“Yippee” I thought, as the dark, freshly-turned folds of fenland soil presented themselves to me the first time I clapped eyes on my allotment just under two years ago. At first glance, the soil looked like the too-good-to-be-true ‘wonderloam’ my Aunty Jane used to moan about seeing on Gardeners’ World.
However, when I stuck my spade into it, I was in for a shock. This freshly-rotavated ‘wonderloam’ was in fact a shambolic cover-up. The soil was so full of roots it looked almost like earthy spaghetti. Bindweed, ground elder, couch grass swirled and coiled together in a maelstrom of vegetative evil – a holy trinity of vengeful, obstinate weeds. I sighed and wondered whether to pack my bags and head back to the sticky (but much less weedy) clay of southern France where I’d been working for the past year.
To the undisguised amazement of Collin, Ken, Barry, Ken, Bill, Dave, Les and El (yes, it’s a rather traditional allotment demographic here) I dug, dug and dug. For three months I pulled out root after root after root. By the time May came around and it was warm enough to plant out my tomatoes, I’d finally had enough. About a fifth of the plot was still un-dug. I’d heard about no-dig gardening and wondered if it could really work. One of the basic principles is to prevent weeds from growing by using mulching – covering the soil with something to exclude the light and physically prevent them from growing. Eventually, they give up and die.
I liked the idea – mainly because it meant no more digging. So I roughly levelled the soil and fished some huge bits of cardboard out of a skip. I placed these on the soil surface, then weighted them down with bricks, and cut holes to plant through. This only works with crops like tomatoes, squashes and pumpkins: it doesn’t work for root vegetables like carrots, where you need lots of access to the soil. The idea is to cut the smallest hole in your mulch possible, to stop light getting to those weed roots.
Suffice to say that my tomatoes and squashes grew like fury. The squashes were especially good as their trailing leaves hid the cardboard completely. At the end of the season there were almost no weeds – have a look at this online slideshow of how the plot progressed over 2013 and 2014. I’m a convert!
I’ll go into a bit more detail about the no-dig method in future posts. In the meanwhile, if you’d like to find out more about no-dig gardening, here are some useful links: