Stop digging if you want your veggie garden to thrive

Best-selling gardening author Jane Griffiths on the many benefits of adopting the no-dig method in your edible garden — potted or not

11 April 2021 - 00:01 By Jane Griffiths
Good seeds to sow in April include broad beans, peas, Asian greens, lettuce, beetroot, Swiss chard, spinach, coriander and spring onion, as well as planting garlic and brassica seedlings.
Good seeds to sow in April include broad beans, peas, Asian greens, lettuce, beetroot, Swiss chard, spinach, coriander and spring onion, as well as planting garlic and brassica seedlings.
Image: Keith Knowlton

If someone had told the wired 20-something-year-old me that I would not only become an avid organic vegetable gardener, but also write bestselling books about it, I would have wanted to know what they were smoking from their garden!

By the time I was 25, I had travelled down the mighty Congo River, been inside the crater of a live volcano, come eyeball to eyeball with a mountain gorilla and touched the glacier on the Mountains of the Moon. Me, a gardener? No ways. But today I can't imagine my life without a garden.

It all began with a handful of chilli seeds.

In 1994 I visited a friend in California whose garden was bursting with red, yellow, purple, brown and orange chillies. I'd never seen such a variety of shapes, colours and sizes. At that time in SA we only had little hot red ones. Jalapenos were hardly on the culinary radar yet.

Although I'd never grown anything ever, I was so inspired by this rainbow vision I bought every variety of chilli seed I could lay my hands on. Back home I removed a section of lawn, dug in some compost, scattered the seeds and sat back to watch them grow.

Jane Griffiths kicked off her gardening journey by sowing chilli seeds.
Jane Griffiths kicked off her gardening journey by sowing chilli seeds.
Image: Keith Knowlton

That summer I had about 20 varieties growing in my garden. It was the beginning of a passion that has never abated. Every year I dug up more lawn. The chillies were soon joined by herbs, tomatoes, lettuces, eggplant and more.

I knew I'd become addicted to gardening when I started bringing back seeds, seedlings or slips from wherever I travelled.

It has not all been easy. However, after much heartbreak and many mistakes, I have accepted that triumphs make up for losses, that it will never be perfect and I might never finish my "to-do" list. Yet I've tasted the benefits of being able to slow down and wait. I know my greatest discoveries are often the result of accidents and to garden is to open my heart to the heavens.

Organic gardening all starts with the healthy soil, says Jane Griffiths.
Organic gardening all starts with the healthy soil, says Jane Griffiths.
Image: Keith Knowlton
Jane Griffiths in her garden.
Jane Griffiths in her garden.
Image: Keith Knowlton

The simple process of taking tiny little seeds that look like grains of sand, putting them in the ground and watching them grow into an abundant feast is miraculous. The childlike anticipation of rushing out in the morning to see what has popped its green head above ground is invigorating.

Above all, it's extremely gratifying feeding family and friends with wholesome, organic food from my garden.

Even if you live in the city (as I do) and only have a small space, you can also create an oasis of this magic.

WHY YOU SHOULD STOP DIGGING

Organic gardening all starts with the soil: healthy soil = healthy plants = healthy humans.

Healthy soil is full of humus. This broken-down organic matter is the life force of our soil because it absorbs and retains both water and nutrients. Plus it makes the soil moist, crumbly and aerated, providing the ideal home for billions of beneficial organisms.

In humus-rich soil there is a dynamic, thriving ecosystem of fungi, bacteria, algae, insects and worms. These are the workhorses of the soil, performing a multitude of beneficial functions.

The first step to achieving healthy soil is to disturb it as little as possible.

HOW TO START A NO-DIG GARDEN

For a no-dig garden, create
raised beds or edging around
the beds, high enough to
retain enriched soil inside
the beds.

Make pathways at least 90cm wide for a wheelbarrow.

The only time you need to dig is to remove an unwanted deep-rooted plant, to harvest roots or when preparing new beds.

In many gardens it's a tradition to dig up the soil regularly, beating clods with a fork to break them up before incorporating compost and manure.

But digging is not only bad for our backs, it's harmful to the soil too because it destroys beneficial organisms and upsets their balance. Plus it causes precious moisture loss, meaning dissolved nutrients are also lost.

Finally, digging exposes buried weed seeds which then germinate. So stop digging!

The reason gardeners dig is to break up compacted soil. To prevent compaction, firstly never stand on the soil. Our weight repeatedly pressing down leads to it being compacted.

Secondly, make small beds (about 2m x 1m) so you can reach the middle easily without standing on the soil. If beds are bigger, then place stepping stones in them.

To maintain high humus levels, add organic matter - compost, well-rotted manure and organic mulch - regularly to the surface, about 5cm deep. Nature is designed to incorporate this into the lower layers, and in no time it will be converted into fertile humus.

No-dig gardening means fewer weeds, less maintenance, better water retention and more fertile soil.

Griffiths is the author of four popular vegetable gardening books, the latest being 'Jane's Delicious A-Z Of Herbs'. Visit janesdeliciousshop.co.za