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what is the history of no-dig? what were the biggest problems to overcome?  RSS feed

 
Burra Maluca
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I first heard of no dig about twenty years ago when my husband told me about a book he'd read when he was a young man, still dreaming of one day getting his own land to garden on.

He couldn't remember the exact name, but we're pretty sure it was this one, published in 1960 - Successful Gardening Without Digging  by James Gunston



He can't remember much about it except that the idea fascinated him but he was convinced that the technique was flawed and couldn't work.  A local organic farmer who experimented with it told him that it didn't work because the rain would compact the bare ground, or something, which he believed so he never really experimented.

About twenty years ago I read a little booklet with a similar title, and was convinced of the idea of it but got bogged down in the belief that mulch was necessary.  And lost all my plants to slugs, which were a constant threat in Wales. 

Now I've read Charles' and Stephanie's book, No Dig Organic Home & Garden it seems that all I had to do was to apply well made compost instead of mulch and the slugs wouldn't be such a problem.  In fact, the book seemed to provide simple, common sense solutions to all the little niggles and worries I had, both in Wales and since I moved to Portugal with its vastly different climate.

All ths made me wonder how much truth there was in the other 'flaws' of no dig. 

Does anyone know anything of the history of no-dig, and what problems there were which might have slowed its adoption, and how these were eventually overcome? 
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Plowman's Folly by Faulkner was one of the early books promoting this.
 
Charles Dowding
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This is a fascinating topic.
ruth stout in 1950s USA was a great pioneer.
Her husband was a farmer and gave her spoiled hay, so she dared simply to lay it on her veg garden and forget the tillage part. It worked a dream, and she made it popular with a book "No Work Gardening"!!
In 1982 I came across her book and copied her method in Somerset, UK.
Result: slugs!
But she does not mention them - her winters are so cold, they all died.
So in the 1980s I developed the method of compost mulching in my 7 acre market garden. This had also been practised by 1940s pioneers of compost in the early days of the UK Soil Association. Arthur Guest in Yorkshire was a proponent and published a great booklet on no dig in 1949, but I think he must have died soon after as no more was heard of him.

And there's the rub: no dig has been around a long time, but never 'wins out'. Until now, thanks in part to mechanised composting making more available, and the internet making unconventional ideas more accessible.
In comparison, the mainstream tend to favour "traditional ways".

We can help people find new and time saving methods, for healthy growth and more success.
 
Stacy Witscher
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I hear that complaint often with heavy mulching, slugs. Do other areas not have slugs without heavy mulching? Where I live, there have always been lots of slugs, mulch or no mulch. Just curious.
 
Burra Maluca
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Stacy Witscher wrote:
Do other areas not have slugs without heavy mulching? Where I live, there have always been lots of slugs, mulch or no mulch.


I'm in Portugal and only have problems with slugs in the spring when it's very wet, even in non-mulched areas.  As spring moves into summer, there are just one or two hiding under the mulch.  Then by summer we don't see any.
 
Charles Dowding
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Stacy's question is one I am often asked, and compost is the mulch that works best here, for not harbouring slugs yet feeding and protecting soil too. In particular when you want to grow annual vegetables. For perennials such as rhubarb and asparagus, rougher mulches are possible.
Another aspect is that beds with sides of old wood harbour slugs, best take them down.

Just now it is hot and dry, unusual for us, and I have mulched a few plants with rough grass (no seeds!), until the autumn when I shall remove it after harvests of squash and celeriac.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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The origins of no-dig gardening are not really documented but may be based on pre-industrial or nineteenth-century farming techniques.
Masanobu Fukuoka started his pioneering research work in this domain in 1938, and began publishing in the 1970s his philosophy of "Do Nothing Farming", which is now acknowledged by some as the beginnings of the Permaculture movement.
Others considered pioneers of the method in the twentieth century; F. C. King, Head Gardener at Levens Hall, South Westmorland, in the Lake District of England, who wrote the book "Is Digging Necessary?" in 1946 and A. Guest, who in 1948 published the book "Gardening Without Digging".
No-dig gardening was also promoted by Australian Esther Deans in the 1970s, and American gardener ruth stout advocated a "permanent" garden mulching technique in Gardening Without Work and no-dig methods in the 1950s and 1960s.

This technique recognizes that micro- and macro-biotic organisms constitute a "food web" community in the soil, necessary for the healthy cycling of nutrients and prevention of problematic organisms and diseases.
The plants transfer a portion of the carbon energy they produce to the soil, and microbes that benefit from this energy in turn convert available organic substances in the soil to the mineral elements the plants need to thrive.

Prior to these there are many cultures that didn't "dig" the fields but planted in relatively undisturbed soils, in North America, South America, Africa and India There are still no dig methods being used by the indigenous peoples who are carrying on their traditional ways of living.

Redhawk
 
William Bronson
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Does no dig mean you plowing or turning over the whole field?
Does it include not hoeing weeds?
 
John Weiland
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There will also likely be good reference information for this topic in writings from the Land Institute ( https://landinstitute.org/ ) as well as in Wes Jackson's book "New Roots for Agriculture":  https://www.amazon.com/New-Roots-Agriculture-Farming-Ranching/dp/0803275625

Somewhat related to this is an open-access article from the Land Institute in the journal 'Sustainability' titled "What Agriculture Can Learn from Native Ecosystems in Building Soil Organic Matter: A Review": http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/9/4/578

My guess will be that inclinations toward "no dig" will need to be matched with plant varieties adapted for such conditions.  Many domesticated crops are adapted towards looser soil and added nutrients.  If memory serves me, the Land Institute was trying to get around this by selecting (can't recall if they were breeding per se) perennial grains adapted for no till situations and, if productive, would by default not require annual tilling. 
 
Bryant RedHawk
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William Bronson wrote: Does no dig mean you plowing or turning over the whole field?
Does it include not hoeing weeds?


Tilling or plowing would be defined as digging.

No the idea of no dig doesn't mean you can't hoe out "weeds"
However the better choice would be cutting the "weeds" and letting them lay where they fall. That way they rot in place giving their nutrients back to the soil.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau John,  Most cropping plants will work just fine in a no dig garden area. Roots are roots and most plants have not been bred to grow in loose soil but many have been bred to resist pesticides and herbicides.

Wheat is a good example along with barley and oat varieties, they all can put down roots as far as 4 feet. The reason most fields don't see this sort of root action is because of the use of high N fertilizers being used.
That allows the plant to get lots of nitrogen without having to send roots deep, like they would if left to their own nutrient gathering.
This is part of the couch potato syndrome modern farming methods create.

Redhawk
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