Mere digger of soil

I cannot help it if I quote half a line from my own translation of a poem, or that the thought occurred to me while washing all the dust and dirt off under the shower after a day of dedicated digging. The saved water will be used to water my carnations tomorrow. This fact will become relevant soon enough. The Algarve has had a poor rainy season, and even spring rain is forecast to be depressingly little.

Although I have intuitively been practising the principles of no-dig gardening in two flower beds and one raised vegetable bed made of pallets for three or four years, and although I have been green composting all my life, this year is the first in which I will be mulching everything as a first step to converting my recently expanded vegetable garden at home to no-dig, as well as the over 45 square metres of brand new garden in a project with friends.

Charles Dowding, whose delightful videos abound on YouTube, is one of the more methodical and informative on no-dig gardening. In short, one is merely supposed to cover pasture with cardboard, or similar, to suppress weeds, and thereafter heap well-matured compost on top, and plant vegetable seedlings directly into the compost. Because everything is composted, the incidence of weeds is hugely reduced, and the compost itself is responsible for healthier plants and better yields. The compost also acts as a mulch, retains moisture well, and therefore needs very little watering – in England anyway.

I understand all that, and it makes perfect sense. Besides which, Charles Dowding supplies ample proof. What requires creativity is starting out on such a venture with limited resources of the type required; in this case, compost and mulch, as a minimum. What is also required, in my case, is an intimate knowledge of how Algarvian weeds and wild flowers behave. I have that in abundance. So, most of my gardening now will adapt newly learned techniques to what I already know.

The new gardening project is in a citrus orchard where the land between the trees, set out on a square grid at regular intervals, has been ploughed over annually for the last twenty years, primarily as a weed control exercise; the land itself has not been cultivated at all during these two decades. As someone remarked a couple of days ago, the land is “well rested”.

The land has, in fact, been “well disturbed” with the ploughing. As an initial step, it has been useful for two reasons: the surface weeds have, for the most part, been turned under the soil, and it has made shaping the beds manually much easier for me. That in itself was hard work. The easy part was covering the beds, once suitably prepared, with polyweave, in anticipation of receiving mulch before planting.

On Sunday, I embarked on a slightly different project: a no-dig project involving a lot of digging. I prepared a bed measuring 3×2 metres to receive carnation slips.

After using my hoe to get stray weeds to ground level, and rake off stones (so, no actual digging), it looked like this:

Uninspiring dry hard, stony soil high in lime, and typical of the Barrocal in the Algarve.

I had collected four barrows of wood chips and naturally composted soil from elsewhere on the plot, partially pictured to the left above. By naturally composted soil, I mean soil under trees where the leaves of successive years have been left to rot naturally. The heap below would be the the top layer on the bed I was making:

To the right, woodchips; to the left, the naturally composted soil.

I then sourced freshly ploughed soil from beneath a mulberry tree for two reasons. The first is that it was still moist, and therefore easier to dig; the second is that it, too, contained a certain amount of natural compost, and was of better quality than the hard, stony ground forming the base of the bed.

As I loaded each barrow, I removed weeds by hand from this soil beneath the mulberry tree.

It was a very hot day, and I was feeling uncharacteristically weak, so only carted the soil in half-barrows to the bed, making unimpressive little heaps around the perimeter:

The difference in the quality of the imported soil to that beneath it is obvious.

Around this time, I was treated to a hearty lunch, which boosted my strength. I was determined to finish the job in one day, so soon managed to get enough soil from beneath the tree to cover the entire bed area with an even layer about four or five inches thick:

You will notice that the wood chips and naturally composted soil are conveniently close to the work site!

The next job was to get the wood chips and naturally composted soil on top of the layer of good soil on the bed. I shovelled about a barrow’s worth and thought, “stuff that for a laugh”, or similar, and managed to haul the remainder by deftly pulling the shade cloth, and overturning the heap on top of the soil:

Shifting three barrows of wood chips and compost in one fell swoop was very satisfying!

From there it was easy to mix the wood chips and composted soil with my rake, and spread it evenly over the surface.

Wood chips and compost now evenly spread and well watered.

Having watered well, I covered the entire bed with black polyweave, to suppress any weed growth.

Black polyweave will suppress weed growth and keep the soil moist.

The polyweave will also keep things dark, the way the worms like it. I made sure I re-homed any worms I came across in all my digging of soil transported to this site, measuring three by two metres. The posts holding down the polyweave demarcate the square metres into which this bed will be divided, so that I can grow carnations, which require twine guides to help them grow straight.

Four days later, I visited the plot again to put in the stakes, and make a small (50x50cm) keyhole so that I can access each plant, even with all the criss-crossing of twine that will occur. I can confirm that the woodchips and soil are still moist, and are exuding a pleasing energy. I have had to leave part of the bed exposed because I have now staked the keyhole. Further mulch will be added when I begin to plant, in stages, the carnations slips I have prepared.

Keyhole access to the right. Keeping it natural with wooden posts only.

Much of gardening is visualisation, and I only thought about the keyhole two nights ago. It means having sixteen fewer plants in this space, but access to all parts of the bed is essential. I got a few lessons in knotting and maximising tension with nylon twine from one of my co-op partners, for which I am grateful.

While I was busy with all of the above, I also started a small Hügelkultur bed nearby, which needs slight modification, and for which I have not yet assigned a purpose. What I do know is that it is in a convenient location and the weeds, twigs and branches already heaped there will have made the soil nice and soft for me to dig the hole into which I will put the logs pictured here and others, when I get around to it. It will also be a nice place to put anything I trim off the growing carnation plants, and I might plant few spare cabbage seedlings in it, just for fun.

Logs and other material for a mini-Hügelkultur: the logs need to go beneath this mound of soil and weeds, about 30cm high.

I have a much larger Hügelkultur planned for the crop of sweet potatoes, the vines for which are just beginning to grow in jars in my kitchen. That’s my next big job.

The point of documenting this process was to show the beginnings of what is strictly a no-dig, organic bed which will require no further digging. All that will happen is that successive mulches and composts will be layered on top of what is already here, thereby enriching the soil and increasing its water-retention capabilities.

This project is working on a low-cost principle, using the materials immediately available to us, and is definitely in the preparation stage. I wish I could have prepared all the vegetable beds in this fashion, although similar principles have applied elsewhere, using different mulches. The real results will take time, and six months or a year from now, the first visible results should appear.

If all goes well, there will be a follow-up blog in a couple of months’ time.

©2019 Allison Wright

2 thoughts on “Mere digger of soil

Add yours

  1. Very impressive! This is how we used to run our allotments in the UK. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out in a different climate. Nowadays I look at the total absence of any vegetable garden at either of my places and feel inadequate – then again, we are still building one of them. Which means I completely understand the importance of a really good lunch if you’re going to do manual work…!

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  2. The link between a really good lunch and afternoon productivity is amazing: Nibbling on fruits and salads does not produce the same results!
    I am interested in how the Algarvian climate copes. At the moment, the co-op is still adjusting to everyone’s different methods of watering. The most applicable method for each crop in question should win the day. 🙂

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