This week Sally Hinchcliffe, author of the Town Mouse blog, comes to the aid of lazy gardeners everywhere. She explains her experience with no dig gardening as she creates a new vegetable patch.
A Veg Patch From Scratch – The Lazy Way?
After eight years of renting, last year we moved into a house of our own, which meant I finally have my own garden, to shape as I want. Unfortunately, I’ve been rather spoilt because up to now my veg plot has been in the landlord’s walled garden, which must have been cultivated for over 100 years, with wonderful deep rich soil as a result. The new house did not have a vegetable plot, so I’m starting from scratch. A blank canvas is exciting, or it would be if it hadn’t been actually full of head-high weeds by the time we moved in, right at the height of summer. Not so much a blank canvas then, as a jungle…
The classic way to start a veg plot is to double-dig the soil – that’s two spade depths down – adding muck and compost as you go. Unfortunately, I’ve learned the hard way round here that any project involving digging quickly turns into a side project involving extracting multiple large stones (my theory is that the dry stone dykes that adorn the countryside around us have less to do with keeping the animals in the fields, as to just being a place to put all the surplus stones). Add in removing the grass and the perennial weed roots and carving out a decent sized plot was going to be a mammoth task.
So I was keen to try a ‘no dig’ method instead. Instead of working the soil yourself, you pile it up with organic matter (horse poo is good, plus any compost you can get your hands on), cover it over, and let the worms do the digging. The lack of light weakens or kills the weeds, and – unlike digging, which can damage the structure of the soil – you’ve not done any harm to the micro-organisms that keep the soil in good heart.
This all sounded right up my street – and fortunately I had a friend who was willing to supply the organic matter in the form of the output of her two horses. We had all the strimmings resulting from hacking our way through the jungle when we moved in. and we also had some fetching pink carpet* to act as a cover, while the worms did their work.
Unfortunately, what I didn’t really have was enough time. It took a few months to decide where the veg should go, source the poo, and get around to rolling out the pink carpet – in the end, it was mid December before I had everything in place. With my first seedlings more or less clambering out of their modules in their desperation to be planted, the time came this week to find out whether the muck had worked its magic. My fear was that I’d roll back the carpet and discover nothing had changed – the grass and weeds would still be sitting there waiting to overwhelm my poor little seedlings. My hope was I’d find a wonderful, crumbling dark organic-filled tilth, packed full of earthworms, ready to get my new veg plot off to a flying start.
So which was it? The answer – as I so often find when gardening, was something in between. There are still a few weeds – mostly rather feeble, but some stubborn clumps of grass have survived buried under the muck. The coarser strimmings and other plant material I chucked in alongside the horse manure hasn’t really broken down all that much, which isn’t surprising really as it’s been a cold winter and I should have left it for twice as long as I did. But there are enough worms to suggest the underlying soil is in good health and it hasn’t meant a back-breaking few weeks of digging the whole plot. Instead, it took a couple of hours on a sunny afternoon to clear up the worst of the un-composted matter, lightly fork in what remained, lay out some stepping stones, and prepare the first bed for planting. It looks a bit rougher than my old Victorian kitchen beds, but give it a hundred years or so, and it will be fine.
But, like puddings, the real proof will be in the eating. My potatoes and broad beans are in, with peas, French beans, leeks, beetroot and kale to follow. Come July and August I will know for sure whether the results were all worth it.
* As I found out later, this isn’t really advised as carpets these days are full of nasty chemicals which you might not want in your vegetable patch. You might not want them in your bedroom either, but that’s a question for another day. Either way, cardboard makes an equally good cover and as a bonus adds extra organic matter into the soil.