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calling a spade – a spade

November 2, 2012 Gotalottie 8 Comments

It was probably more years ago than I’d like to remember, that I was introduced to a world where allotments were cherished. I knew that my grandfather tended one but had never been invited nor had the possibility to see it for myself. It was while sitting my ‘A’ levels and waiting to join my parents in their new house in the West Country, that I was introduced to my grandfather’s allotment. I can hardly recall it now, save the shed filled with tools and shovels, spades and forks. He never mixed his words; this was his retreat, a place to contemplate, to escape the stench of steaming cabbage from my grandmothers stove and a place to dig.

A year later and in our new home – a former smallholding – was I introduced once again to certain techniques commonly associated with vegetable growing, namely digging. It was a hot summer, one which I spent turning over inconceivable amounts of hard clay soil, each spadeful being then repeatedly pummelled, until fully broken up. At repeated intervals this pummelling action would be replaced with long careful raking actions. My mother would bring out cups of tea with a smile, whilst my father would be chuntering under his breath, something to do with my lack of speed or incorrect pummelling/raking actions or more likely – both.

what an allotment can give you - backache.

what an allotment can give you – backache.


Many years later and in meaningful employment, I found myself on a waiting list for an allotment, what goes round, comes round or was it in my genes? I’d had, for a long time, an active interest in growing plants, particularly fuschias, I knew my fresias from my fennel, but had never grown the latter. All things had come full circle and I wanted to become an allotment holder, my space, a place to contemplate in and to escape to, if ever exposed to cabbage cooking in bi-carb for 2 hours.

It seems too, that I was prepared to rediscover digging.

Or was I? Between then and now I’d also gained a desire to innovate, to invent and to find an easier way, because in all of life there is – staring us in the face – an easier way. All of my life I’ve innovated, sometimes with great success and on occasion to my peril. My daughter knew this and realised that I wouldn’t just stand there, shuffling slowly to the left, resigned to digging. I don’t do ‘Dig for Victory’, I’m not patriotic enough.

Dad's latest invention was designed to do the work of ten men

Dad’s latest invention was designed to do the work of ten men


I didn’t build a 10-bladed spade or some machine with an engine that you could walk up and down with, while it did the digging for you. I didn’t invent anything at all, but Tanya did buy a book, called ‘lasagna gardening’ which opened a thought process for me, of growing vegetables without any digging whatsoever.

The concept involves the laying down of successive layers of green and brown material, nitrogen rich followed by carbon rich mulches which would eventually decompose in an aerobic fashion and form a rich organic loam in which plants would thrive. These layers were added onto uncultivated ground with layers of thick cardboard to act as a weed-suppressing membrane. The methods described in the book, even suggested that plants could be planted directly through the mulches, with only a modicum of compost to support tiny roots until the plant became established.


After a lot of careful research, I was hooked. It wasn’t new, but here in the UK – it was certainly innovative.

So, having finally become the proud owners of a neglected and Horsetail-infested 12 rods, we set about the collection of materials to construct our first lasagna beds.

By building up thick beds of compostable materials, in essence, we are creating micro climates for soil organisms, for bacteria and fungi and for worms, all of which combine to form a healthy medium suitable for growing plants. The compost which is created by this method – in effect, sheet composting – becomes actively filled with mycorrhiza, a fungi which exists in long continuous chains. This fungi generates mycelia which connects with and often totally surrounds young plant roots. The mycorrhiza obtains the carbohydrates that it requires from the roots, in return providing the plant with nutrients including nitrogen and moisture. Later the plant roots will also absorb the mycelium into its own tissues. It all makes perfect sense; people in the USA and in Australia are forging careers and successful businesses out of the theory.

Here in the UK it’s new and evocative. We tried it, laying down 2 raised beds to the method. It worked and after just 2 weeks, the beds were warming up to between 10 and 15C above air temperature and the young veg seedlings which we’d transplanted – thrived. In just a few weeks, salad vegetables reached maturity and the couple on Plot 36 were the subject of some discussion.

crisp healthy salad veg - just a few weeks old

crisp healthy salad veg – just a few weeks old


In reality, vast quantities of raw material are required and no-one has any real possibility to bring in the volumes needed – certainly not to convert 12 rods. We tried.

It’s not visually attractive, the beds look untidy with bits of straw and paper sticking up everywhere.

It’s a risky business when living near the coast, one strong gust of wind leaves 10% of a lasagna bed composting somewhere else, somewhere not intended.

End of lasagna gardening experiment.


The theory, however, is sound. Soil which is prepared correctly, regularly mulched and left undisturbed does produce bigger, better crops. Yields are increased, especially when combined with raised beds, as the beds, if left undisturbed –  can support more plants per metre.

We’ve opted to proceed with a less radical approach. We’re employing raised beds, beds with natural sloping sides that don’t harbour slugs or snails; each is filled with mulches that are already well composted and materials which attract and support worms and useful macrofauna. We’ve boosted the worm population too, by importing these in large numbers.

thick beds, sloping sides, nowhere for a slug or snail to hide

thick beds, sloping sides, nowhere for a slug or snail to hide


Our beds are working, we’ll continue to add mulches and composted manure and not disturb our soil, the worms can do that. The worms have now moved into and under the cardboard layers and are starting to drag this down. The hard moribund surface of our once-neglected allotment is beginning to be broken up and improved naturally, without a spade in sight.

The act of digging would destroy this natural environment, effectively breaking those delicate chains of mycorrhiza which have formed and it would take a few weeks for them to re-establish themselves again.

Why would I want to dig the whole plot, working in manure and then put paths back over the top? that’s not logical at all.

Why would I want to dig for England and bring 7 years worth of active seeds to the surface? in reality, most gardeners and allotment holders are doing just that, maybe they just like the exercise.


My grandfather never mixed his words, always called a spade – a spade and he’ll be up there somewhere, looking down whilst tending a ferret, having a good chunter too.

Currently there are "8 comments" on this Article:

  1. Anna B says:

    This is such a lovely post!!!! Really lovely and very practical too. I have friends who love these no dig methods, rather tempted to try this next year!

    • royw says:

      try it – you should. it’s really difficult to imagine all of the benefits, but as long as you add enough mulches and keep adding them, your soil will improve year after year and the weekly routine work that you need to do – like weeding – will reduce.

  2. Mark Willis says:

    There is a certain inevitability in the world of gardening! Once one member of a family gets hooked, it seems to easily follow-on down the generations, because it seems so “normal”. I think gardening (especially growing veg) is very therapeutic too. There is something very satisfying in seeing something really WORK (like your raised beds), and in being able to eat food you have grown yourself.

  3. [...] when they were growing up. I always feel they must have been such special times and this post by PushingUpDandelions captures feelings of vague memories and hard work and this one by Crafty Garden Hoe alludes to the [...]

  4. Lovely story. Good old Granddad.
    Have you tried Right up your street. His book Veg course is great.

    • royw says:

      Good morning Robert, very pleased that you liked the story! indeed we are acquainted with Charles Dowding and his work and forum; we mention a couple of his books in the article. Charles has a new book coming out soon on Organic Gardening and we’re hoping to give it a review in the next few weeks prior to the launch.

  5. Simon says:

    Did you get rid of the horsetail by this method?

    • royw says:

      Glad to see that you kept your blog going! In answer – yes, its the only organic method that will guarantee to work against HT: very thick card first and then mulches and it will be gone very quickly. You could add HT-contaminated soil on top of the card but expect to do some pulling of stems and small roots afterwards. You should do the paths too, but if this is too much work, then keep pulling it on the paths and a light feed of lawn feed to improve the soil in that area should kill it off. Dont let it grow so much that it will start to photosynthesise (5-7cms max).

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