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Composting success and ‘No Dig’ beds

My very own home-made compost – PROUD!

Last Friday I had such a brilliant afternoon. On a whim I decided it was time to empty out the compost I’d been making in my Green Johanna hot composter. I was spurred on by a brilliant hack I’d seen on a composting FB group to use a plastic fruit tray as a sifter. I happened to have one lying around so I grabbed it and I was off. What a revelation that was! I’d read in a book that sifting compost was really worth it and now I completely agree. My messy, odds-and-sods sort of compost, full of suspicious-looking lumps was transformed into lovely dark brown crumbly compost, as good as – no, BETTER – than any from a shop, as you can see from the pictures above.

And here’s a video of me and my sifter…

Sifting compost

I was surprised by how much of the stuff in the compost bin was non-compostable, or slow-composting. Compare the quantity of compost I got with the two tubs of rejected material…

Left – Two bags of crumbly compost, Right – Two tubs of non/slow-composting material

The photo below shows some of the items that turned up in the ‘rejects’: (from left to right) compostable wrapper from butcher, egg shell, a plum stone, a piece of stick, a tealight, a bone, a sweetcorn husk, coconut shell. I’m not sure what to do with this lot – I’d imagined chucking it all back in to continue composting, but obviously it needs sorting to take out the inorganic imposters – not such a lovely job – I may procrastinate on that a while.

Anyway, so happy was I with my composting achievement (this is my first proper batch of compost since I started nearly two years ago – it has NOT been as obvious as people sometimes make out! though well worth it once you get a feel for it…), so excited, that I immediately wanted to use it somewhere.

More than seven billion organisms can be found in just one tablespoon of soil – that’s around the same as the number of people on the planet! Soil Association, UK

Broad beans! They were the answer. I’d just dug some up – planted in late July, and as the books said, got pounced on my blackfly and only yielded a pretty measly crop. So I’m going again – this time for the hardy type that grow over the winter and are less susceptible to blackfly. And, the home made compost seems perfect for a first go at a proper ‘No Dig’ bed.

What is ‘No Dig’ gardening?

Phioto taken in Charles Dowding’s garden

I’m just learning about it, having recently attended a course with Charles Dowding, a pioneer of the approach, based in Somerset, UK. I’ll try to explain some of the key points:

  1. Digging damages the soil structure that natural organisms create – this structure helps plants to grow by providing aeration and good drainage

  2. Digging also brings weed seeds to the surface – creating more work for the gardener (and the temptation to use chemical weedkiller)

  3. Weeds come as healers of bare and broken soil – we need to treat our soil kindly

  4. Feed the worms and they will do your digging. Adding a layer of compost annually is enough to keep worms fed and the soil sufficiently loose.

  5. Compost can simply be added on top of the soil. There is no need to dig it in, as worms and other organisms will in time drag it down into the soil below.

The importance of regenerating healthy soil, of not digging excessively, of not leaving bare soil, of not using chemicals, are messages I hear constantly. (For instance, in the documentary Kiss The Ground that I watched recently. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it – it’s an eye-opener.) Regenerating soil is essential to reversing climate change, feeding ourselves, and preventing flooding and drought.

Every minute we lose the equivalent of 30 football pitches of fertile soil. When we don’t look after it, soil can lose its ability to support plant growth, become contaminated or erode away. Soil Association, UK

So, as a beginner vegetable gardener, with no affiliation to any particular way of doing things, ‘no dig’ chimes well with me and feels right for our planet. So I’m going to give it a go.

Setting up my ‘no dig’ bed

Step 1 – Clearing the bed and surrounding area of weeds

At this set up stage, you may have to dig, in order to clear out as many of the perennial weeds as possible. The plan is that after this (if I was thorough enough!), no more digging should be necessary.

Step 2 – Cover the bed and path areas with cardboard

The cardboard acts as a biodegradable weed suppressant. I’m not sure how long it will take to disappear, but as long as it’s brown rather than glossy/coloured, it’s ok to put on the bed. I adapted a bit here as I had lots of spare paving slabs, so I put them over the cardboard, to hold down the cardboard and give me a sturdy path. (The black tubes are part of an irrigation system we put in for this bed last year – not in use at the moment).

Step 3 – Put a layer of compost on top of the cardboard

My home-grown compost covered about a third of the area (about 5cm depth), so I’m going to use the central part as a walkway, and I’ve put some bought-in compost/manure on the right. It’s worked out well because now I can do a comparison – same seeds, my compost vs bought compost.

No Dig bed – Homemade compost on the left, bought compost on the right

Step 4 – Plant seeds directly into compost

Seeds can go directly into well-rotted compost so yesterday I sowed some broad beans. How to do this without digging and with minimal soil disturbance? A dibber! Yes, my exciting new gardening purchase was perfect for the job – it even has inch markings on it so you can measure your depth.

I’m going to wait a month to sow more bean seeds into the bought compost as it’s not well-rotted/crumbly yet. Hopefully it’ll get there before the window for sowing has passed.

And that’s it I think. I let you know what happens next year!

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