No-dig alternatives

Digging has many advantages; but it can take its toll on your back. Luckily there are 'no-dig' alternatives

Digging is mainly needed to control weeds and occasionally to incorporate lime, phosphorus and potassium.

These often penetrate soil slowly and in cases of deficiency need help. Digging is also beneficial to restore the structure lost when wet soil is trampled. Good soil dries to little crumbs and if damaged when wet these are lost, but they can be restored by digging and manuring.

‘No-dig’ usually involves growing crops in beds that can be reached from narrow (say 45cm/18in) paths each side. Usually the beds are not trodden on, but in fact they support the weight of a gardener’s foot because the structure has not been damaged by digging. Soil organisms, when fed by surface mulches of organic matter, create a crumb structure within a firm soil. Firm is not the same as compacted.

Beds may be raised or on the flat. On the flat is better where the soil is sandy and in low-rainfall areas: sandy soil has little inherent fertility or ability to hold moisture, therefore it also needs extra organic matter. Raised beds are especially valuable in wet districts, on poorly drained soils, and if it is important to avoid back strain.

In a no-dig regime, weeds are controlled by shallow hoeing, hand weeding, contact weedkillers and mulching. Debris is gathered up rather than dug in. Mulches are taken into the soil by soil organisms, and fertilisers are washed in by rain. Mulches also take the place of earthing-up for potatoes, and seeds are sown shallowly and transplants eased in with minimal disturbance.

Because there is little disturbance of the soil, no weed seeds are brought up, and once those near the surface have germinated, weed problems decline. The absence of the clods produced by digging reduces cover for slugs. No-dig gardening is well worth trying, and it is often essential for less-fit gardeners, or those with heavy, intractable soils.

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