Episode 251. Small Gardens

This is The ChangeUnderground for the 5th of April 2021.

I’m your host, Jon Moore

Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!

Small is beautiful!

In some ways this is a return to first principles and my own beginnings. A general rule of thumb is: we will always be able to grow more than we think.

If you’re new to the No-Dig thing, the productivity can be overwhelming. Remember we are planting more closely than a market garden powered by a four wheel tractor. The space needed for the machinery is available for growing. Equally we are not harvesting in exactly the same way as a market garden. The best mindset is that of a hunter-gatherer rather than an agribusiness. 

This means that where possible, we harvest parts of a plant rather than the whole thing. Lettuce springs to mind. By picking the outer leaves of the plant as required for each meal, the plant continues to grow. The ground is covered, the roots are intact and have a better chance of connecting to mycorrhizal activity in the soil. Even when some plants have started to bolt and run to seed, I’ve cut out the stem from the centre with the potential to create seed and the outer leaves continued to produce. I’ve done this with lettuce, silverbeet and parsley. I did not find the outer leaves turned bitter as suggested in nearly every gardening book I’ve read. I had a silverbeet planting of five plants that lasted, productively for eighteen months. 

Some plants are already known for this process. Climbing beans and peas are such examples. These will continue to flower and fruit the more the seed pods are harvested. I will continue to experiment with different varieties as time goes on.

Then we have the cut and come again species. Cress, rocket (arugula), wild rocket and mizuna are excellent examples of this. Again the tendency to bolt can be controlled by mechanical cutting of the reproductive stems. 

Not everything is open to this form of harvest. Think carrots, sweet corn and so on. But these can be planted in a way that as soon as they come out they are replaced with seedlings or seeds and mulch. Keep the ground covered.

Now speaking of land, what to use in a no-dig system? I’ve seen systems relying upon compost and while these work, I find they are less than useful in a variable year. I noticed the demonstration no-dig beds at a culinary school built entirely on compost, dried out more quickly than the three times ploughed gardens alongside them. This was a drought year so the deficiency was highlighted. In a “normal” year sufficient rain would have hidden this process. My first preference is for rotted animal bedding but if that’s not available and you’re buying in your fertility and that’s a legitimate choice, I would skip the compost at gardening shops or centres and search out spent mushroom compost. 

Ordinary compost may or may not be weed free and only time will tell. Spent mushroom compost is almost guaranteed to be weed free. It also contains the decaying filaments of the mushroom growing and these appear to be plant available. 

We were given a donation of spent mushroom compost at work. It had sat around for twelve months before the horticulture program kicked off and it was still powerful good. Some background to the space is useful. Prior to my employment, the hort space was an abandoned orchard and flower growing area. It was bulldozed and ripped and leveled. The ground set like concrete. We only had enough mushroom compost for ten beds, 1.5 x 3 metres each. I placed these to the right of a roadway running through the space. On the left hand side we made use of some volunteers, to my very great shame, to dig some furrows and plant some spuds. The ten beds produced literally tons of food. The spuds were attacked by a malignant fungus which destroyed the vascular systems of the spuds once they were about 30cm tall. We pulled them and slashed the block and slashed the block again and sprayed with a seaweed extract a few times and slashed again until the following Spring when we planted it out to sweet corn. The smallest, most depressingly stunted sweet corn I have ever seen struggled to grow over this last summer. So we are back into slashing and spraying with seaweed extract while I try to source a few tonnes of mushroom compost. The ten beds now on their third growing season kept pumping out the food. 

I highly recommend spent mushroom compost. If it is a little more expensive than “compost” compost start with a smaller garden and use the continuously producing plants discussed above. I’ll put a plan for a one square metre garden (about 10 sq foot) in the transcript on WON, link in the show notes, to show just how much you can grow in such a small space.

This little garden can then be used as a template to expand your growing space by adding more of these as you become comfortable with the process. A change from digging to not digging when the digging has been working for years can feel like a gamble. I’ll pop a link in the show notes to a short video entitled “Why No-Dig Gardening?” that might be of interest to you.

I’ve noticed that messing with the soil is like an addiction. The broadfork springs to mind. On larger “No-Dig” setups I’ve observed, the idea of continuing to work the soil just cannot be dropped. The argument is that the soil becomes compacted and the broadfork “opens the soil”. True enough, the soil is not turned with this tool but the mycorrhizal filaments are continually being broken up. This points to another advantage to starting small. The temptation to use tools to “help” the soil is avoided. The processes involved in No-Dig lead to better soil conditions by using the systems evolved over billions of years, many climate variations that do not require the input of H. sapiens which can be a little surprising and very liberating!

Start small, learn to trust the ways of Nature and harvest the surplus. Simples.

If you’d like to dig a bit deeper into the no-dig method (pun intended) and help out others, the ChangeUnderground Academy is partnered with the Bubugo Conservation Trust in Uganda (link in the show notes). For every copy of the ChangeUnderground Academy No-Dig Gardening course on the World Organic News website that sells I’ll transfer $10 to the Bubugo Conservation Trust. Further, for every coffee someone buys me on the “Buy Me a Coffee” link on that same website, I’ll transfer 10% of that to the trust. The aim is to raise $2,500 a year. These monies will be applied to the demonstration farm and its outreach work. 

There are links to both of these ways to support the Trust and to do the work we need to do as we decarbonise the air and recarbonise the soil.

Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.




The ChangeUnderground Academy No-Dig Gardening Course:



email: jon@worldorganicnews.com


Bubugo Conservation Trust



Why No-Dig Gardening?


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