marco and Sophia in increasing the supply of both stable sweepings and woodchips. But I think there are probably still untapped supplies out there.

Viewing. Do come and have a look at my plot (162) if you want.

© Mervyn Hartwig, April 2016