Welcome back to Part 2 of my series Managing An Organic Vegetable Garden. Part 1 considered how to go about making your initial design. Part 2 will look at how to improve your soil.
Soil is probably the most important factor in how well your vegetables grow. A rich soil will largely result in abundant vegetables, whilst a poor soil will stunt your yield. Having said that, in addition to great soil a seed will need light and water to grow, so you need to make sure that your plot can offer all three elements.
Historically vegetable gardeners have spent much of the winter digging and sometimes double digging their plots in the belief that an open aerated soil would produce the best crops. In recent years this view has been challenged and many gardeners (myself included) now garden on a no-dig basis.
I first looked into the no-dig idea when I read Charles Dowding’s vegetable books. Charles Dowding has been growing vegetables organically for about 30 years and has carried out many trials to determine how best to grow them. In summary, he recommends that the only digging you ever need to do is to remove the roots of perennial weeds and to harvest root crops. Other than that he hoes his beds regularly to keep down annual weeds and spreads a thin layer of garden compost over his beds once a year in the late autumn. Dowding believes that regular digging and/or rotovating damages the structure of the soil and produces weaker crops. When preparing a new bed Dowding will put a wooden border straight into the grass where the bed will be. The grass in the new bed will then be covered with a thick layer of compost and the whole area covered with a light resistant material (weed block fabric or thick cardboard do well). After a few months the covering can be removed and the bed is ready to grow crops in. A bed prepared in early winter should be ready by May.
The beds that were made in my garden a couple of years ago were prepared in the traditional way. The turf was removed and the soil was rotovated. Since then we have had endless problems with persistent perennial weeds and the damaged soil structure has led to a tendency for the beds to flood during heavy rain. In future new beds will be made using the Dowding method, in the hope that this will produce a better soil. The bed in the picture above is being prepared this way – it has been covered since mid summer, so should be ready to uncover soon.
On every level the no dig approach makes sense to me. From a purely practical point of view digging and double digging is extremely hard work and time consuming Given the size of my plot it is also beyond my capabilities. Taking the easier option of using a rotator would make the ground even looser (causing even more damage to the soil structure) and chop up all the roots of any perennial weeds creating yet more weeds. Also, seeds can survive for a very long time in the soil and will sit dormant until exposed to light. Every time you turn over the soil you expose a huge number of seeds to the light and so introduce another batch of weeds into your beds.
Spreading compost over the surface of your beds in autumn creates a light resistant layer protecting your soil, which helps to prevent the weed seeds from germinating. This layer will be drawn down into the soil by worms through the winter, so that in spring all that is needed is a quick rake over the surface and you are ready to plant seeds.
The compost that you spread over your beds in autumn will be provide nutrients for next years growing season. Artificial fertilisers dissolve in rain water and so wash away over winter, but compost will retain its nutrients and significantly improve the structure of your soil. If there are winter crops in your beds just spread the compost thinly around them.
As a final word on soil, my main worry in my decision to adopt a no dig policy was that my gardening hero Monty Don has always recommended long bouts of heavy digging before planting any beds. You can imagine my relief to pick up this months Gardener’s World and read that Monty’s views are changing. Monty now keeps digging at his garden Longmeadow to a minimum.
My next post in this series will continue on the subject of improving your soil by looking at how to make your own garden compost and will be posted in January.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this series and if you have any questions or alternative ideas please do leave them in a comment.