To dig or not to dig? How my allotment made the decision for me!

Elaine Aldridge
Friday, 4th January 2013

Are you still wondering whether no-dig is the method for you? Elaine explains how she came to a decision...

For years I have been struggling with 'dig' versus 'no-dig' principals on my allotment. When I started, back in 2003, I had a mass of perennial weeds to deal with and gleefully accepted an offer to rotovate a section of my plot. This was a huge mistake as I had effectively propagated the bind weed by stem-cutting it thus increasing it tenfold!

Eventually I got on top of the weeds and experimented with different growing systems, much to the amusement of my fellow allotment-eers. I tried raised beds, key hole beds, conventional rows and wacky forest planting and I now have a mixture of 'dig' and 'no-dig' areas, along with a few 'not-dug-but-hoed-occasionally' beds.

However, if there was ever an argument for no-dig gardening, recent experience on my allotment has persuaded me that it is definitely the way to go. It wasn't the proliferation of weeds, destruction of soil structure or the disruption of the soil micro-organisms that swayed my decision, it was the wonderful but, at times, stressful encounters with the creatures I share my plot with.

Wildlife Encounter no. 1

My first encounter was in early spring: While dealing with the weeds in my raised beds I came across a disgruntled queen bumblebee that emerged from a hole in the soil and flew off. I watched her return and marked the hole with a stick to remind me where it was.

Bee nest entrance (marked by red box) surrounded by lettuce crop

Over the next few weeks I carefully worked around the hole, observing the bee's movements and, as the season progressed, watched as smaller, worker bees emerged. Eventually I decided to sow some cut-and-come-again lettuce over the nest site, which enabled me to utilise the space without disturbing the bees.

Wildlife Encounter no. 2

My next encounter came as I began to harvest my early potatoes. This year I dug a deep trench to plant them in, hoping to beat the (wrongly predicted) drought. This was a big mistake, as it meant the tubers were very deep and needed major excavation work to recover them.

The undisturbed ‘no dig’ soft fruit area - a much safer environment for toads

As I got on with the task, sifting through the soil and trying not to spear my spuds, I uncovered a horrible, deformed lump that I mistook for a rotten tuber. I was just about to launch it onto the discard pile when it hopped away... I had unwittingly dug up a toad! I relocated it to the soft fruit patch where it could continue its beneficial slug foraging in peace. I was thankful that I hadn't speared the toad with my fork and it made me realise just how much wildlife moves in undisturbed soil.

Wildlife Encounter no. 3

The third encounter happened, once again, in the potato patch, which had by now succumbed to blight due to all the rain! Having commandeered my partner to help me with the major harvest, I warned him of the possibility of hidden toads and set him to work in the trenches.

The mouse nest in the potato patchLater I heard him shout 'oh no!' and I went over, fearing he had plunged the sharp fork through another toad... He had in fact disturbed a nest full of baby wood mice. Luckily they all escaped the sharp end of the fork, but the mother scampered off and they were crawling away in all directions. We carefully put them back and covered them up with what was left of the nest, hoping that mum would!

Having spent so much time and effort creating an allotment so obviously welcoming to wildlife, I feel overwhelming guilt at having caused so much disturbance this year. From now on, I will be going strictly no-dig, while experimenting with some new forest gardening techniques in the hope that I will have only a minimum impact on the clearly abundant wildlife situated on my allotment! 

For more information on no-dig methods, see Charles Dowding's 'No-Dig Experiments' article in Permaculture Magazine (74). Also available as a PDF download here

Further resources

Watch: Experimenting with dig and no-dig beds

Organic Gardening: The Natural No-dig Way


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Plantiejo |
Sun, 20/01/2013 - 13:26

I read your article with interest Elaine.
I too have been trying to stick to no dig and I am noticing frogs and toads living under the plants amongst the mulch. I hope they are munching the slugs and snails.
I have seen mice too! I am hoping they are not going to do too much damage.
Like you, as I am not disturbing the soil I imagine that's why they are there. I can think of many detrimental reasons for having mice around our food growing/storing areas but I cannot think of any benefits, can you?

tayara tulpa |
Thu, 07/02/2013 - 19:19

by means ..
we also have the same dilemma .. so what we do is remove the weeds in the first month of planting, then just around the plants. always on the surface without digging too. has given a result, the wildlife runs its course without much interference from us and we get what we want from the mother land.