The no-dig method of growing, which is exactly as it sounds, has gained a lot of press over the last few years. Traditional digging is the consequence of translating commercial agriculture to the garden setting. In fields of many acres, where efficiency and time restraints are pressing, 'digging' (or rather ploughing) with a tractor makes sense (leaving aside the obvious debate of what this actually does to the soil's integrity). But in the garden efficiency and time pressures are less of an issue and work can be conducted at an altogether more leisurely pace.
So how, exactly, should we go about starting off a new vegetable bed in time for spring sowing? Surely you'll need to dig in this instance, if only to get rid of the weeds and set the plot off onto a good footing? Well, no actually. As I'm about to reveal there is an easier way that requires significantly less hard graft – just plenty of well-rotted organic matter.
The main reason you'd think it necessary to dig a new growing bed is to get rid of those pesky weeds that you're sure to be faced with. But rather than dig them up, we're going to smother them. Annual weeds and grasses are short-lived and have few reserves. Deprive them of light and they'll soon throw in the towel. Perennial weeds may be tenacious and seemingly unconquerable, but even they can be snuffed out if smothered for long enough. When covered and denied light, most annuals will give up the ghost after two to three months, while perennial weeds such as couch grass or bindweed may take up to a year. The point is this – it's only a matter of time before your weedy nemeses are extinguished and there's no need to lift so much as a fork!
The first job to establish your no-dig bed is to look at what's growing there. If you're lucky enough to have mainly annual weeds then the job is simplicity itself. Hoik out the few clumps of perennial weeds that exist (nettles, docks and so on) then cover the entire growing area with a thick layer of organic matter, about 10cm (4in) deep, simply piled right on top of those weeds and grass.
The organic matter can be anything that's well-rotted and available in quantity: garden compost, bought-in potting soil or very well-rotted horse manure would work equally well. It needs to be laid thick in order to give the weeds it smothers little chance of growing through and reinvigorating themselves.
If you are worried about weeds reaching the surface then extra assurance can be had from laying cardboard over the weeds before applying your organic matter. Make sure the cardboard is the sturdy brown stuff used for transporting goods and generously overlap the sheets to make the base 'watertight'. Give it a water then shovel on your organic loveliness.
Coping with perennial weeds
Some weeds are harder to get rid of than others; a hopeful layer of compost isn't going to shake off the likes of bindweed. For areas matted with tough perennial weeds you will need to go heavy-duty by smothering them with a landscape fabric. Chop down the weeds or hack them to ground level (a great way to relieve any pent-up frustration!) then lay down a layer of organic matter before capping with your landscape fabric. It does need to be landscape fabric because this will allow rain to penetrate to the ground below, keeping it lubricated for the worms beneath to work their magic.
Light can penetrate some landscape fabric, so if you can see that after a few months the perennial weeds below seem to be stirring back to life, cover the landscape fabric with wood/bark chippings to exclude every last shard of light.
The fabric will need to stay in situ for up to a year, although you can always lift a corner to check progress after several months. If you want to use the area while it's being cleansed lay growbags or containers on top and plant into these. You can also grow widely spaced vegetables such as pumpkins and squashes in the soil itself. To do this cut a (small!) planting hole into the fabric and set young plants into the ground. You will need to religiously watch these holes, removing the slightest trace of weed root and leaf as soon as it appears, but with plants such as these requiring 90-120cm (3-4ft) spacings you shouldn't find this too taxing.
I've successfully cleared small areas of ground using this technique and can personally vouch for its success. You might say my refusal to dig is a symptom of laziness; I'd say it's commonsense and a reflection of why it's sometimes worth questioning the norm!
New beds that have been mulched with compost can be left to settle for a few days before being planted up. If the organic matter is lumpy or not quite as friable as you'd like, aim to plant out module/cell-raised vegetable seedlings that will already be part-established. You can also create a more agreeable sowing medium by topping the organic matter off with a sowing-depth-layer of finer material. In this way you can fill the bulk of your bed with rougher material that may be more readily available, while eeking out your quality compost. Another alternative is to line seed drills with this finer material before sowing and back filling with the same.
Once your beds – established using either method – are properly underway you can, if you wish, use traditional digging techniques to maintain them. The only trouble with this approach is that it risks bringing up fresh weed seeds from further down in the soil profile. Better is simply to top up your beds between crops with an additional layer of compost, about 2cm (1in) deep or more. That way your ready army of diggers (aka worms!) can do all the hard graft for you as they burrow up to the surface to feed on the fresh organic matter that's been deposited.
All this should encourage you to think twice before reaching for the spade. Just because this no-dig method is so understatedly simple, doesn't mean it won't work!
Photos: Periwinklekog, Grongar, Djprybyl, USFS Region 5, Peganum
By Benedict Vanheems.