The No-Dig Allotmenteer
Notes from a no-dig plot
This article was prompted after telling friends how my new allotment plot looked entirely different to all its neighbours. It was brown and theirs were green. I’m glad to say that it was not mid summer, but early February - and the reason for this contrast was twofold: an unseasonably mild winter and extensive use of mulches.
The new allotments come to town
The Rhayader allotments were given by the council in March 2011. Each plot was 20x50 ft approx. The ground had previously been a grassed field which was roughly turned over to a shallow depth using heavy machinery. This left a dilemma as to how to proceed because the surface was a difficult combination of large half buried turfs compacted into the ground. A rotovator was hired and the majority of plot holders used this to break the soil down to a more manageable form.
Ploughing my own furrow
I decided not to rotovate because I thought it would :
- spread grass seed to every square inch of the plot
- break down the natural biological structure of the soil
- further compact the deeper soil
Instead I began (at the southerly end) to remove the largest pieces of turf by hand and place them face down into two heaps at opposite corners of the easterly edge of the plot. Larger stones were also removed. I slowly worked my way across about one third of the ground and decided that was quite enough of that for one season! I divided that section into three beds running east to west with the bank of raised turves approximately two feet high running along the easterly edge (afterwards planted with strawberries and geraniums). With a fork I loosened and levelled the surface and added a dressing of Cwm Harry soil improver.
The next section was developed as a centrally placed ‘Hugelkultur’* bed with soft fruit (rhubarb, raspberries and blackcurrants) planted to each side and another raised Hugelkultur bed - these are quickly and easily generated by heaping wet, well-rotted wood fetched from the woods, filling the gaps with turves and manure, and adding a top layer of fine soil dressed as above.
Time to get planting
By now (mid-late March) the temperatures were rising and I was as keen as everyone else to start cultivating the ground that had been made ready. So with the last third of the plot I decided to sheet mulch** the whole area and plant potatoes through it. The bulk of the mulch was a six inch layer of straw, topped up with grass clippings and earth (as and when needed) which had been removed by the council in the original excavations (paths etc) and was heaped nearby. I should add that this sheet mulch was laid down immediately after the last decent spell of rain we would see for weeks and weeks.
So that was the basic plan of the allotment plot established. It was done more or less off-the-cuff due to the race against time. Seeds were planted and so began the business of building up the soil with mulches of whatever I could get my hands on - mainly leaf mould from the woods, compost, comfrey leaves and chicken manure pellets.
The fruits of our labour
The results were reasonable but I would say not as good as some of the plots that had been dug over and cultivated in the traditional manner. I am happy to admit that there are some far more experienced growers than me down there too. However, it will be interesting to see how results pan out comparatively in the long term, as my soil builds up over time.
Putting the plot to bed
The potatoes were a good crop, and, once harvested at the end of the summer, I turned the (reasonably rotted) straw/clippings in and planted a green manure of clover over the top. This in turn was cut and left to rot down in late autumn. At this time the front three beds were sheet mulched with straw, manure and a top dressing of garden compost and left to break down over winter.
And what awaits the eager gardener now?
Which brings me back to where I started really: an allotment plot which is probably six inches deep in new soil/mulch. and which has proven to be almost immune from the encroachment of grass and weeds in this very mild winter. Although it sounds like a lot of work, the inputs have been comparatively low (it is easy to just throw stuff over the ground), and I don’t have the tedious task ahead of digging out grass and weeds before the new growing season. I’ve had one or two comments along the lines of ‘bloody hell - you must have been at it all winter!’, but actually I’ve done b. all.
I recently cut some paths into the potato patch to create four beds parallel to the front three, and the worm population I found was unbelievable. The soil is looking much better and it will be interesting to see how the general results compare with last year.
The benefits of mulch
Lastly, here is a reminder of the benefits of using mulch:
- improves and builds soil structure
- suppresses weeds (sheet mulch kills most perennial weeds)
- retains moisture in the soil, especially during dry spells
- prevents leaching of nutrients by direct exposure to sunlight
- prevents erosion of soil from rain and wind
- encourages worms and builds nutrients
- hospitable to positive predators such as spiders and slow worms
- cheap and easy
(If I find that productivity is continually and notably poorer than my dig-plot compatriots, then I will begrudgingly take up the spade and dig!)
Karl Sylvester is a PDC graduate, professioal gardener, and well known local artist working mainly with landscape subjects in the Elan Valley area which he captures on canvas while out walking in the Camrian foothills.
**Sheet mulching layers, as recommended by Bill Mollison, see;