Is It Best to Dig or No Dig?

Is it best to dig or no dig?

As a motorcyclist, one of the most common questions that gets asked in the biking community is, “what’s the best tyres to use?”.

The answer is of course heavily dependent on your riding ability, conditions, terrain and so on. Therefore, it’s a question that often brings up a miriad of recommendations based on personal experience, rather than the specific needs and requirements of the enquirer.

Permaculture has a core set of ethics and principles and to date I’ve yet to see in the original manual (Bill Mollison… ) any reference that stipulates you must use a no dig method, or you will end up on the compost heap to rot. This article aims to dispel the myths and answer the question, Is it best to dig or no dig?

Is it best to dig or no dig?

Whilst many have written books on permaculture and no doubt they are very useful, some of which I have read, they can sometimes go off piste somewhat. I have always referred to Bill, because Bill Mollison is the father of Permaculture, he founded it after all, with David Holmgren of course!

Whilst I don’t approve of subjecting any beneficial organisms to a torturous implement that simulates being in a food blender for a short time, I am in favour of making permaculture accessible, affordable and doable for everyone.

Permaculture shouldn’t cost you more than conventional gardening. When you compare conventional Gardening, smallholding or farming to permaculture when starting out the cost implication of a no dig can be astronomical, as a result, it often puts people off the idea and subsequently either leads to failure or abandonment.

The no dig method involves a huge amount of input, often cost, and definitely labour. Whilst getting out hands dirty and being in the great outdoors is good for our health in many ways, sadly we have become a nation of lazy people, I’m not saying we’re all lazy but predominately the modern world has forced us to be lazy due to more efficient modern practices such as modern transport and online ordering. You only need to compare a seaside holiday photo from the 70’s to now to realise this!

Most people acquiring land don’t appreciate the time, effort and manual labour needed to provide a truly organic environment to grow edibles. The reality sometimes kicks in fairly quickly and depsite an initial and  enthusiastic outlook, for many it turns into a situation whereby the dream becomes a hard slog. Battling with pests, nutrients, soil conditions and so on takes its toll and often only the determined, and patient, will prevail.

Is it best to dig or no dig?

We will, wherever we can make life easier for ourselves and for many who are starting out growing their own food on their smallholding will want a ROI (Return on their Investment) sooner rather than later.

In order to provide the optimum levels of nutrients and the correct medium for which to grow edibles using a no dig method can take years depending on the structure of the existing soil. For example, if you have a heavy clay based soil, it could be much longer than a silt based soil to reach the optimum soil structure using only a no dig approach.

If you have zero or very little life in your soil/dirt, it’s going to take a while for those beneficial helpers to arrive and do what they do best. Whereas rotavating or tilling lifeless soil, AKA dirt, gives you the opportunity to break up the “dirt” , and add compost or manure (bug food) providing an environment straight off the bat for organisms to thrive in. The only addition would be to add weed suppression (woodchips or straw) which also aids in moisture retention.

The critical part of this process is to cover the dirt after rotavating and digging in or rotavating in rotted manure or compost. By keeping the tilled/rotavated soil covered and moist provides the ideal environment/food for your helpers to thrive in (damp/moist).

Conventional farming on the other hand does not use practices that cover the soil, this results in the soil drying out and becoming dirt during dry weather and subsequently killing all life matter within the soil. Some farmers are now using cover crops, which can eliminate the problem that would ordinarily require them to then add nutrients, fertiliser, weed killers, herbicides etc.

We still need to overcome the onset of anxiety for many smallholders adopting an organic or permaculture approach. It does seem to be that many are of the opinion it is a cardinal sin to till or rotavate. However, this may be so if there is existing life within the structure of the soil. On the flipside, if you have dirt, lifeless as it is, then your efforts to break up the soil and create a bug environment must surely be accepted as a positive contribution to your end goal.

Is it best to dig or no dig?

After all, we are all trying to achieve the same outcome here, and that is to produce a soil structure that can accommodate a wide range of organisms that will benefit and help us become successful growers. So why would you consider prolonging the process?

Tilling or rotavating should only be carried out once, during the initial planning and setting out stage. Once the dirt has been tilled or rotavated and compost added along with woodchip on the surface, or straw, it is simply a case of topping up the top layer each year.

The top layer which will act as a weed suppressor and moisture retainer, will eventually rot down and decompose, feeding the organisms which will ultimately condition the soil for you and therefore eliminating the need to fester with the soil personally.

As long as you keep adding organic matter to the surface to keep the soil moist and fre from weeds, the organisms will do the rest.

So, having read this article, what’s your opinion on rotavating/tilling and no dig. Would you still use the no dig method, or would you consider tilling?

Leave your comments below, I’d love to hear your views.

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