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Throw Away that Spade

This week I left the hustle and bustle of London and headed to the quiet countryside of Somerset. After enjoying an evening meal and restful night at The Manor House in the beautiful village of Ditcheat, I headed off to visit Charles Dowding.

Over the past 30 years Charles has pioneered the method of producing vegetables, fruit and herbs by using a technique called “No Dig”. A concept where you stop digging the ground and change your approach to gardening.

“Don’t let the weeds get the upper hand.” Charles Dowding

His cottage, Homeacres, is set amongst the rolling countryside of Somerset, covering 900 square metres of beds. Charles moved into this property two and half years ago, which adds credibility to his ‘no dig’ method, when you see the current results.

Despite looking, I could only find one or two small weeds amongst several beds of well-tended vegetable patches. The quality, depth of colour and flavour of the produce was intense, so maybe there was something in this new way of gardening.

Charles Dowding teaching 'no dig' students

I joined a group of 12 eager amateur gardeners who signed up for a day course at Homeacers, from 10am until 5pm. Starting in the spacious conservatory, Charles explains the history of the cottage and proudly shows pictures depicting how derelict the state of the land was when he arrived. Within a short space of time we’re standing in the garden in the hot sunshine and the sight before us is spectacular. A large polytunnel, several compost bins and a very impressive greenhouse, with its own hotbed with hundreds of seedlings growing on top, all stand before us.

A very beautiful copper hoe is produced from a corrugated shed. Charles admits that “copper tools can be expensive” but after seeing his results it will firmly be at the top of my Christmas list.

Charles Dowding teaching 'no dig' gardening to students

Throughout the day, we are guided around the garden and Charles regales his first-hand experience from the past three decades, breathing life and enthusiasm into the words which I’ve read in his bestselling books.

The only vegetables Charles sows directly into the soil are carrots, parsnips and broad beans, everything else is started in modules in the greenhouse in clumps of three seeds per station. Traditionally, gardeners would remove the weaker seedlings and let the strongest grow, but Charles likes to plant the entire plug plant. Research recently showed that seedlings reacted more favourably when sowed together rather than as single seeds.

Charles Dowding teaching 'no dig' gardening to students

The basic principles of ‘no dig’ are to cover the weed infested area with thick cardboard, the type you get when having a fridge or bicycle delivered. Cover this with at least 7in of compost (not top soil); either from local authority green manure schemes or buying in one ton bags. If you are lucky to have no weeds, just grass, Charles points out that the cardboard is not necessary.

“Cardboard is needed only if there are lots of weeds, so in the first few months (or longer if couch grass is present) of starting with a weedy plot.” Charles Dowding.

Spread this over the cardboard, water, then plant directly into this new soil and not through the cardboard. The cardboard will restrict light to the grass and weeds causing them to die, before the cardboard itself disintegrates. Couch grass will take a year to eradicate whereas woody roots such as brambles and docks will have to be removed by hand prior to laying the cardboard.

For the paths, also use cardboard, this will disintegrate quicker and another layer will be needed before the growing seasons is finished, but over time the amount of weeds in this section will also lower.

charles_dowding_no_dig_beds

In subsequent years, mulch with only 2inch of compost, whether homemade or purchased, and do this in the Spring followed by weekly hoeing of the growing area. Only 2inch of compost added on an annual basis will be enough to feed your plants for an entire year of intense cropping.

“I shallow hoe the area once a week, even if I can’t see any weeds.” Charles Dowding

The major advantage of attending a day course at Homeacres, is the opportunity to see the results for yourself. Students gained confidence throughout the day and it just reaffirmed what they had learn from the books of Charles Dowding.

In addition to the day courses, Charles runs a market garden from this land, supplying freshly cut salad bags to local high-end restaurants. Charles has written several books on the subject of no-dig gardening, the latest titled: How to Create a New Vegetable Garden.

I was extremely impressed by Homeacres, and as the train headed back to London, I started to mentally redesign the vegetable garden on my own allotment. You can find out more about Charles and his methods via his website.

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