Apart from the environmental benefits of a no-dig system, the most obvious benefit (and my personal favourite) is of course “no digging”!
A great alternative to traditional digging is the use of mulching. This can be done using many different mediums, such as compost, woodchip, cardboard, shredded paper, weed membrane, tarpaulin and even wool to cover and protect the soil. Mulching has many benefits whether it’s done on active beds or on beds that are not being used for some time. If, as we do on many of our beds, you decide to use compost as a mulch, the obvious but only real drawback is the need for lots and lots of mulching or rather the need for lots and lots of mulch in the form of compost.
For any new garden in its first year, there’s very little, if no chance at all of producing enough compost for their mulching needs – even many established gardens struggle to produce sufficient compost for their own mulching requirements. So, the solution for many growers, including ourselves, is to buy in compost. Obviously, there’s a cost implication to buying in compost but we see it as a necessary investment, like buying a polytunnel, a tractor or tools. However, although mulching with compost from commercial suppliers can be very expensive, many local recycling centres such as Cwm Environmental in Carmarthen and MEC Recycling in Newark now offer organic compost at way lower prices than commercial outlets – especially if you can buy it in bulk. Even better, if you are a community organisation or a charity, some of these companies will give you free compost!
So Why Mulch?
Well, apart from saving a hell of lot of time and hard work (and your back) by unnecessarily turning over the soil, mulching with compost has many other benefits.
Mulching rather than digging means the ecology of the soil isn’t disturbed. And that’s a good thing? Yes it’s a very good thing – just take a walk through any woodland, or look at areas of no-till farmland, even plots of wasteland in towns and cities, and you’ll notice how well everything’s growing without being ploughed, or dug, or god forbid, double dug! This is because the ecology of the soil in these places is working perfectly well without any interference from us clever humans. Healthy soil is a rich ecosystem made from a complex matrix of organisms including insects, worms, bacteria and fungi all working together to break down and recycle organic matter, to free up nutrients and nourish the roots of plants.
Obviously woodland, set-aside land and areas of wasteland don’t usually contain many of the plants we would want in our veg plots, orchards and herb gardens. In fact, many of these plants are generally considered by most growers to be weeds. The point is that these places are highly productive systems, fuelled by healthy, undisturbed soil, which as permaculturalists, is something we want to replicate here at The Edible Garden Company – sans weeds of course.
If mulching is done well it can easily smother weeds on a previously dug bed but if you are starting a new bed on rough ground, on a lawn or an old bed with persistent weeds, then maybe our No-Dig course can show you how to build a new bed on any of the above examples.
Some of the other benefits of mulching, even on a good bed are that it will improve the soil structure by adding organic, fibrous matter to encourage worms and beneficial bacteria and fungi. It will help the soil to retain moisture and heat while slowly releasing nutrients making them available to plants as they grow.
Mulching increases soil health and healthy soil means healthy plants which help to discourage pests and diseases.
Not turning the soil over also helps to keep harmful greenhouse gasses such as CO2 and methane locked in the ground where they belong – digging and ploughing are responsible for millions of tons of these gasses being released into the atmosphere every year adding to the problem of global warming.