Soil BiologySoil ConservationSoil RehabilitationStructure

Wildlife Friendly Gardening Begins Beneath Us

Why dig? Why turn over tonnes of topsoil year after year. We know permanent soil has properties that annual crops need and which sustains bio diversity. Why disturb and destroy the goodness that nature provides?

Salad, herbs, onions, garlic, brassica, peas, beans, and ornamentals are examples of plants that can be cultivated without digging. One simple method to achieve surface drainage and root development with minimal soil disturbance is to cultivate narrow drainage channels.

Minimal cultivations can be disappointing when applied to crops you want to grow from seed in the same growing season. This is because broadcasting seed onto permanent soil suffers from two issues:

  1. A fine tilth is required for even germination.
  2. Seedlings / young plants need surface drainage for root development.

Fine, moist soil needs to surround seed sown at the correct depth if we expect our crops to germinate and emerge evenly.

Seedlings sat in saturated soil produce stunted roots; if they survive at all. Stunted roots equal a stunted plant.

The narrow drainage channel cultivated under the centre of a band of plants is a compromise between permanent soil and its cultivated cousin. There is enough loose soil on the surface to make a seed bed with a fine tilth. The channels contain loose soil that encourages surface drainage. Overall the ground is still firm, self-structured soil. In a field situation you could walk or drive over it without making marks.

Young plants propagated above a narrow drainage channel develop in a healthy manner. Extensive root systems grow deep into the soil profile. The roots of growing crops can break into worm burrows or channels left by a previous crop that has decayed. Here they find moist soil with nutrient that is released slowly from organic material.

Wildlife friendly gardening begins beneath us. Turning the top soil over reduces worm populations and opportunity for biodiversity in the leaf litter. Composting worms, beetles, spiders, earwigs, woodlice and many other mini beasts use the detritus that sits on the surface of the ground for habitat. Digging in the previous crop looks tidy but the creatures that live in leaf litter are beneficial. They belong in many food chains; often being predators of crop pests such as aphids, caterpillars and slugs themselves.

Climate change has been encouraged by agricultural practises over many years. Millions of hectares of cultivated soil around the world have eroded. The soil fertility has been washed away and the soil’s bank of carbon has been released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Narrow drainage channels are a solution because the soil is mostly undisturbed when crops are grown using this method of cultivation. Watch the video below to see how it works.

It is preferable to use trees, shrubs and perennials for food, fuel and ornamental production. If we have to cultivate the ground layer to satisfy our appetite for a wide range of foodstuffs then a no dig system is win, win and win. The gardener saves effort, sustains wildlife and contributes to slowing climate change.

//www.youtube.com/embed/Bztfp1Bwr-8

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Andrew Astle has grown food and ornamental crops for thirty years. In recent years he has needed to find a method of gardening that requires less effort. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. Treatment left him weak and the muscle was removed from his neck and shoulder. He joined the permaculture association recently; after reading “Permaculture a Designers’ Manual,” he realised that his no-dig gardening method benefits wildlife and the wider environment.
His book “TINE” How to Garden Without Digging is available from his website at: www.soilisalive.com

10 Comments

  1. Many thanks for this Andrew. I have a chronic lung disease as well as M.E), and like you cannot do a lot of heavy work nowadays. I will try to find one of those tools you are using. It would be ideal for me, I’ve never heard of a ‘Tine’ before.

    By your accent I would say you come from the Derbyshire/Notts area. I’m in Lincs, so not far away. I’m going to look at your web sure now.

    Again thank you so much for this.

  2. We hope to grow our food in a wildlife friendly deep back yard in Berkeley, California–a balance of food for our neighbors and food for wildlife..The ecological balance is unbalanced–some wildlife flourishes–with some food left for humans to share. Wildlife now harms our raised beds of vegetables and takes from our fruiting trees. The end result is that the food we grow and give away is damaged by wildlife What can folks suggest that we do to discourage wildlife so some food is left for us? Opossums take fruit, our dog has killed 3 juvenile opossums in the daytime; racoons dig for worms, squirrels bury acorns and take bites from apples, corn (bending the stalk useless), squirrels know the day plums are ripe to pick–bite some and knock pounds off the trees the very day we had planned to invite neighborhood children to pick pounds of plums etc.If we mix fish emulsion into the soil, we find the next day that area dug up– Ferral cats like to use the soft soils for scratching their excrement into the soil– the rats play at night and love to urinate on our mulched twigs–a neighbor’s dog barks a lot and sometimes kills rats who love the warmth below his compost pile..Our compost bins have mice living beneath in the warmth…I care for my garden every day–it is sad to find plants dug up and dying that could have yielded pounds of vegetables..We don’t have deer–we do have crows who eat rats, mice and small birds and some bats roam at night. Please make suggestions

  3. Hello again Bethany
    Was the YouTube demonstration helpful?
    I can’t comment on the wildlife in your garden. I had to google opossum to know what one is.
    I can comment regarding my own garden. There are no rats or mice in our compost we don’t add food waste to compost with ordinary kitchen and garden waste.
    You can find information about food waste composting if you google “hotbin” there are several options.
    A rabbit fence buried to 6 inches prevents damage. Will this work for you?
    Cats can’t easily make a toilet within our vegetable garden because I don’t dig the soil over; the surface is too firm for them to scratch a hole in
    Bats flying at twilight in the late summer and autumn are a very welcome visitor their random flight is very interesting to watch. The species in our garden aren’t harmful to fruit and vegetables I think they eat insects.
    There is a chapter in my book titled “A Wildlife Friendly Garden or Pest Control?” available from http://www.soilisalive.com

  4. I like using a broadfork. It loosens the soil, aerating it and helping to distribute compost into the soil. It’s also fantastic fo digging potatoes and root veggies like carrots, turnips, parsnips and beets with minimal disturbance of the soil.

  5. I though that you had to dig up soil every once in awhile so that it doesn’t become compacted and so that it can get some oxygen.

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