Why no-dig gardening has taken off in Britain

When Raymond Blanc was a small child, he was mostly found in the family vegetable garden, where he was employed to sow, weed, harvest and, of course, dig.

The productive, organic garden in the Franche-Comté region in eastern France had to feed the family of seven. “I used to bloody hate it – it was hard work,” says the chef (half-jokingly), who learnt all about the nuances of different varieties and their uses, long before he ever worked in a kitchen.

His favourite spot in the house was at the top of the stairs to the cellar, where the produce from the potager was stored – preserved fruits, dried mushrooms, jars of beans, racks of vegetables.

When he opened the doors to his exquisitely manicured Oxfordshire restaurant and hotel, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, 40 years ago, all that received wisdom of growing was ploughed into his plot-to-plate ethos. For the chef-patron, having a potager in which to grow for the kitchens was a long-held dream, even if the overgrown garden was the stuff of nightmares.

le manoir

Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – Jason Ingram

“The garden scared me – it was full of ground elder, brambles everywhere, rabbits. I brought in my papa to do what we do always. He worked on it for three months.”

Back then, Blanc was part of a nascent movement, when the idea of growing organically seemed like a wacky, niche pursuit, even if the principles are anything but. And at the centre of it all was a deep reverence for the soil.

Two years ago, like so many others, the two Michelin-starred chef turned over the potager at Le Manoir to no-dig methods (where organic matter is applied to the soil to feed it and keep down weeds, rather than lifting or turning the soil).

He installed an A1200 Rocket Composter – an enormous hulk of a machine – that transforms all of the garden and hotel’s green waste into compost in just two weeks, producing around 50 tons a year that can go straight back out on to the growing beds, polytunnels and greenhouses.

Chef Raymond BlancChef Raymond Blanc

Chef Raymond Blanc has fully embraced no-dig methods – Lucy Pope

“The soil is so important to the nutritional value of the produce and the whole ecosystems that are going on underground,” says head gardener Anne Marie Owen. At its gardening school, the hotel also hosts “No Dig” Soil to Plate day courses (£285), giving guests an immersive insight into getting started with growing edibles this way.

That ethos will be showcased again at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, where Blanc will be cooking produce picked directly from the “edimentals” garden of the heritage seeds firm She Grows Veg.

And in the pipeline is a new three-acre no-dig growing space (double the size of the current potager), better storage facilities for food and a nursery to grow plug plants. “Then we can prepare for the season two months in advance, so effectively we will always have something from the garden,” adds Blanc, who also notes the shift in what people want to eat.

“There’s a huge change.” The restaurant has had a full à la carte vegetarian menu since it opened (“no one ordered it”), but now many of the dishes are completely based on plants. “We’ve always done it, but I believe it even more strongly now because there is so much more science behind organic and no-dig.”

The swap to no-dig at Le Manoir was in part inspired by a visit by no-dig guru Charles Dowding. No one has been more instrumental in educating veg growers than the Somerset-based market gardener, who not only supplies 25,000lbs of organic veg to local shops and restaurants each year, but also carries out fastidious growing trials at his market garden, Homeacres.

He follows early practitioners from the first half of the 20th century, who all wrote books on the subject, including F.C. King, the head gardener of Levens Hall, and no-dig pioneer and prolific author W.E. Shewell-Cooper.

In Japan, another advocate, Masanobu Fukuoka, wrote about “natural farming”, and, in the US, Ruth Stout published the No-Work Garden Book in 1971.

But while Dowding may not have invented no-dig, he has almost single-handedly popularised it with his data-driven side-by-side trials (he harvests around 12 per cent more produce from no-dig beds), common sense advice and demos illustrating how instant this method of growing can be, with an area laid out ready for planting in a matter of minutes. Dowding covers ground in cardboard and a deep layer of compost to plant into; the cardboard slows down the weeds and eventually decomposes.

Charles DowdingCharles Dowding

No one has been more instrumental in educating veg growers than Somerset-based market gardener Charles Dowding, writes Coulson – Russell Sach

When he started out 40 years ago, his no-dig method seemed quirky. He published his first book, Organic Gardening, in 2007. But social media has helped catapult Dowding’s approach, inspiring a generation of growers. He is the author of 13 books (this autumn he publishes his 14th, focused on compost) and has 680,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel and 478,000 followers on Instagram.

When he started out, his followers and visitors to his workshops tended to be older gardeners in their 50s; now they are in their 20s and often younger. And many, like Dowding, are starting their own small-scale no-dig farms.

One of them is Cam Wheeler, 29, who last summer launched his market garden, Five Rod Farm, on the Kenton Hall Estate close to Framlingham in Suffolk. His organic produce, grown on a one–acre former wheat field, supplies local restaurants, local store Bonitas Wholefoods and the public via markets and a veg box scheme.

He’d originally started growing in his parents’ garden during lockdown and then on an allotment, and was immediately hooked by the buzz of growing vegetables and salads that he could share with family and friends.

He trained himself, first by visiting and volunteering at other no-dig market gardens and asking lots of questions, while also devouring the vast amount of tutorials and videos online, especially on Charles Dowding’s YouTube channel. “It was almost a new video every night that I would be watching,” says Wheeler.

“Instagram has also been a great resource of learning tips from growers from all over, as well as seeing other people’s successes and failures and being able to relate to their experiences.”

A veg box from Cam Wheeler's market garden, Five Rod FarmA veg box from Cam Wheeler's market garden, Five Rod Farm

A veg box from Cam Wheeler’s market garden, Five Rod Farm – Five Rod Farm

Wheeler puts his generation’s burgeoning interest in producing organic food down to the increased awareness of the damage caused by industrial farming to the environment, soil health and human health – as well as the increasing realisation of the catastrophic impacts of ultra-processed food.

Earlier this year, UPFs were directly linked to 32 harmful effects to health via the first umbrella review to collate and organise the numerous existing studies on the subject. “I am passionate about growing healthy, chemical-free produce in living soil, but also connecting people to their food, the land and each other,” says Wheeler, who also hosts farm lunches, music events and stargazing events in his market garden.

“It’s a movement the younger generation are really getting behind, finding a love for growing their own organic veg and enjoying it all together, whether that be across the dining table or through supper clubs, summer festivals or workshop-type events.” In March, he hosted a farm tour, no-dig talk and lunch with Charles Dowding on his plot.

He hopes to expand with an outdoor kitchen and events space, and harvest produce directly into the kitchen. In the future he wants to add another polytunnel for propagation so that he can also sell plug plants, as well as adding fruit trees, ponds for wildlife, and a bigger cut-flower operation.

“I wouldn’t want to grow in any other way that isn’t in harmony with nature,” says Wheeler as he prepares for his second season.

“Feeding the soil and microorganisms with organic matter and growing nutrient-dense food that keeps us healthy just makes so much sense.”

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