Sadly, we lost touch a few years ago but my back will be forever indebted to a lady by the name of Chrissie Mitchell who introduced me to the concept of no-dig gardening. I am sure the soil structure in the various plots I have cultivated in this way over the years has also benefited but Chrissie, my back is eternally grateful.
So when I decided that I would convert part of our lawn into a vegetable garden, whereas years ago I might have cut and stacked the turf (or simply killed it with herbicide) and then dug over the area, last autumn I simply covered the plot with back plastic and waited. A few weeks ago, I pulled back the plastic, spread half a dozen bags of soil conditioner (well-rotted farmyard manure on last year’s – I wonder what the difference will be) and then re-covered the area. If this year goes as well as last year, as the soil warms up the earthworms will be busy incorporating the conditioner into the soil, which will just need a light forking to loosen the surface, a quick rake and, voila, instant seedbed.
This method last year gave me excellent crops of beans, peas, sweetcorn and squash. This year, I am planting last year’s bed with potatoes and planting a similar mixture on the new one.
Last weekend I did get the spade out to plant a couple of rows of salad potatoes. More dedicated adherents of the no-dig method would say that this has undone all the good work that has so far gone into preserving the soil structure and I should be growing my spuds by spreading a deep layer of manure, covering with plastic and planting through holes cut in the plastic sheet. I have tried this method in the past and have never been convinced that the loss in yield compared to the traditional method of cultivation is worth the benefits to soil and back.
Of course, all the books will say that on a small plot such as mine I should be concentrating on high-value delicate crops and not low-cost staples like potatoes and beans. The problem is, my gardening philosophy is more peasant farmer than gentleman horticulturalist and I can never guarantee how much time I will be able to devote to the garden during the summer, so robust crops that can look after themselves are a must. Added to which, I have never been able to grow out of the fascination with the ability to plant one thing in the ground and get lots of things back. This miracle of nature delights me in a way that growing crops that involve planting one thing and getting a slightly bigger thing back never has.
Today I took advantage of another benefit of living a 2-minute walk from the office and spent lunchtime filling pots with compost and planting seeds – and I challenge anyone who commutes to do that.The sun was beginning to get some warmth in it, the birds were singing, the ducks were pottering about the lawn and a passing stag eyed me quizzically. Pretty idyllic for a Monday.