CHARLES DOWDING - Homeacres, Somerset
Situated just around the corner from the ever popular Somerset town of Bruton is 'Homeacres', the farm of commercial organic vegetable grower Charles Dowding. Whose curiosity for organic growing was sparked during his last year at university simply by helping his mother to plant trees. He has spent the last 35 years learning and developing his 'No Dig' approach to growing, meaning very little weeding is needed but still achieving the same yield of crop. Since moving into 'Homeacres', he has transformed what was an overgrown jungle into a commerical garden that yields over a tonne of salad leaves every year (amongst a vast assortment of other vegetables). Charles implemented the no dig technique from the start and hasn't looked back. As we explored the garden of 'Homeacres' on a crisp spring morning, Charles excitedly exclaims "look no weeds" on several occasions, demonstrating his passion for 'No Dig'. This passion has led him to write several books as well as run a variety of talks and courses at 'Homeacres'.
Back in April we caught up with Charles at 'Homeacres' to discuss 'No Dig' and his early horticultural influences:
Tell us about your 'No Dig' approach to gardening?
I like it for allowing soil to grow in a natural way, with bountiful harvests and few weeds. By contrast, digging causes stress to soil by killing some of its inhabitants and damaging the structure. For example you can walk on undug beds but not on dug ones, where the structure is broken.
No dig replicates the natural processes of soil where organic matter keeps falling onto the surface. Soil inhabitants have evolved to process this “waste” and transform it into food for new growth, while working within a structured environment. This is one reason why undug soil can drain better and hold more moisture than cultivated soil. Less weed seeds germinate and crop yields can equal or sometimes be higher than from equivalent dug soil. Because no carbon oxidises during cultivations, undug soils are more retentive of their organic matter and do not increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Could people implement the 'No Dig' approach at home?
Oh yes, its a question often of how to kill the weeds and mulches are good. If you have time to wait and have lots of vigorous perennial weeds, covering with black polythene is good. Or if starting with a lawn, covering with compost is enough to kill weeds and you can sow/plant straightaway. In the event that soil is dug, loosened or turned over, it recovers from the disruption by re-covering with weed growth. It also needs time to recover in a more general way. By contrast when left uncultivated it has less need to re-cover and therefore grows less weeds – but there will always be some, mostly from seeds blowing in or brought in with manures, and they need removing by hand or hoe at all times. It is a little and often approach, without a grand dig to bury all the trouble. Vegetable growing is more bountiful and much easier when weeding is just a small issue.
Where can people learn more about 'No Dig'?
We do day courses and weekends, the day courses are full of information about how to start and continue no dig, with lots about how to sow, propagate and harvest. The latter are about market gardening and larger scale growing. Homeacres is a great learning environment with its warm conservatory and all the beautiful vegetables to see, compost heaps too and polytunnel. Then you are treated to one of the best vegetarian/vegan lunches available anywhere in the world, with dishes crafted by Stephanie Hafferty.
What were the literary influences in your early career?
My favourite writers were Eve Balfour, Albert Howard and F.C. King who were early organic pioneers in the 1920's-50's. I wanted health from the land, when I started growing in 1982 it was almost revolutionary to grow organically and there was less concern about nutrition. No dig was not even on the radar and I simply felt it was the right way to go. Now I know it is.
You've written several books yourself, how does the writing slot in with gardening?
I like the rhythm because I can write a lot in winter and on rainy days, also early in the morning, then have enough time to garden. No dig is time efficient and I spend little time weeding so I achieve a lot more than if I was digging/rotovating. Also there is now huge interest in no dig, in June I am invited to teach a course in Ireland at Ballymaloe, after Darina Allen came here in November. Then there is a big international “no till” farming conference in Hitching on June 30th where I am speaking. Kew Gardens are now no dig in the garden where Raymond Blanc was filmed in 2015. They are really up for it and the gardener once came on a day course here.
Do you feel theres a new generation of people excited about gardening?
Yes most certainly, I am so excited to meet more and more gardeners in their twenties who want to grow healthy food and connect with nature.
Whats your favourite thing to grow?
All vegetables, I love them and every season is so different. Flowers too! I guess salad leaves chime with me the most for their speed of growth, fine tastes and lovely colours: they look as beautiful in the garden as they do on the plate.
What places would you recommend visiting to get inspiration?
Here is a good start and open days this year are on two Sunday afternoons, June 12th and September 4th. Yeo Valley gardens are hugely impressive and they are mostly no dig. Barrington Court run a great veg garden and they were no dig last time I checked.