Bert Lance was credited in the late 1970s of popularising the phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” He was quoted as saying it in an American business magazine, yet I find it as just as apt in reference to the practices we use in regard to the life we find beneath our feet; namely the soil.
Traditional vegetable gardening has almost always employed the use of a spade to first dig a trench, fill it’s bottom with well rotted organic matter, then lift the same amount of soil from the area just behind, and drop it back into the original trench, breaking it up a little.
This is repeated until all the soil has been cultivated, given a rake over, and then sown into.
But what if I told you that, not only is this time consuming, but it’s actually doing more harm than good to an ecosystem that doesn’t need any fixing at all; just added to annually with a layer of organic matter?
Nature has had millennia to perfect its technique, and the soil is a living organism which functions perfectly if left undisturbed.
Look to the forest as an example. Have you ever seen anyone, or anything dig the forest? I don’t think so.
A brief introduction to the No-dig method of vegetable gardening
Let’s turn back to a broadleaved tree forest as an example. In autumn, the trees lose their leaves which create a carpet of organic material on the forest floor.
Macroflora (such as earthworms, slugs and snails, ants, moles, mice etc.), bacteria and fungi break down this leaf litter into usable nutrients which are made available as food to plants for growth. It’s a self sustainable system which is teeming with life and diversity.
No-dig replicates this system by annually spreading a layer of well rotted (one-year-old or older) compost or manure onto the soil in either autumn or spring.
Seeds can be directly planted into it, but I prefer to pre-grow mostly all of my vegetables from seed in late winter/early spring as plug plants, so that they are already small, established plants (giving me a head start) as soon as the last frost has disappeared and the soil temperature is warm enough to plant into.
In the first year of no-dig the use of a spade is permitted as the aim is to remove as many perennial weeds (and their roots) as possible.
A layer of (non-waxy) cardboard can then be laid on top of the area which acts as a physical barrier against perennial weed regrowth, as well as blocking out sunlight so they can’t photosynthesis and grow.
A 20 cm layer of compost/manure is spread onto the cardboard which further blocks out sunlight, and this is what will feed the topsoil with all the nutrients it needs in growing vegetables. Enter the magic and welcome on stage, Mycorrhizal fungi!
We are beginning to understand more about the complex role this amazing soil organism plays and how it works in symbiosis with plants in order for its own growth, as well as providing more water and food in producing stronger and healthier plants.
Imagine if you will a huge underground, totally connected, network of fungal strands (technically called mycelium and hyphae) that stretch the length and breadth of the garden and well beyond. They attach themselves to the fine root hairs of plants supplying them with water and nutrients, and in-turn the plants provide the fungus with sugars for its own growth.
The plants make these sugars by their above ground capacity to photosynthesis sunlight which the underground fungi cannot do.
When the soil is left undisturbed, these networks simply grow and grow, hence providing more nutrition to the plants. On the contrary, if the soil is annually dug, the networks are broken and take time in reestablishing.
Amazing to think then, that cabbage sat there under the warm summer sunshine is in total symbiosis with the mycorrhizae providing it with sugars, whilst the fungus network is transporting water and nutrients to the cabbage from the other side of the greenhouse many metres away!
There’s a communication going on - do not disturb
It’s the underground equivalent to the internet, and on further reading you shall discover that these networks and plants are communicating with each other too.
It’s like, “Hey cabbage, there’s an infestation of snails on Adrian’s Hostas that are marching towards you!” “Oh thanks man for telling me. Bring me a few more nutrients to make me into a super strong cabbage so I’m better equipped to deal with them.” “Sure cabbage, I’m warning the beans about weevils and delivering potassium to the carrots for better roots as we speak.”
Do you see now why we should just leave the soil alone, and just annually dress it with a 5 cm layer of compost in the proceeding years?
I promise your back will thank you for it, the soil fauna will love you for it, and you shall have a bumper harvest year after year. It’s a very easy and efficient way to feed the soil but the growing of vegetables always takes a careful bit of planning.
Feeding the soil is feeding the plants
In the forty odd years of growing vegetables I can definitely tell you that healthier plants are the outcome of a healthy soil. In turn, we humans are healthier as a result!
When we talk about feeding plants, what we really mean is feeding the soil, and for me that is all about the use of homemade compost, decomposed leaf litter and any other well-rotted organic matter that I can get my hands on. That, and by leaving my spade in the shed and not digging!
In my opinion everything begins and ends with one thing - the earth we find beneath our feet.