Caption: Steph visiting Dalefoot
Caption: Lay & soak the cardboard - overlap to avoid weeds
Caption: Add top quality compost
Caption: Do the 'No Dig Dance'
Caption: No Dig Dancing
We are delighted to present this first installment from gardener, cook and writer Steph Hafferty. An expert in all things ‘no dig’, she generously shares her knowledge and expertise with us for Dalefoot’s May blog and even spoils us with a recipe!
Healthy soil is crucial for a healthy planet, and growing using no dig gardening methods is a key way that we can help to create and maintain a vibrant soil ecosystem. Soil is the largest sequester of carbon on the planet. Digging releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so one of the simplest ways we can all help to reduce climate change is to stop digging.
No dig is not a new idea. It has been used by growers across the globe for centuries, as an effective way of growing abundant food in harmony with nature. Techniques vary from place to place. In hot dry climates a deep mulch of plant matter is often used to help prevent loss of moisture, but here in the UK that can create a habitat for slugs, snails and woodlice: not ideal next to your veg crops. In the UK composted mulches, which do not create this habitat, are mostly used.
What does “no dig gardening” involve? Of course at times some digging is necessary, to plant a tree or remove rubble, for example. No dig gardening means growing with as little soil disturbance as possible, so that the soil structure remains intact and soil life can thrive. Every year, I spread a little compost (about 1cm) on the surface of the beds. This mulch feeds the soil life which in turn feeds the plants. That’s all that is needed: just an annual compost mulch.
No dig also reduces weeds because you’re not bringing up annual weed seeds by digging. It doesn’t mean no weeds, you still need to hoe and trowel out any weeds that blow on and germinate, but there are significantly fewer. It’s important too to ensure that weeds don’t try to sneak in from grassy paths and edges. I have creeping buttercups here in my garden which keep trying to colonise the veg beds by stealth so I regularly weed the edges.
Keeping the structure of the soil intact allows fungi, worms and other soil life to create tiny tunnels in the soil, which creates a superb soil structure, increases drainage and oxygenates the soil. Mycorrhizae networks remain intact, connecting all of the plants in a symbiotic relationship which aids plant and soil health. Digging breaks up and destroys this balance in the soil. Stopping digging enables the soil to recover and thrive.
The compost mulch also creates a habitat for a huge number of creatures, including black beetles which are predators of slugs, and a foraging area for birds, hedgehogs and other wildlife.
There is a misconception that no dig gardening requires a lot of compost every year. Thankfully that’s not the case, as it just wouldn’t be affordable for most gardeners if so. Annually, it does not use any more compost than digging methods (digging in itself doesn’t make a soil fertile, the opposite in fact because it is breaking up the structure and killing soil life). The annual mulch of compost works for all of the plants I grow, from parsnips to courgettes to aubergines. Because the soil structure is thriving and remains unharmed, the nutrients are more readily available to the plants, which also means that you can grow many more plants in each bed. Using intercropping and multisowing techniques (both also ancient methods) I regularly grow five or six different veg crops per bed each year.
The compost can be any composted matter: homemade, well rotted manure, well rotted wood chip, leaf mould, shop bought compost. I love making compost. It’s such a treat to use delicious crumbly fertile compost made from kitchen scraps and garden clippings.
In March 2021 I moved from my garden of twenty years in Somerset, to just under half an acre on a hillside in West Wales. The land was mostly weedy grass with areas of flower borders and established trees. Wanting to start making beds as quickly as possible, and of course having no home-made compost because I had just moved house, I ordered in a delivery of Dalefoot veg compost (the one in the green bag) and started to make my new no dig garden on the weedy grass.
Making No Dig beds
To make the beds, I cut the lawn on a low setting and rakeds the clippings, adding those to the compost heap.
Next, I covered the area with card, making sure it overlapped to discourage weeds from sneaking through, and watered it well.
I decided to make the bed 1.2 metres wide, and covered that area with compost, raking it to level it.
To gently firm the compost, I did the “No Dig Dance”! This is a gentle dance on the bed to make sure all of the compost is firm.
Once the bed is finished, it is ready for sowing and planting right away. Any deep rooting plants will grow through the cardboard into the soil beneath.
These beds were made with 5cm of compost (after the dance!) on top of the card, on top of the weedy lawn. During 2021 I harvested so many things, including carrots, parsnips, squash, sweetcorn, cabbages, kale and leeks.
After cropping all winter, I am now planting it out again. It’s amazing to think this was weedy grass not very long ago. In August 2021 the polytunnel was put up here and I mulched it in exactly the same way.
There are other ways to make no dig beds using different amounts of compost and also no compost. Follow my You Tube channel and social media to discover how I am using different methods to make beds here in my half acre homestead.
Quick fridge pickles
These tasty pickles are an ideal accompaniment to all kinds of summery dishes and can be made using whatever you have in the garden (or buy from the shop). In late summer, sliced chillieschilies add a delicious kick to the pickles.
I find it a lot easier to use cup measures for this recipe, rather than weighing everything out. If you don’t have US cup measures, just use a tea cup.
3 cups of finely sliced vegetables: Florence fennel, spring onion, radish, cucumber, summer squash, courgette, carrot
1 cup light vinegar: cider, white wine or even champagne vinegar if you’re feeling fancy
1 cup water
3 tbsp sea salt
4 tbsp seasonal herbs (optional): dill, parsley, thyme, coriander, chopped garlic, herb seeds (fennel, coriander, dill)
3 tbsp sugar (or other sweetener eg agave) - optional (I usually skip this part but I do like tart food)
Clean glass preserving jar/s with lids
Layer the veg in the jars with the herbs (if using).
In a pan, gently heat the vinegar, water, salt and sugar (if using) and simmer until everything has dissolved.
Carefully pour over the vegetables and place the lids loosely on top.
When the pickles have cooled, screw the lid on tightly. The pickles are now ready to eat.
Keep in the fridge for up to a week.
(nb: this is not a long term preserving recipe)
Stephanie Hafferty is an experienced no dig gardener, homesteader, speaker, garden and food writer, and author of award winning No Dig Organic Home and Garden (with Charles Dowding) and The Creative Kitchen: seasonal plant based recipes using ingredients you can grow on an allotment. She is currently working on a new gardening book and creating a no dig homestead on half an acre in West Wales. She shares this journey on her blog, Instagram and You Tube:
Website and blog : www.NoDigHome.com
You Tube Channel: www.youtube.com/c/StephanieHaffertyNoDigHomesteading