Wini Walbaum & Charles Dowding no dig, straw-hay for dry climate, compost for damp one, by Charles Dowding
Charles was contacted by some Chilean gardeners practicing no dig gardening. Here, they exchange on their challenges, their success and how growing vegetables in different atmospheres really look like.
Thanks to Charles Dowding for sharing his wisdom and knowledge! I wrote the following notes watching the video published on Charles Dowding’s channel. You can watch it using this YouTube link.
She’s from Santiago, Chile, living with her family of four.
They’re trying to produce and eat as much as they can from their garden.
And she teaches about growing food sustainably and with no dig on Instagram, YouTube and in online classes.
Charles runs a market garden on 1000 m² that supplies the local town.
At the time of the vlog, he’s talking about expanding the area cultivated.
He has been practicing no dig for 40 years.
Homeacres is wet while Wini leaves in a region that is a Mediterranean climate (very dry).
Yet, No Dig provides them both what they need.
In Chile, it’s essential to keep the water in the ground, to retain moisture and spend less water. Wini has found out that no dig really helps to achieve that.
She has to water every day.
On the contrary, Charles is trying to make sure the rain is draining. He receives 90 mm of rain every month.
Yet, because of No Dig, he needs not to worry about muddy bouts. The compost (for the garden) and woodchips (for the alleys) allow to have a clean soil.
Charles has snow at one point and as the snow was melting, one bed retained the snow. It was a dig bed!
It’s saying that No Dig is keeping some warmth in the soil.
Who inspired Charles
Before Homeacres, Charles started with a 6000 m² garden that he worked a tractor and rotavotor to chop weeds and the soil.
Manually, he would then make beds for 3 months.
But he told himself:
Wait a minute, I don’t want to keep doing that.
So he started researching and someone told him about a book from Ruth Stout
She taught about mulching with hay and Charles tried that.
Unfortunately, slugs ate all the lettuces then… Why? Because in Charles’s climate, the hay hides the slugs that then eat the vegetables.
Charles realized that he needed to modify her approach and he started using compost.
Very interestingly, Wini found her inspiration through Charles and in her research, she came back to Ruth Stout!
Lessons from Ruth Stout
She rejected the conventional wisdom in regard to gardening and taught to try, see how it works and adjust.
In 1948, on her first no dig bed, she was waiting for the plow to come. But it never came.
So she mulches with hay and it worked.
Tree and garden
With their roots, trees are draining the water because the root breaks down the soil so it’s then less moist.
As they said and I agree, it would depend on your situation.
My garden contains a lot of clay, so having small oaks, an almond tree and plants like comfrey or borage will loosen the soil, which is good for the vegetable I grow.
Visit of Wini’s garden
What the garden produces is eaten and stored if it can’t be eaten right away. Wini does very little resale.
She grows the usual vegetables, but also she tries out other things because of her curiosity and to help her children like what they eat.
Original garden area became wild
In the original garden area, she has the perennial plants and the volunteer plants (even carrots, potatoes). And she doesn’t work the soil, she only waters it.
The same area is also a place for flowers, bringing pollinators. It’s now untouched, going back its wild state.
The current garden
Preparing the cultivated garden is:
- covering with cardboard at the bottom of the beds
- setting up a wood frame for a raised bed
- applying compost and mulch
She can grow all year long.
In the fall, and because of her climate, they’re preparing for the Brassicaceae family (cabbages, kale, broccoli, etc.).
She applies a new layer of compost and mulch on top of the previous one.
In the pathways, they have weeds that they mow.
Lessons from raised beds
Deeper beds mean better water retention.
On a shallow bed (about 10 cm in depth), the compost dry very fast, even with heavy mulching.
She uses hay heavily. Without it, the first 4 to 5 cm of compost will dry out and will fly with the wind.
Living in Ardèche has a similar climate to Wini, so I do use a lot of dead leaves that I gather in the fall and cover the ground with a 20 cm deep layer.
It’s the blanket of the winter.
The downside of mulching is that bugs will live under it.
Some bugs will eat your seedlings. Wini’s ingenious solution is to make stronger and more resilient seedlings that the bugs around her area won’t find attractive.
Older plants work best for her.
She does plan vegetables very close to each other, because it will help, from the foliage, to keep the moisture as well.
I do have the same observation in my garden.
Homeacre new area
It will be a lot about teaching and learning, more than producing crops to resale on the market.
The first year is the hardest year.
Digging this new area would require a lot of energy because of the abundance of clay.
Be happy with clay
No Dig works really well with clay.
- it retains moisture
- it provides fertility
- it doesn’t stick to boots anymore
- it builds a soil that has a good balance of drainage and moisture.
You will need patience. But eventually, with No Dig, you can vanquish the toughest weeds.
Why? In facts, covering the ground with cardboard and compost is already keeping the weeds at bay. But also, apply a plastic sheet on top for a month or two will deplete the weed roots.
However, you might need to perform some follow-up work to root out the remaining weeds.
Advantages of No Dig
First, and let’s repeat it, compost doesn’t burn the roots. Hot compost is what burns the roots. It’s more about waiting for the
Then, with a starting bed, you have 10 cm of compost, in which the plants will grow until they reach the soil.
And the soil has a lot of growing space, free from weeds.
Also, while covered with the plastic sheet and waiting for the weeds to die, the soil life processed the compost.
Finally, it's very quick to prepare.
Structure of the soil
It doesn’t need to be loose and fluffy. That’s what the rotavotor sellers want us to believe.
Soil needs to be firm but loose enough to help the roots of vegetables to go down.
Firm is better than compact.