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No-dig gardening & weed control

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Post by freebird on 30th April 2017, 9:13 pm

I've known about this for ages, but it's never quite appealed. I thought maybe some sort of quick fix, make gardening easy type of approach. Never saw how it could be relevant for my couch/bindweed/bramble infested plots.

I've had some ghastly cold virus that's being very persistent, so spent a lot of time looking at gardening programmes on the iPlayer recently. One of them had Charles Dowding, who has been advocating his no-dig organic approach since the 1960s. If you'll pardon the pun, it must have sown a seed. I looked at his website yesterday evening, and there seemed to be a solution to all the issues I have encountered.

One major problem is that both couch and bindweed have rooted into the footings of the greenhouse base and a concrete path. I often spray, but I have to be on it constantly, and always end up not doing it for a while, and go back to square one. Additionally, it would creep out from under the path/greenhouse and get in amongst the crops, where I could do nothing about it until the crops were finished.

Today I have trenched all around these areas, and covered with thick black plastic, into the trenches and across the paths, then refilled with soil to hold the plastic in place. All around each veg plot, I have covered the path area with whatever I have that will exclude light - carpet, hardboard, more black plastic. Finally topped each plot with a thickish layer of composted stable manure.

I'm not expecting miracles, and I know I will have to be meticulous about weeding this year particularly - but for the first time in many, many years, I actually believe this may be achievable. The no-dig part is just a bonus, but the general principles Mr Dowding expounds seem sound.

Whilst I have always liked the idea of organic gardening, and done so in so far as practicable, it has always seemed (from my viewpoint) a bit unrealistic & idealistic. I'm not so sure now and absolutely fizzing with excitement about the possibility of having workable plots which I am not repeatedly trying to rescue from pernicious weeds.
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Post by Chilli-head on 30th April 2017, 10:18 pm

Was this last week's Gardener's World. I caught up with that on IPlayer last night.

I have in the past dismissed no dig as lazy gardening. The problem of perennial weeds is obviously a difficult one whatever. But, I have noticed that areas I have mulched deeply with well rotted manure over winter are much improved, in terms of soil texture, and water retention in this dry spell we are having, that areas lest as bare soil. In fact some areas at the lotty I have left bare (where leeks were overwintering) are dried out and almost unworkably hard, whereas an adjacent bed thas was manured digs easily, has a much better texture and is still damp. The manure does seem to have suppressed the annual weeds it covered, although a lot of Fat Hen came in with the manure - but at least it hoes off easily.

A barrier at the edges might keep the couch grass out. A solution to the mare's tails would be more that welcome Evil or Very Mad
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Post by freebird on 1st May 2017, 9:03 am

The barrier is to keep the couch out of the plot, but more importantly to exclude all light so it will eventually die.

We are fortunate not to have mares tail here, but it's only a little way up the road, so think it's probably just a matter of time.

His no-dig approach does involve digging in the first instance, to remove as much perennial weed as possible, but thereafter, mulching, hoeing & hand weeding. I think my biggest difficulty is sourcing enough mulching material.
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Post by Chilli-head on 1st May 2017, 10:17 am

Ah yes. And mulching material that isn't full of weed seed. I used horse manure once. It comes free because my business partner has horses, but I won't be doing that again. Lovely crop of stinging nettles !

I can buy, for £30 for a trailer load, well rotted, mixed manure. I've still imported a couple of weeds I could do without amongst that.
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Post by Dandelion on 1st May 2017, 9:54 pm

I've been trying out some of these ideas since last year and am gradually working my way round the garden under the trees and bushes with layers of cardboard and compost. I get excited when we get a delivery from Amazon, not because of the delivery but because there's a new box to use on the garden! I've been using home made compost, but also buying in sacks of soil improver from the tip - at £2 a sack it's not too expensive and seems to work OK. It seem to be working, though I did have to re-do one bit this spring, where the mulch hadn't covered the edge of a weedy bit properly, and the dandelions were still groing away strongly. They aren't now!

Charles Dowding's books are worth reading: 'Organic Gardening the no-dig way' is the basic one. I also read 'Gardening Myths' (when I was catching the bus to work last year and had a lot of time to read!) where he expoldes some of the myths surrounding gardening (not just about digging!)

I hope you see an improvement Freebird - you sound really encouraged

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Post by freebird on 2nd May 2017, 12:56 pm

Well! That didn't take long. The foxes have been in last night and dug holes in all my prepared plots, scattering mulch everywhere. Going to have a salvage operation later, and will have to net the plots
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Post by Chilli-head on 2nd May 2017, 1:03 pm

freebird wrote:Well! That didn't take long. The foxes have been in last night and dug holes in all my prepared plots

So much for no-dig gardening Laughing Sorry, had to laugh.

I have blackbirds making a terrible mess around my garden at the moment. I had some stuff in big pots - a maple and blueberries which I had mulched with bark; they insist on digging out the top 3 inches and throwing it all over the patio. And the mulch around the apple trees I'm getting tired of raking up. What is going on this year, they aren't usualy this messy !
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Post by Dandelion on 2nd May 2017, 7:24 pm

freebird wrote:Well! That didn't take long. The foxes have been in last night and dug holes in all my prepared plots, scattering mulch everywhere. Going to have a salvage operation later, and will have to net the plots

Crying or Very sad

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Post by FloBear on 3rd May 2017, 5:48 pm

Oh no, poor freebird. Another job to do that wasn't intended Crying or Very sad
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Post by Ploshkin on 5th May 2017, 11:06 pm

I suppose I've been no dig gardening for the last 15 years since I introduced my raised beds.  It's more due to idleness than anything else and the fact that I have access to an infinite quantity of manure.
However at the end of last season I realised that my crops had become decidedly lacklustre (I think the polytunnel had made me more aware) so I've been paying a bit more attention to the soil for this year.  Last season I combined harvesting my potatoes with incorporating plenty of muck and have added another layer on those beds in readiness for planting this year.  I hope I will notice an improvement
I think perhaps I haven't been sufficiently generous with the muck in the past.  I will do the same with the potato bed again this year.
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Post by freebird on 29th June 2017, 9:03 am

An interim report on the no-dig gardening. I think I have been lucky as the long spell of dry weather has stopped too many weeds germinating. However, on my mulched plots, any weed seen has been removed immediately - sounds like hard work, but actually been so simple as they are easy to see against the mulch, and it has rarely required a concentrated effort. Just a glance as I go past on my way to the greenhouse.

Additionally, the mulch has been superb for helping keep the moisture in the soil. After many weeks without rain I started to think I really must water the veg plots. Scraping away the mulch, I found the soil quite moist underneath, so didn't bother watering.

So far, it has all been really encouraging with no apparent downside.
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Post by FloBear on 29th June 2017, 9:10 am

That sounds like a real success story-so-far, freebird.
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Post by Chilli-head on 28th September 2017, 2:21 pm

I've been thinking some more about no-dig methods, since a few of us are dabbling and having some positive results. What I wonder is, is it the lack of digging per se that contributes most, or is it the addition of the thick mulch. I am suspicious that the reality is that the no digging is a red herring, actually it is adding lost of organic matter that makes the bulk of the difference. Though it probably helps most if it is near the surface, where plant feeding roots are.

Anything that saves a heavy old job is welcome though !
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Post by freebird on 28th September 2017, 9:56 pm

Not sure I agree with you CH. By leaving the compost on top as a mulching layer, it suppresses the growth of weed seeds. Digging brings dormant ones to the surface, allowing them to germinate. That has been the thing that I have been most impressed with in this first year's experiment. My two plots I have had in cultivation started the year still containing the dead remains of last year's crops, and covered in annual and perennial weeds. I have been vigilant in removing anything I have seen growing, but it has been pretty minimal.

You would also need to read Charles Dowding's views on how he believes digging destroys the soil's structure and integrity.

Whenever I have grown vegetables, I have always had a period such as a holiday or busy work schedule when the maintenance gets away from me. I inevitably end the season a bit disheartened and vowing to catch up by preparing the plots in autumn ready for spring - of course it never happens and then I end up behind in the new season. That was what had happened at the beginning of this year. Having just bought the bags of compost, I had intended digging them in, but saw the programme with Charles D. So I dumped the compost on the top instead. That immediately put me several days ahead as I hadn't had to dig the plots.

I'm looking forward to continuing with this regime, and bringing other plots into production that have been unused (and I some cases derelict). The thought that all I need to do, once the perennial weeds are dealt with, is dump compost over the top once a year is truly wonderful. It has bought me so much extra time to spend on the more enjoyable aspects of growing, instead of continually firefighting.
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Post by freebird on 29th September 2017, 2:10 pm

As an addendum to the above - I have just been out to see what needed picking. While I was there I photographed a plot where, two weeks ago I removed the French beans. It has had no attention since. I cut them at ground level leaving the roots in the ground, to avoid disturbing the soil.


This second photo is of a plot that was completely overgrown with brambles and bindweed. It was cleared during mid-summer, and I have left it uncovered to see what remains of bramble and bindweed are still left in the soil, to be dug out as they appear. Since taking up the beans in the other plot, this plot has been hoed two or maybe three times.

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Post by Chilli-head on 29th September 2017, 3:30 pm

Nothing is ever simple is it. Working with agricultural weeding machinery, I see contrasting views. Some say they don't want to mechanically weed because every time you disturb the soil, you produce a fresh flush of weed emergence, so better to use chemical controls. Others say that a weed seed can only germinate once, so by repeated hoeing, yes you might cause some seed to germinate, but over time you reduce the seedbank in the soil. This is more usually the organic growers view. Some say that cultivating the soil disrupts the soil structure, so should be avoided. But others say aerating the soil improves mineralisation of nitrogen making it available to the plants - and we did see evidence that hoeing wheat crops seemed to give increased protein content.

Certainly spreading well rotted manure on some of my beds seems to have improved the soil a lot. Weeds-wise, I still have a lot of weeds, but they are different ones ! Now I get weed seed from the manure, rather than the ones native to the plot. But the better soil texture means at least they pull up easier. I also now have an orange flowered calendula all over my plot; it came from the seed swap, somehow made it from the garden to the allotment in spent compost I used for the carrots. They spread seed over the manure pile ... still, I leave some to grow and it looks pretty. A sort of inadvertant companion planting Smile
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Post by freebird on 29th September 2017, 7:14 pm

I hadn't meant that I don't hoe, or that it's against the principles of no-dig. I was just pointing out that the mulched bed has had little weed growth, whereas the soil I dug had masses - and despite having hoed it off at least twice, still persisted.

Weed seeds may only be able to germinate once, but why would I want to spend time hoeing until they are exhausted if I can prevent the germinating in the first place.
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Post by freebird on 30th September 2017, 1:12 pm

freebird wrote: One major problem is that both couch and bindweed have rooted into the footings of the greenhouse base and a concrete path. I often spray, but I have to be on it constantly, and always end up not doing it for a while, and go back to square one. Additionally, it would creep out from under the path/greenhouse and get in amongst the crops, where I could do nothing about it until the crops were finished.

Today I have trenched all around these areas, and covered with thick black plastic, into the trenches and across the paths, then refilled with soil to hold the plastic in place. All around each veg plot, I have covered the path area with whatever I have that will exclude light - carpet, hardboard, more black plastic. Finally topped each plot with a thickish layer of composted stable manure.

I'm not expecting miracles, and I know I will have to be meticulous about weeding this year particularly - but for the first time in many, many years, I actually believe this may be achievable. The no-dig part is just a bonus, but the general principles Mr Dowding expounds seem sound.

This has been fantastically successful. I had fully expected to see bits of couch or bindweed appearing at the edges, but nothing has appeared all season. I shall leave the coverings in place for at least another year, and hopefully it will kill off plants that have rooted under the hard 'landscaping'.
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Post by Chilli-head on 1st October 2017, 7:41 pm

freebird wrote:.
Weed seeds may only be able to germinate once, but why would I want to spend time hoeing until they are exhausted if I can prevent the germinating in the first place.

I was digging my garden vegetable plot today and mulling more on this. It occurs to me that I have been digging it once ir twice a year for 17 years. So according to the argument that a weed seed can germinate only once, it ought to be pretty weed free by now. It isn't ! I think Freebird might have a point.
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Post by freebird on 1st October 2017, 9:02 pm

Ah, but new ones are always going to come in, via wind, birds and animals.

Do you ever watch The Beechgrove Garden, CH? It's the Scottish version of Gardeners' World. They have been doing an experiment with dig versus no dig, growing identical crops side by side, using the two methods. So far, no dig wins pretty much hands down.

Why not try something similar on your allotment. It's not as if it takes loads of extra work to do.
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Post by Chilli-head on 2nd October 2017, 2:13 pm

freebird wrote:Ah, but new ones are always going to come in, via wind, birds and animals.

Hah, yes, it does rather presuppose that the seed bank in your chosen mulch material is lower than that in the ground itself.  And with manure this is true to differing extents - horse manure being a lot worse than cow for example; less efficient digestive system.  Good if you like nettle soup !


Do you ever watch The Beechgrove Garden, CH? It's the Scottish version of Gardeners' World. They have been doing an experiment with dig versus no dig, growing identical crops side by side, using the two methods. So far, no dig wins pretty much hands down.

Why not try something similar on your allotment. It's not as if it takes loads of extra work to do.

As you know, I am always fond of testing by experiment.  There are a few issues in testing it on my allotment; one is the seed influx from the unused plot next to me.  Another is the need to control horse tails. Well, attempt to control horse tails.  Finally, I guess it would only make a fair trial to grow the same things in both plots, which might mean putting up with gluts of some crops and shortages of others.  But I've got time to think on it.  For the time being, I'm waiting for the last butternut squash, the drying beans and the last row of peas to be finished before clearing and mulching with the rest of last spring's manure delivery.

As an aside, it occurs to me that the arguments of not encouraging weed germination support the traditional timing of digging in the autumn (if you do dig) rather than spring; less chance of seeds germinating, and more chance of the frost killing any that do.
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Post by Ploshkin on 3rd October 2017, 2:22 pm

I can see that I have inadvertently been doing 'no dig' for many years because I am just idle or don't have the time. I dump a load of well rotted manure on the surface of my beds in the Autumn or spring and that's it. Last year I put an extra amount on two beds when I harvested the potatoes from them. As I dug each row I made a trench that I filled with muck. That way it wasn't a big job. Both beds have grown really good brassicas this year - better than I have had for a long time, so I think it was worth the bit of extra effort.
The problem I have is indeed wind blown seeds. Being surrounded by acres of wild landscape in every direction I have no hope of controlling the wind blown weed seeds. I hoe when the crops are smallish but tend to just let it go when it gets too difficult to hoe round them. I try to clear each bed of weeds when I harvest.
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Post by freebird on 13th November 2017, 8:04 am

Yesterday I discovered another advantage of no-dig that I hadn't previously considered. It was a lovely day and I wanted to be in the garden, but the ground is too wet for any digging (I still have a lot of new clearing to do). But because I am not digging my established plots, it took me all of 20 minutes to cover another of them with compost, and my asparagus bed too. Voila! Ready for planting in the spring.
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Post by FloBear on 13th November 2017, 9:33 am

Freebird, I've had a read back and can see how impressive the no-dig experiment has been.
It seems to need quite a lot of mulching material and I presume you don't have access to animal manure as Ploshkin does. So do you have to buy stuff in? Is garden compost suitable or sufficient? Is other material suitable?
Perhaps I should just invest in Charles Dowding's book!! I
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Post by Dandelion on 13th November 2017, 6:05 pm

I've put two sacks of soil improver from our local recycling centre onto one raised bed. It cost me £4, so not free, but not expensive (and it all helps to fund the  composting of the stuff I take to the tip a couple of times a year, which I can't deal with myself - cuttings from woody shrubs for instance) This seems to be an acceptable material for the no-dig system and also works fine.

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