Dig no more!

Nick Giannissis found Mervyn Hartwig’s feature about his ‘no-dig’ plot here. It set him off on an exploration of cyberspace, a journey he returned from last Spring to put some of the no-dig principles he found into practice on his own plot. In this feature Nick explains some of his newly-gained knowledge and shares some experiences from his first no-dig season:

In April last year, with time on my hands after a recent period of ill-health, I began thinking about how I would return my neglected plot to some kind of productive state. That was my thirteenth year as a member of RAA and a plot holder. As luck would have it, I saw the link to Mervyn’s ‘No-dig allotment’ on the RAA website and took a look out of curiosity.

Thanks to Mervyn for his article that sparked my interest at a time when I wasn’t even sure where to begin with the plot. Searching online for ‘no-dig’ returned heaps of results and, as I had the time, I ploughed through numerous articles, videos and blogs. I was keen to find out as much as I could as what I had stumbled across was something of a revelation.

Without a doubt, my no-dig guru is a guy called Charles Dowding (CD) and I began to adopt his organic, no-dig approach wholeheartedly. I’ve included a couple of links within this piece for you to take a look. He is not the only person out there with knowledge and advice but CD definitely knows his onions.The main principle behind an organic, no-dig approach is to maintain the structure, integrity, health and potential of the soil. By allowing nature to do the work we feed the soil and not the plants. We embrace and make the best use of natural processes and rhythms to achieve healthier plants growing in healthier soil.

When we stop digging and forking in manure, as counter-intuitive as it seems and feels we begin to make different and better use of our time. The time we save doing all that heavy and arduous working of the ground becomes time available to focus on organising, sowing, planting, protecting and cropping fruit and vegetables for great yields.

Additional time is also freed up because when we stop digging the soil we spend considerably less time weeding. Since I began my conversion and converting my plot to no-dig, I have been amazed at the minimal amount of time I need to spend weeding. Previously, I would spend a great deal of time struggling to keep ahead of perennial and annual weeds. Not any more.

My starting point, May 2018. The view of half of the plot after I had taken a strimmer to it and begun to remove very large weeds and couch grass in a couple of areas. At that time, despite what I had read about smothering weeds first, I was feeling very cautious based on my experience over the preceding thirteen years. Although I was adopting a no-dig approach I wanted to be double sure that the couch grass would not return by removing as much as I could by hand using a hand held fork. That would prove to be unneccesary later.

The other half of the plot is shown here. Incidentally, this area had been covered for about twelve months with one of those cheap, blue ‘tarpaulins’. I learned that those things can’t withstand exposure to the sun as it disintegrated as I tried to remove it – we learn as we go!

At the opposite end, towards the top of the picture, weeds included several stubborn docks which I tackled later using advice from CD.

As I have gradually converted growing areas to no-dig, I abandoned removing weeds by hand and stuck to the original advice about mulching and smothering weeds from CD. No need for the extra caution as I became more comfortable and confident that process would work.

No-dig beds: preparation, paths, planting and protection. It’s amazing how much free cardboard it is possible to source or find when you look. The local florist throws out long, narrow flower boxes at least twice a week. They were happy to hold these back for me to collect. New neighbours had an American style fridge delivered and they had no problem letting me take the huge box the fridge came in. I just needed to remove all packing tape and any staples or clips before laying the cardboard down.

Before adding the next layer of compost, I gave the card a thorough soaking. With the heat wave of 2018 I needed to get a move on because it soon began to dry out. Soaking the card first helps to begin the decomposition process once the compost is added. For these beds I bought organic, rotted manure from the RAA Stores. Forty litres is about a barrow full and cost £3.60 or thereabouts and I used four loads for the beds in this picture. I also learned that it is possible to order cubic metre or one tonne bulk bags from the Stores if you have the time, energy and money for that!

After spreading the manure/compost to create the two beds, I used wood chippings that are often delivered free up at the Peabody gate. Having pushed barrows of compost up from the stores, it was a little easier trundling barrows-full of chippings down from the top of the site.

Importantly, I decided from the outset to do away with wooden sides to all beds. The two main reasons are firstly, to reduce places for slugs and woodlice and secondly, because over time the beds would become self contained structures with the slow decomposition of the paths helping to support the soil structure.

After planting seedlings of beetroot, pak-choi, Japanese radish and Chinese cabbage with a mulch of ‘strulch’, the bed was covered with bird netting. Large stones placed into plastic pots helped to secure the netting.

Although I described how a no-dig approach means less time spent with the physical work of digging and forking, the initial setting up of new beds involves shifting a lot of rotted manure and compost. Trust me, it’s worth it as maintaining the allotment since then really is easier and more enjoyable due to the time that becomes available for other things on the plot:

At the time of writing and pulling this together, it’s January 2019 and I have continued to convert my plot to organic, no-dig. I’m about three quarters of the way there with other areas at different stages of preparation and forming into no-dig beds.

I’m learning all the time and I’ve rediscovered the pleasure and rewards of being a plot holder when I had given serious thought to giving up. My experience has moved away from being a continual challenge to keep on top of weeding, hours spent digging and forking the soil to more time available for planning, organising, composting, growing and enjoying the benefits of growing my own produce.

Dig no more. No-dig instead!

© Nick Giannissis, January 2019. Here’s this feature as a pdf for those of you who would prefer a print to read at their plot.

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