Charles Dowding’s No Dig Gardening, Course 1

Reviewed by Richard Robinson

dowding bookCharles Dowding is one of the pioneers of “no-dig” (or as we Americans call it, “no-till”) gardening. He has a large garden behind his house in Somerset, England, and a large following online and in bookstores. He is a celebrity gardener, whose nine books extol the virtues of the no-dig way in language that both instructs and comforts—this isn’t hard, and I’ll show you how. If you haven’t seen him on YouTube, take a few minutes, and you too might become a fan. I am.

So I was primed to like this book. I regret to say I came away somewhat disappointed.

The major problem as I see it is right there in the title: the book is apparently drawn from an introductory course that Dowding teaches, both in person and online. And like far too many books of similar genesis, this one comes across as a combination of lecture notes and handouts from a course that is likely much livelier and lovelier in its original venues, rather than a thought-through book on its own.

There are literally hundreds of photos, of beds planted to crops at multiple stages, of beds laid out in a variety of ways, of different kinds of mulches on different styles of paths. Sadly, most of the photographs are no larger than 2” square, which is fine for seeing how plastic is held on a bed, but not for appreciating the growth of lettuce from one week to the next or the way the carrots and leeks nestle together. In person, one can see the gardens themselves; online, the photos are larger and the images clearer. The book would have been much improved with half as many words, and pictures that were twice as big.

There are some terrific things in this book, including a nice chapter on weed identification and control, and details of trials Dowding has performed in his gardens over the years, comparing preparation methods, types of compost, and methods of weed control. Anyone who appreciates data to back up their plant wisdom will be grateful for these experiments. But the descriptions are scattered throughout the book, and it is not clear without a lot of back-and-forthing whether any particular trial is a new one or has been discussed before. I dearly wished he had provided a summary table of his experiments and told me where each was discussed in more detail.

There is a thought-provoking discussion of compost, specifically his insistence that fall application is all one needs, and that it can be done without worry of leaching. Dowding makes the point that most of the nutrients in compost are locked up, and must be released by microbial action (in stark contrast to those same nutrients in mineral form); thus, there is little loss over the winter exposed to the weather. He is also a soil-test skeptic, encouraging those of us with fainter hearts to trust our observations of plants to guide our ministrations. I am with him in spirit, but do wonder how I would ever know to apply boron. His point, though, is that good compost from a variety of sources should provide what your garden needs.

Dowding is downright contrarian on
the question of walking on your beds—
he does it.

Dowding is downright contrarian on the question of walking on your beds—he does it. He points out that true soil compaction—the kind that closes off air channels and reduces water movement in the soil, killing soil biology—comes from much greater pressures, or pressures over much longer periods, than the human foot applies for a few minutes of harvesting a couple times a year. “Plant roots like firm soil, into which they can anchor themselves and be stable,” he says. This sounds right to me. He dispatches multiple other gardening myths with equal certitude, including about crop rotation in the garden, hardening off, and the value of planting the “three sisters” for most gardeners.

Surprisingly, despite that his gardens are entirely hand-crafted enterprises, there is no chapter on tools. This is a shame, because the range of tools available in the UK is different than in the US, and I was looking forward to learning about some unusual brands and styles.

One might ask why a whole book on no-till gardening is even needed, when the basic ideas—stop tilling!! Start mulching!!—can fit on a matchbook. But a book like this can offer a beginning gardener, or even an intermediate gardener who has grown to rely on his rototiller, the opportunity to see how a master has, year after year, grown beautiful gardens full of abundant and delicious food, while never disturbing the soil. If you are a gardener who is no-till-curious, this book is cheaper than a trip to Somerset. But you may want to buy a nice magnifying glass at the same time, to better see what’s growing in those beautiful no-dig beds.