A healthy soil for healthy produce and healthy people
(The reference to a seminar with Richard Perkins in paragraph 15 was removed after Krautgaart clarified it had to be rescheduled).
With a thriving market garden business and strong presence on social media, Krautgaart were one of the first to supply Luxembourg with fresh vegetables using the no till, or no dig method.
The team - Claude Petit, Max Epstein and Jean-Marc Parries – have been educated in the fields of botany, agronomy, landscape ecology and the environment. If anyone can dish the dirt on no dig, these gardeners can!
So, when Claude Petit offered to talk about his gardening practices, it was a perfect opportunity for me to dig a little deeper into the topic.
After spending years tilling the soil, many of us may ask how to garden without digging. “No dig is an approach that is specifically fitting on a very small scale, in a market garden, homesteading garden or just in your private garden,’’ said Petit.
The method involves undertaking as little digging as possible and leaving the soil virtually undisturbed. Krautgaart uses “compost as a mulch to directly sow and plant in. There is no cultivation of the soil at all, except the light surface strokes of a rake,” Petit said.
This all sounded too easy, almost lazy when I thought of all the digging, forking and hoeing normally undertaken each year.
But for Petit, ‘It never felt right to disturb such a complex ecosystem as the soil by simply digging it up. We knew about soil life - worms, insects, bacteria, funghi, etc. - and their interaction with plants and the non-living world. To put a tool in it and turn it over to have a clear bed to plant in couldn’t be the right way.’’ The process of digging can often be disruptive; damage soil structure, displace nutrients and cause compaction.
Still suspicious? Here is Petit’s list to show why no dig is appealing, not only for a small farming businesses, but for the amateur gardener too:
- No dig means less physical work and fewer weeds. The layer of mulch makes it easier to eliminate weeds. No weed seeds are pulled to the surface where they would germinate.
- Beds can be prepared in early spring on dry soil. Dark compost will absorb heat quicker, making seed germination faster and growth better.
- Slugs don’t like the dry and often hot surface of the compost and cannot find habitat.
- A stronger soil structure leaves organisms intact to nourish plants. There is no need for external input such as organic or inorganic fertilisers.
- The fungal web in the soil - the mycelium - can develop without disturbance. This provides further food to plants.
- Water can easily penetrate the soil, without erosion and without leaving a crust.
- Mulches can protect the soil from drying out and act as a water retainer.
And the drawbacks? Petit warned that although weeds can be reduced, they cannot be eliminated and will still need removing by hand. Troublesome critters like voles, moles, mice et al. will no longer be disturbed, and probably remain in residence on your patch. Lastly, getting high grade organic compost can prove trickier than you think.
An à la mode movement?
The origins of no dig are unclear, but it’s safe to say that the movement has been gathering followers since the 1960s. Pioneers such as Charles Dowding have popularised the method among gardeners.
‘‘There is a bigger awareness of problems linked to modern ways of producing food,” said Petit. More people are growing their own crops or looking to local suppliers, like Krautgaart, to provide seasonal produce. The pandemic has only added to that movement.
‘’Small-scale farming businesses are popping up worldwide,’’ Petit said, “as they don’t require a lot of input, like land or machinery, and make it possible to start a farming business on a low budget. Such new farms are mostly based on organic and systemic approaches’’.
The more successful of this new breed of Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) enterprises are using new methods, harness social media and collaborate with local communities.
“We want new organic and regenerative methods to spread to a new generation of gardeners and farmers,” said Petit. To this end, Krautgaart offer schools the opportunity to ‘Fro de Bauer’ (ask the farmer); provide apprenticeships and organise workshops and conferences. In 2019, Charles Dowding himself could be heard.
Trying no till?
If you want to have a go at no dig, between now and spring is the best time to begin. Petit recommends doing a little research first. There are different methods, such as sheet mulching, and finding the right one can help you succeed. Start small and go easy on external sources, like commercial compost. A few centimetres of compost is enough for a season. Those able to make their own compost have the best set-up, but for those without the space or time, Petit advises using certified green waste compost (RAL). The first harvest may not meet expectations but the quality and quantity will improve each year.
Whatever path you choose, Petit’s words should guide you: “Having a healthy soil means healthy plants, animals and people’’.
Fancy Digging Deeper? Check out the links below…..