Country Matters: Put down that spade and enjoy the fruits of your lack of labour

Many years ago I had three vegetable gardens that demanded attention almost simultaneously it seemed. Two were in Co Meath where I lived most of the time, the third in a place of wild beauty overlooking the ocean in west Waterford and attended to on regular excursions.

The Déise patch lives in memory for the taste of the vegetables grown there, essentials such as early potatoes and salad crops as well as long-stayers such as purple sprouting broccoli and onions.

For the potatoes much had to do with turning virgin clods (the ground had been a pony pasture) to make ridges after mature fertiliser had been laid in barrow-loads gathered from where cattle had overwintered on hay bales in a sheltered field corner. What was not consumed by the animals had been trodden into heavy mulch which improved in quality with the passage of time. This was spread over sections of the rough sward and absorbed into the ground where the only preparation had been the attention of a wheeled paraffin blowtorch to eliminate the wiry tussocks of couch grass.

Could this qualify as ‘no-till’ gardening, the benefits of which are now regularly publicised? Almost, perhaps. However, potatoes laid on old mulch had to be covered and covered again when green shoots burst among sods some as firm as turf from a bog. No-till advocates say undisturbed soil controls pests and weeds better, stores more carbon and produces better crops.

Beneath our feet exists a complete ecosystem, a soil-food web, where plants interact with bacteria, insects, worms and fungi.

Almost 20 years ago I quoted an academic who said to plough was the most dangerous thing that could be done to the soil. Prof Anthony Trewavas, a plant biologist at Edinburgh University, advocated “herbicide-assisted” crops as the way forward along with direct drilling that would not uproot worms and beetles or allow nutrients to be washed away. Opinions have changed considerably in relation to herbicide use.

No-till opinions now appear regularly like autumnal fruits in the hedgerows, bolstered by the findings of research groups such as the James Hutton Institute which boldly states there are more living objects on one teaspoonful of soil than there are people on the planet. Beneath our feet exists a complete ecosystem, a soil-food web, where plants interact with bacteria, insects, worms and fungi. They feed on organic matter which are processed into nutrients.

Charles Dowding, farmer’s son and market gardener from Somerset, has written about a dozen books, with the latest, No Dig, urging crop growers along that path. He didn’t invent the practice: there are books from the 1940s and 1950s about it as well as ‘square foot’ gardening, which inspires neatness and avoids soil trampling. History also reveals similar methods in some early civilisations, notably among American indigenous peoples.

Dowding has cultivated a traditional vegetable bed alongside a “no dig” one using identical amounts of compost. The “no dig” yield is 10pc better. The method can’t fail, he says. Even poor ground will improve by laying mulch and letting the organisms do the work. But how will the humble spud fare without the soil’s warm blankets to protect it from the elements and the raids of hungry corvids?

‘No Dig: Nurture Your Soil To Grow Better Veg With Less Effort’ (Dorling Kindersley, €42) by Charles Dowding is out now

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