Labour is one of the most important resources for the farm since we rely heavily on volunteers to cultivate and harvest the crops. So anything that reduces labour is of great interest to us. One approach we are interested in is permaculture, and one aspect of this is called no-dig cultivation. The idea of not digging the plot is certainly attractive! But digging is said to break up the soil, improve its structure and help to control weeds. So what will happen if we don’t dig?
The most important aspect of no-dig gardening is mulching. At the end of the season the soil is covered with a deep mulch of organic material. This might be compost, rotted horse manure, leafmould, old straw or spent mushroom compost. The mulch keeps the soil warm, which encourages the natural population of earthworms to remain active. The worms work hard taking the mulch down from the surface into the soil below and, in the process, their tunnels help to aerate and drain the soil, gradually improving its structure. The mulch also helps to retain moisture, and the slower percolation of water through the soil means that fewer nutrients are leached. In addition, the mulch increases the fertility of the soil and suppresses weeds, while the undisturbed soil environment encourages a more balanced soil population with beneficial rather than harmful fungi, resulting in fewer pests and diseases compared to a well-dug soil. Some of the vegetables we plant also help to develop the structure of the soil. Leeks, parsnips and potatoes are particularly good at this.
No-dig vegetable beds are not new to community farming. The Kippax CSA (community supported agriculture) in West Yorkshire practises permaculture, including the no-dig system. The project is organic and doesn’t use agricultural machinery, so they use no-dig beds to save both labour and fossil fuels. They initially found the process of creating the no-dig beds time consuming, but in the longer term reduced the time needed for digging, weeding, watering and, because the crops come out of the soil more easily, harvesting.