THE MODERN MINT BLOG

Sep16

Charles Dowding

The team at Modern Mint have recently visited the teacher and vegetable grower Charles Dowding, who runs courses at his market garden in Somerset.

Charles Dowding is best known for his ‘no-dig’ approach to gardening. Seeing how he grows his vegetables and fruit first hand, we can tell you it looks fantastic (and the vegetables tasted great!)

The basic gist of the idea is to use compost mulches on your soil to grow your food. When you get your vegetable patch, instead of digging or (god forbid) double-digging, you just thrown down a mulch – preferably compost.

By putting so much compost on top of the earth you can reduce the amount of weeding you have to do as the compost excludes light that will help weed seeds to germinate. Perennial weeds with lots of energy stored in their roots have to grow up and through the mulch, which weakens them and makes them easier to weed out with a trowel, while the compost also conserves moisture saving you the effort of having to water so much.

Vegetables need a fertile soil – the use of manure and compost does all the feeding you need. It also helps to loosen the texture of clay soils or build structure into sandy soils. Finally, an easy tilth is created for sowing into.

You get all of these benefits without having to dig, remove a layer of turf, or spend hours pulling out bindweed. Doesn’t that sound good?

Why did Charles Dowding start his no-dig experiment in the first place? Having been a market gardener for over three decades it seemed he needed to find a way to grow more vegetables on less land with less work. So now he manages to get £20,000 worth of vegetables from about 1/3 of an acre, with two crops on a piece of land through the growing season. And because of his no-dig method, he can spend less time weeding and more time sowing and harvesting – the best things!

Below are a few more of our notes from what we learned on our day with Charles Dowding…

How much compost should you use? Start with about 6 inches, then top it up in the Autumn. If you run out of compost (and Charles varies what he uses, from horse manure to mushroom compost to his own homemade compost) you can also use cardboard and or a black matting.

Raised wooden boards are a good way to start, because that will guide you on how much compost you need, but the boards will harbour slugs – especially as they get older.

The compost makes a springy soil surface – which you CAN walk on.

Vegetable growing is just common sense. Yet a thread of Victorian enthusiasm for work is running through all our ideas about how to grow our food. Cut out the rubbish ideas – you don’t need to remove all of your tomato leaves…

This was a brilliant idea (and makes complete sense) – sow seeds after they want to flower. By sowing later than what is recommended on the seed packet you aren’t fighting the plants nature e.g. it wants to germinate, grow and race to flower. What you end up with is a plant that germinates, grows, can be harvested on a continual basis, before finally flowering months later… smart stuff!

As a general rule of thumb – sow seeds as deep as they are wide.

Get the right seed variety.

Add seaweed to sea vegetables.

In your polytunnel, have the ventilation higher so that a cold draft doesn’t roll over your plants. A polytunnel may also be better than a greenhouse as you get more light (the wooden frame of a greenhouse stops the light entering.)

With so much compost around, you probably only need to water every two days. But remember – for vegetables, water is important!

Charles Dowding uses copper tools. So do we here at Modern Mint.

castor trowel
Castor Trowel £32

With the lovely soil structure he has copper tools are perfect for use – he uses a spade, hoe and trowel (pictured above.) We prefer the Mira trowel for weeding, because it is longer and thinner and tapers to an incredibly useful sharp point, and the slightly lighter spade.

We also heard about Shumei from Charles Dowding – it is another system for growing vegetables and tending your patch of earth. We shall do some research on this and get back to you about it…

Could this approach work in an ornamental garden? Henk Gerritsen suggested in his 4 commandments not to disturb the soil. Charles Dowding is doing something similar to grow his vegetables – and reduces the work load too!

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