The first thing that every gardener must consider before sowing a single seed, is the soil in which they grow their plants. The makeup and quality of the soil is fundamental to plant health and is so often overlooked. Once a plant is planted in the ground, it has to grow in the conditions it finds itself in. By caring for soil we give our plants the best possible growing conditions for them to grow in happily and healthily.
The “no dig method” is used at Easton Walled Gardens to maintain our beds and borders and it is a great way to keep soil healthy, as surprisingly one of the most detrimental things to soil health is digging. In nature soil is rarely disturbed and is only cultivated by worms and other invertebrates from within. By lifting, chopping and breaking the earth regularly we interrupt micro and macro organisms that cultivate and improve soils naturally. The aim of the no dig method is to avoid deep soil disturbance and mulch the soil with organic matter. The mulch is pulled down and incorporated by soil life, slowly aerating and releasing nutrients in the root zone.
The best organic matter you can mulch with is home-made compost as it is full of local bacteria and organisms. Compost can however be in limited supply, so well-rotted manure is a great readily available alternative. The mulch covers the soil, reducing erosion, improving moisture retention and suppressing weeds. You then plant or sow straight into it.
By not digging the soil we also help encourage beneficial fungi, which fuse with plants and help them access moisture and nutrients. These fungi are fed carbon, which is extracted from the air by their host plants. The carbon is then locked up in fungal cells reducing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere affecting global warming. To encourage these beneficial fungi, use wood chippings for paths through or alongside your beds, this mulches the ground, reduces compaction and feeds fungi.
The most important thing to remember for soil health is that it should never be bare. If you can’t mulch it, then plant it. If you can’t plant it or aren’t ready to plant it, then grow a green manure. Temporary plantings of mustard, clover and grazing rye, to name but a few, grow quickly and facilitate beneficial soil activity until you are ready for more permanent planting.
Finally, only use natural fertilizers such as bonemeal, fish blood and bone, seaweed meal and poultry manure to boost biological activity in your soil. These fertilizers release a wide range of plant nutrients steadily and slowly, but should always be applied at the recommended dose rate to keep your soil fertility in balance.
Employing the no dig method means putting away your digging spade, spreading mulch and letting the creatures in the soil do the hard work.