By Roger Roberts, a Cambridge allotment holder.

Having been brought up at a large stately home, where my father was Head Gardener, digging was something that we did without question. My brother and I were taught how to dig and double-dig from an early age and we were given plenty of practice. You could see us toiling away in the walled garden each autumn, turning over the soil with great care and attention to detail.

As a result, digging is something at which I am genuinely skilled and accomplished. So much so that I have had people walking along the street by my allotment stop and admire my digging. One autumn an elderly gentleman told me that he hadn’t seen a piece of land dug so beautifully for years. I was flattered, of course, and thought how proud my father would have been to hear such comments. I remove every little piece of root, I keep the ground level and I turn over each sod with care. It is very satisfying to me to clean a piece of land in this way and I enjoy seeing the result.

Those ‘radish and rhubarb’ growers

As a VON member and someone who takes an active interest in trends in organic gardening, I started to notice some years ago an increasing number of articles and discussions about the ‘no dig’ or ‘no till’ method of growing. At first, I dismissed such ideas as the delusions of amateurs, those armchair ‘radish and rhubarb’ growers (as I liked to think of them!), rather than true professionals like my father.

As you can imagine, for me, a confirmed digger, the idea of not digging was an alien and unattractive one. It went against everything I had been taught. In fact, it almost seemed an insult to my father and an affront to the professional gardeners working on the estates over the centuries. Those Head Gardeners were experts whose phenomenal knowledge about plants and growing was often undervalued and I felt the need to defend them and their practices. And if they said digging was good, and they achieved the remarkable results that they did, then who was I to disagree?

Practising what we preach

But a year or so ago I began to reassess my opinion, and I started to think about why I was so ‘blocked’ when it came to ‘no till’ techniques. Why was I quite so defensive about digging? Was it because my father died quite young, when I was a teenager, and I felt the need to stand up for his gardening techniques, now that he was no longer here to defend himself? It got me thinking about other fathers and sons in other professions. Maybe I was being as ‘closed’ and ‘blocked’ as some of those who carried out practices that I considered rather barbaric and destructive? What of the sons of slaughterhouse workers, rainforest lumberjacks and weapon designers? Didn’t they also feel pride in doing something well and employing the techniques and knowledge of their fathers?

Just because someone has become skilled at doing something, I reasoned, whether it is slaughtering animals, sawing down trees, designing weapons or digging up the earth, doesn’t mean that it is an inherently good thing to do. Perhaps some de-skilling and re-skilling was in order? And maybe, as a vegan, pacifist and would-be environmentalist, I should take special care to practise what I am implicitly asking others to do: namely, to consider giving up something harmful and look for new ways of interacting with the world and its ecosystems.

Lay down your spades

No striped lawns or straight rows here! Photo: Claire Gregory

So, last year, I took a deep breath and started to take a proper look at no-digging techniques and the arguments in favour of such an approach. I began very gently, reading about Donald Watson, the leading light of the vegan movement in the 1940s and the man who came up with the term ‘vegan’. He used a fork to dig, rather than a spade, so as to reduce the potential for killing worms and hurting other creatures in the soil. I felt quite at home with this, as I had done the same for many years and for the same reason. Donald and I were clearly thinking along the same lines; I was in good company.

Then I started to move onto the arguments of those who advocated no digging at all and whom I had smugly considered incapable of getting up in the morning and getting down to work. I had viewed them as sandal-wearing dreamers, who wouldn’t know a parsnip from a patch of parsley, and who wouldn’t be able to work out which way up to hold a fork, never mind how to use it properly. Such were my narrow thoughts and prejudice! Despite this undercurrent of disdain, however, I decided to carry on finding out more. I almost wanted to prove the jumped-up amateurs wrong!

Convincing arguments

But, to my dismay, the more I read about this method of growing, the more the ideas made sense. Mulching to retain moisture was eminently sensible, and to damage the structure of the soil by submerging the most important top layer, seemed, on reflection, a rather silly idea. Leaving the soil exposed and leaching its nutrients over the winter didn’t look like such a clever move either. And the arguments about the detrimental effects of unbalancing symbiotic interactions amongst soil life and displacing nutrients from the top soil made sense.

Using compost, mulch and cover crops, thereby mimicking the way that things work in the ‘natural’ world where fertility is built from the top, seemed like a valid concept too. As I read more about the topic, the disturbance of the soil, particularly the crucial top layer, seemed not only unnecessary but also downright unhelpful. I had to admit that the arguments against digging were surprisingly logical, even to a confirmed digger like me.

A proud history

I found out that Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer and philosopher, had been a proponent of no-till farming in the 1930s and I learned that the pioneering vegan, Kathleen Jannaway, had long maintained that soil fertility is best preserved by the use of green manures, leaf mould, straw and composted vegetable matter. Australian Esther Dean and American Ruth Stout, said to have inspired Bill Mollison of the Permaculture Movement, had advocated a ‘permanent’ garden mulching technique many years ago, layering organic materials on top of the soil to create a nutrient-rich environment for plants and ensure that the top soil was dark, crumbly and fertile for seeds and plants.

Gardeners following the Dalziel O’Brien system have been using soil-covering mulches for many years too, and employ non-compacting surface cultivation techniques through the use of permanent raised beds and hard-packed paths. Another proponent of the ‘no-dig’ approach has been Charles Dowding, who has been successfully growing fruits and vegetables on his market garden in this way for the past 25 years. I had to admit that ‘no diggers’ were clearly not amateur, armchair horticulturalists after all.

Straw poll

But how many Vegan Organic Network members had been persuaded by these arguments, I wondered? So just over 100 members were emailed to ask whether they dug their land or not. The correspondence from this ‘straw poll’ suggested that the majority don’t dig their gardens and allotments, and many others keep digging to an absolute minimum. Most correspondents argued that digging is neither necessary nor desirable. One member said that even couch grass could be kept under control with the no-dig technique. Others mentioned cardboard, wood chippings, hemp matting and spent hops for mulching and earthing up potatoes.

Others explained that the idea was to create a natural ecosystem and pointed out that ‘we don’t need to tell a forest how to grow’. Green manures are normally cut down and left on the surface as a mulch, or are added to the compost bin. One VON member also suggested sowing and planting ‘in a mish-mash’, rather than in rows, so as to confuse pests who can’t so easily find their targets. This concept is still difficult to handle for someone brought up on a Victorian-style estate with striped lawns, straight rows of obedient vegetables and well-ordered lines of trees!

However, I left my fork in the shed this autumn and I didn’t dig. It gave me more time to do other things but, what with my history of muddy boots, bothies and bonfires, it felt a bit strange and, having been brought up with the Protestant work ethic, I almost felt guilty about not turning over the soil. But this year I am mulching instead. My green manures will be cut down and will rot back gently onto the surface of the soil, the worms will be left in peace to carry out their vital work and I will be concentrating on building up a richer and more fertile layer of topsoil. It’s taken a long while, I admit, but people can change when they drop their prejudices and open up their minds. I think my father will forgive me. He might even be proud.

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 27 (Summer 2011), p20.