Reckless Gardener review: Organic Gardening – Charles Dowding

Guest columnist, Susie White reviews ‘Organic Gardening ‘ The Natural No-Dig Way’ by Charles Dowding.

If you want to learn about organic gardening, and about no-dig methods in particular, Charles Dowding is the expert to go to. He has written nine books, contributes regularly to gardening magazines and has a thoroughly informative website. He grows and sells salad leaves from Homeacres in Somerset where he also runs a wide range of courses. I’ve had his book Organic Gardening, the natural no-dig way for some years and referred to it often. This classic has now been reprinted in sturdy hardback and with more photographs and is the book to buy if you want to grow vegetables and care for the soil.

Why do gardeners dig? It brings up weed seeds and it disturbs the soil and its interconnected network of microorganisms. As Charles says in the book: “I am drawn back to the soil: the key to all life.” One of the early proponents of no-dig was F C King, Head Gardener of the beautiful Levens Hall in Cumbria. His book ‘Is Digging Necessary?’ was published in 1946. Making compost is at the heart of no-dig methods as it is laid as a thick mulch on top of the soil. King adopted the Indore Process, a compost system invented in India by Sir Alfred Howard when he was the director of Indore Research Station in the 1920s and a hero of Charles Dowding.

I feel a certain connection with this because my grandfather was passionate about compost making and promoted the Indore Process too. It’s pronounced ‘indoor’ and as a child I imagined composting being done in his house! Often made in a pit in India as well as a heap, this method mixed vegetable and animal waste to create a rich, dark, crumbly compost. Sir Albert Howard, botanist and organic farmer, was a friend of my grandfather. His writings and work inspired the formation of the Soil Association, the charity for organic growing that awards certificates to farmers who meet its strict criteria. For those who might be disappointed with the quality of the compost they make, there’s a chapter in Charles’s book dedicated to how to make it, with ingredients and methods clearly explained and problems remedied.

As a commercial grower, Charles Dowding (pictured above) supplies salad crops to hotels and organic outlets, so this book is a comprehensive guide to practices that work based on personal experience. It is very informative, covering every aspect including seed selection and sowing and timings, and the results of experiments where he demonstrates comparisons between digging and not digging. He is constantly doing trials and showing the results on his excellent website. The Appendix in the reprinted edition adds the results of trails showing yields.

The book has extensive guidance on vegetables, salads and fruit, detailing varieties, growing methods and maintenance of the plot. There are impressive photographs of neatly grouped salads crops of different colours and varieties, aesthetic as well as practical. It covers a range of techniques such as planting in line with moon phases, companion planting, green manures, crop rotation, liquid feeds but in particular the concept of no-dig. The book has a delightful clarity, and the charts showing recommended varieties, planting times, spacing and harvest are easy to follow. It’s a really useful manual for making and maintaining an organic garden.

Organic Gardening, The natural no-dig way’ by Charles Dowding. Published by Green Books in Hardback at £19.99.

Susie is a Guardian Country Diarist and Member of the Garden Media Guild and the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild and an RHS Listed Speaker.

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