Beat weeds with no dig

Charles Dowding explains the secrets of soil preparation, without digging

Charles Dowding, champion of No-dig gardening

by Liz Potter |

A key part of No dig is learning how to to use the simplest, cheapest, and above all, quickest methods of gardening. People have been led to believe that it’s more difficult and harder work than it needs to be. This is illustrated by the questions I’m repeatedly asked, such as:

‘We have a few raised beds, made three years ago, but want to do your No dig instead. How could I convert these beds? Would I have to dig them out, put the cardboard mulch down, then put the same soil/compost back over it? Or, put new compost over it? Or, place cardboard etc over all the existing compost now, then place new compost etc straight on top of the cardboard? Just seems a lot more work if I have to re-dig, but I do think it would be worth it in the long run. Or, do you have another suggestion?’

Charles Dowding's No-dig garden in Somerset
Charles Dowding's No-dig garden in Somerset ©Liz Potter

Thankfully, the answer is far shorter than the question! Just level with a rake and spread 3-5cm (1-2in) of compost on top of the soil. If there are lots of weeds, lay cardboard first then place the compost on top of it. Cardboard is a weeding timesaver – but only when weeds are large and numerous. If the soil is clear, don’t use it.

No dig, right from day one, is less about what we do to fix soil and more about how we en-hance its natural liveliness. Laying compost/organic matter on its surface encourages or-ganisms in the soil to travel upwards and feed, which improves aeration and structure. Their excretions contain feed for other organisms and/or plants, so the cycle of life is enabled and magnified.

In the 1980s, visitors were amazed when seeing my weed-free market garden. I thought the lack of weeds was due to my mulching and diligence. I was conscientious and hard-working, with a keen desire for clean soil that came partly from a fear of being over-whelmed by weeds and losing crops, which I had seen happen too often. However the same weed-free effect has happened in all of my no dig gardens.

I have come to understand how soil is actually calmer (for want of a better word) after being left undisturbed. It’s calm rather than upset or disturbed, and therefore has no need to recover, or re-cover with weeds. (Just like us: when disturbed, we need to recover.)

To my mind, soils that have been forked and pulverised, stirred, turned and lifted, are in a state of shock. They need to calm down to recover – weed plants are part of the healing process. They do a great job of growing fast, covering soil and filling it with healing roots when soil needs help. Which is not often with No dig!

Wise words on weeding...

It’s a fine line between having a few weeds and having too many. Catch them small is Charles’s mantra:

• Weed little and often. It’s much easier than being occasionally overwhelmed.

• Use cardboard as a mulch. Be thorough when mulching your veg patch for the first time, especially with perennial weeds. Having zero or almost no weeds is an achievable state and saves much time.

• Tolerate weeds in wild areas. Many have flowers that attract insects, but keep a tidy strip around your growing area.

This is an edited extract from Charles Dowding's No-dig Gardening Course £22.50, Charles Dowding. Readers of Garden Answers in the UK can buy the book for half price £11.25 plus £3.10 shipping. Buy the February issue of the magazine for the correct coupon code.

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