The magic of soil – and de-mystifying no-dig

The revelation that soil is a living, breathing environment has changed the way I garden and my understanding of the world around me

I’ve realised soil is so complex that we will never fully understand all the processes that are intricately interwoven in its hidden depths. But, if we follow nature’s cues and read what our plants can tell us about our soils, we can begin interacting more positively with this magical world that supports the cycle of life on earth.

In 2006, as a beginner in horticulture, I learned the basics of soil. I learned about pH, structure, texture, and information about how to choose the right type of fertiliser to make my plants grow. Looking back I now realise that I wasn’t aware of just how complex the soil biome actually is. It’s full of life and soil fauna that was rarely referenced when I learned about it (apart from the odd nod to worms being good).

I was taught to dig, often slicing through a worm with my spade, and encouraged to put organic matter in the bottom of the trench I had dug. I dutifully followed the instructions. After all, they came from the Royal Horticultural Society!

Then, in 2011, when I was a student at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, I attended a lecture by Charles Dowding. He was due to speak about ‘no-dig’ gardening. At the time, I loved digging. I enjoyed the physical movement of it, and feeling that I was doing the right thing to grow healthy vegetables as I dutifully dug my allotment plot. I thought ‘no-dig’ was just for lazy gardeners, but I went along anyway, as I was a new student and I was keen not to miss out on any of the latest information (I would later learn that actually it was old information, as traditionally we did not plough and dig in the way that we habitually came to do in the 19th and 20th centuries).

Charles presented a very clear explanation of why digging your soil routinely was not necessary, and in fact was actually harmful. Repeated digging interrupts the establishment of a healthy soil system, which is built from the complex interactions of soil organisms, including all sorts of fauna and fungi. In addition, I discovered that plant roots played a vital role in this system.

Sheila Das and Charles Dowding inspect Charles’ wormery at his Somerset garden, Homeacres

I was surprised, and a little annoyed that only a few years before I had learned about soil but none of this had been mentioned. It all made perfect sense. In more recent years I have also come to understand that the interplay between plants and these billions of microbes in the soil is nature’s way of cycling nutrients and perpetuating growth. It really was like discovering magic.

And, it potentially meant that I could stop buying expensive fertilisers and wouldn’t have to spend so much time digging.  As I was due to be a busy student for three years, this was great.

So, after this epiphany, I never routinely dug my soil again. I had an allotment on clay soil and started to mulch the surface of the soil with a layer of organic matter once a year. It was horse manure, which was delivered to the allotments for free from the local stables. As time has progressed, it has become clear to me that we have much to learn about this magical realm beneath our feet, but this thin layer of topsoil potentially holds so many solutions to the many challenges we face today.

Soil plays a key role in the carbon cycle, can hold the water needed for plants to grow, and can help to prevent extreme water crises such as flood events or droughts. Most crucially for our species, it can feed us; perpetually, sustainably and healthily. But to maximise these benefits, we need to keep learning about it, and handle it with care and thought.

If you make your own compost, then weeds are simply ingredients

- Sheila Das

No-dig as a concept has gained momentum in recent years. It has developed alongside some practices that have become synonymous with it (such as covering the ground with cardboard and applying a layer of organic matter), but it can actually be interpreted much more broadly than this. It’s about thinking what we would like an outcome to be in a growing environment based upon what the environment lends itself to.

No-dig is not restricted to growing vegetables – you can apply the thought process to create any planted space. We might not always use cardboard and organic matter, and we have to understand what our limitations and resources are.

Sheila tends to climbing gourds in the World Food Garden at RHS Wisley

These are some of the most commonly asked questions about the no-dig system.

Do I have to use cardboard?
If the ground isn’t too weedy, sometimes just covering with organic matter will be fine. I created a veg patch at home in this way and harvested heartily from it in year one. The lawn I created it on had been cut repeatedly for many years, and didn’t have many weeds in it. I used a few inches of organic matter. If you add a cardboard layer first, you can prevent weeds from emerging more effectively. 

What if I can’t get organic matter?
Sometimes people seem to think that no-dig requires too much organic matter. If you have been carrying out single or double digging, this would have required organic matter too, so there is little difference. If you can’t get enough organic matter to mulch with every year, don’t panic. You can try a green manure something like a mustard (Sinapis alba), which will die with a frost but will decompose keeping soil covered to reduce erosion and feeding the organisms in the soil.

I’m excited to learn more about growing using green manures, but crucially, not digging them in as was a previous assumption. You can also cover the ground using a biodegradable weed fabric (avoid the woven plastic ones as they tend to break apart and leave plastic strands in the soil), and plant through it. Your plant roots will start to improve the soil structure.

The principle here is keeping soil covered – plants, organic matter or another material can do this. Nature rarely leaves soil bare, and bare soil is quickly colonised by plants when left unattended. Sometimes we call these plants ‘weeds.’ If you are able to make your own compost, then weeds are simply ingredients – more of nature’s bounty. 

How do I plant a tree in a no-dig system?
Simple dig a hole and put it in! It is ok to disturb soil sometimes. Animals do it often. The key principle with no-dig is that you aren’t turning the soil to the same depth routinely. Sometimes, animals disturb the first few inches of soil by scratching around looking for food. Other animals dig holes. The soil will recover from this! 

How do I grow potatoes?
You can shallow-plant potatoes and then mound up organic matter on top. These are then easy to harvest by simply pulling them up out of the mulch. 

What if my soil is compacted?
People often think their soil is compacted when it’s not. If there are any plant roots in your soil, it’s unlikely to be compacted. Compaction is a state of soil that occurs when air and water cannot pass through it. True compaction is usually only caused by heavy machinery. If you have damaged soil, then perhaps cultivating mechanically once will be helpful; or you can shallow till to relieve surface compaction. It is unlikely you would need to do this more than once however.

If you are unsure as to whether you need to do this, try using plants first. Sunflowers can penetrate compacted and depleted soils, as can chicory, alfalfa and many other plants. Plants are nature’s healers. 

Can I walk on my beds?
Soil coats the surface of the earth. It would be rather odd if animals, including humans, couldn’t walk on soil. So as long as it’s not repeated heavy trampling, it’s perfectly fine to walk on healthy soil. 

Sheila at Homeacres, the garden of no-dig pioneer Charles Dowding

The important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t feel you have to be a slave to any hard-and-fast rule book. All of our gardening situations vary, and experimenting with what works in your situation, with your resources, is the key. The more you can learn about the natural system, spending time observing what the plants and organisms in your garden are telling you, then the more you can feel empowered to make informed decisions. If things don’t work, try something different – and remember to also enjoy and celebrate the successes.

Remember too that not all plants want a rich soil, and some will grow in very impoverished situations or even with very little actual soil, so never despair and think that your garden isn’t any good for growing. If you avoid setting an impossible wishlist and look for plants that suit your conditions without trying to change those conditions too dramatically, you will always be able to enjoy growing your garden and sharing it with a wide range of diverse plants and other lifeforms.

The more you can learn about the natural system, spending time observing what the plants and organisms in your garden are telling you, the more you can make informed decisions

- Sheila Das
About the author – Sheila Das

Sheila Das is a garden manager at RHS Garden Wisley, with responsibility for edible growing, professional training programmes in the garden, the Members’ Seed Scheme and the Wellbeing garden. Having changed career in the early 2000’s, Sheila studied at Kew, worked for English Heritage and has been at Wisley since 2015.

How to grow a no-dig garden

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