No-Dig Farming Series Part One:
Why We Farm No-Dig
By JISKA HEALY
I made up my mind to write a post about No-Dig farming. It turned out that I had so much to write about the subject that the first few attempts were quite chaotic. In the end I had to start all over again and decided to turn it into a series of post rather than one very long one. So here it is, finally: The No-Dig Farm series.
Why we farm No-Dig
‘You can do whatever you want in that garden of yours, as long as you make sure it will not affect your back!’ That was the one condition my husband put up several years ago when we were only just dreaming of a life in the country.
Having experienced a frontal car collision at the age of 26, I knew he was right. I have a back that can handle quite some work, but I will have to be very careful not to do too much heavy lifting.
It was during that time, when we were still living in an urban setting, that I started to look for a solution. I loved gardening, but let’s face it: in order to get good quality veggies, I would need to till the soil at least once a year.
Or that’s what I thought.
But then one evening I read a book that my father lent me: The Edible Garden from Alys Fowler. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you do. It is an easy read and will teach you how to start a sustainable garden for fresh produce in any environment. Even when living in the city.
That night I heard first about the term permaculture and how Alys implemented certain permaculture principles into her back-garden design. Her aim: to get the highest amount of produce from the smallest square footage available.
Permaculture is a combination of two words: Permanent and Agriculture. Its focus is on creating an agricultural ecosystem that is both sustainable and self-sufficient. There are whole studies and courses on the matter and I am by no means an expert.
But reading about permaculture did give me a step in the right direction. I learned about mulching, the importance of good soil health and the dangers of monoculture farming, which is farming only one crop at the time.
I also learned that soil does not need to be tilled to provide a bountiful harvest.
I’m serious! Not digging and tilling soil can give you just as great of a harvest, if not greater than when you do till. This method is also known as the ‘No-Dig’ method of gardening.
“No-Dig uses a totally different approach where you deliberately choose not to dig the soil.”
The intention of the No-Dig method is to disturb the soil as little as possible. But why is that? Because all people I knew have been digging and tilling their soil for centuries.
When putting anything in the ground energy and nutrients are extracted from the soil into the plant. When the produce is eventually harvested, we take these nutrients out of the soil, leaving it slightly depleted.
This depletion seems to be more severe when farming monocultures than when you farm a whole lot of different varieties on the same plot (polyculture farming). The subsurface of the soil becomes nutrient poor and can easily compact.
Most conventional farms use monocultures when producing their crops. Think about the grain or cabbage fields you see when you are driving down the motorway. These fields are all ploughed by tractor after harvest and often a lot of fertilisers and soil amenders are added.
The idea behind tilling and ploughing is to bring fresh nutrients towards the surface, to break up the soil, create an crumblier substrate for plants to grow in, to mix in organic or artificial fertilisers and to help control weeds. It has been done for millennia and if it’s not broke…
Maybe not completely. Farming in this way is very labour intensive. I on the other hand was looking for something that could reduce labour and be easier on my back. I also wanted to create an ecosystem that would feed back the soil instead of only taking from it. Sustainable growing.
Imagine a plot of land that is left to its own devices for a while. The first top few inches of soil contains the most amount of life. These are little bugs, spiders, fungi, worms and so on. And you will see a variety of plants coexisting.
They are all sustaining the balanced ecosystem that has formed. In these overgrown places you will seldom find the garden pests or plant diseases that seem so prevalent conventional farming.
Let’s say you want to start using this plot and you start ploughing it. All the life in the top layer of the soil will be ploughed under to a depth where it cannot survive, and you will have to add more fertiliser for the new top layer of soil.
Also, intricate root systems that have been formed by the variety of plants will be teared asunder leaving the soil exposed. This allows new weeds to quickly establish which can make growing veggies or flowers a cumbersome task.
“The first top few inches of soil contains the most amount of life.”
Now let’s have a look at the No-Dig method.
No-Dig uses a totally different approach where you deliberately choose not to dig the soil. And because it is a natural way of gardening you can’t spray off the weeds either. But how then to get rid of all those nasty weeds? The answer is very simple: Cover them.
When reclaiming a new plot of land, you cover it over to choke the underlying plants and weeds. But also, when you have a bare piece of land without any weeds you choose to cover them when working with the no-dig method.
Covering soil blocks out sunlight which discourages weeds from growing. A good covering such as mulch will also allow water to be retained and builds up soil levels. This is where the term ‘building soil’ comes from.
When sowing new seeds, you can either choose to take a bit of covering away and sow them straight in the ground. Or you choose to sow them separately in plug trays to plant them out in the covered area. We use both methods.
So, these are the main reasons we totally got hooked on the No-Dig:
- It is much easier on my back and allows me to keep doing what I love.
- It is overall less labour
- It is very easy to learn
- You don’t need to invest in heavy machinery
- I do not deplete my soil despite harvesting multiple produce
- It is better for my plants
- It is a lot healthier for my soil
- It is in line with an all-natural balanced gardening approach I support
- It is much more fun
There are many ways of no-dig gardening and I will explain in the next few weeks all the ones we have used and why some are better for our windy wet climate than others. I will also let you know when we do dig our soil and how we garden without digging at a larger scale.
See you soon!