Who Is Charles Dowding?
Charles Dowding is, above all, an environmentalist and gardening enthusiast. His drive to find an effective and ecologically efficient way of producing food has led him to become an innovator.
Dowding has been a proponent of organic and no-dig gardening since 1983. Based in Somerset, England, Dowding’s garden is truly remarkable. In less than an acre, he can grow plenty of food without the need for tilling or extensive weeding.
What Is No-Dig Gardening?
While the exact origins of no-dig gardening are unknown, it is historically traced back to 19th-century farming methods. It is a non-cultivation method that organic gardeners use in harmony with the soil. No-dig gardening practitioners recognize that the micro-organisms in the Earth are necessary for the replenishment of nutrients. The cycle involves the soil holding a part of the carbon energy from plants and converting it to organic substances
No-dig gardening is especially helpful in areas with high erosion or thin soil. The lack of tilling in no-dig gardening makes growing food a viable option for areas scarce in rich topsoil.
Charles Dowding’s Story
Somerset is in the Southwest of England and has plenty of traditional agriculture. Charles Dowding grew up on a dairy farm but had little interest in cows. He was lucky enough to have parents that supported his dream of a career in a different field. However, Dowding did not stray too far from their vocation. His love for gardening would bring him closer to his parents’ liνe of work than they imagined.
Education at Cambridge
Dowding earns a geography degree from Cambridge in 1980. While at the esteemed university, he gains an interest in nutrition. The decision to become a vegetarian is the first step in his no-dig gardening journey. It is this choice that hones his focus on growing clean and nutritious produce.
After graduating, Dowding returns to the land. He cites an almost gravitational attraction to the vocation his father had not wanted for him: working the land.
At that point in his life, Dowding feels an ever-increasing drive to grow healthy food. This stemmed from his concerns regarding the declining nutritional make-up of food. The increase in toxic chemicals observed in mass-produced crops was obvious to Dowding and he was intent on making a difference.
It only took two years after graduation for Charles Dowding to begin his gardening journey. At that time, mass-production was at the epicenter of farming and little consideration was given to food quality.
Early on, Dowding knew that he had to account for natural homeostasis. He starts his garden, realizing the connection between the health of the soil, the plants he grows, and the people that consume them.
The first results from 1980 were positive. From the start, Dowding finds eager buyers for his crops. Over the next eight years, he builds up a large market garden from which he sells locally as well as to stores in Bath, Bristol and London.
A Move to France
After receiving a diagnosis for Type 1 diabetes in 1990, Charles Dowding was set on traveling the world. In 1992, Dowding finds himself creating a market garden in rural Zambia. This is followed by a stint in Kenya where he finds an organic farm school. A bout with malaria convinces Dowding that it was time to head closer to home.
France becomes the next destination on Dowding’s lifelong journey of enlightenment. A 40-acre farm in the Southwest of France with poor soil becomes his labor of love, literally and figuratively. It is in Gascony that Dowding marries his wife Susie and starts a family. The farm flourishes hand-in-hand with his family as Dowding welcomes two sons while in France.
The Return to Somerset
The next phase of Charles Dowding’s growth as a gardener finds him back in Somerset in 1998. By 2000, he was selling a few boxes of produce. He converts an area of land compacted by heavy machinery into no a no-dig garden. With just four centimeters of compost on top of the hard clay and a year’s worth of poor crops, Dowding turns it around. By the second year, the harvest was robust and reminded nothing of the previous state the land was in.
Why the No-Dig Way Is Better
Charles Dowding swears by the no-dig way of gardening. His experience shows that most vegetables grow more healthily on no-dig beds. The time necessary for growing crops is less, allowing the gardener to be more productive. Most harvests are better with no-dig as less slug damage is noticed on no-dig vegetables.
The ease with which you can resow or replant in any season, quickly and without soil preparation is another key advantage. The soil retains moisture which is available at a considerable depth.
Furthermore, without tilling, the Mycorrhizal fungi remain intact. This helps plant roots reach more nutrients and moisture, making your produce healthier and tasty.
The Wisdom of the Soil
Soil is the porous material that develops in the outermost layer of the Earth’s crust. It’s the medium that supports life and is a repository of moisture and essential nutrients. Charles Dowding knows this well and has become an expert in composting.
A part of Dowding’s garden is dedicated to composting. In a wooden enclosure with a roof to shield it from the rain, he generates his nutrient-rich compost. The enclosure is divided into compartments that separate compost chronologically. It’s important to monitor moisture content so that the compost can retain the maximum amount of nutrients possible.
No-dig gardening offers synergies to your produce-growing efforts. Especially in the winter, an intelligently-created garden bed can result in robust crops. Dowding explains that when you don’t till the Earth, the soil retains
Why Charles Dowding Became an Authority on No-Dig Gardening
Charles Dowding’s demeanor is that of a man that loves nature and life. The way he talks about no-dig gardening is infectious and causes the listener to want to delve into the art of cultivation.
Apart from his success in gardening, Dowding puts effort into educating others. He makes television appearances, creates internet videos on platforms like YouTube, and gives talks.
Dowding fondly recalls the producer of Gardeners World jumping over his fence in 1988 to express his interest in filming. Since then, the interest he generates locally finds its way beyond Somerset. Dowding gives talks locally but his videos reach thousands of people across the world.
People from all over the globe email Dowding to thank him for how he has changed their lives. These messages are testimonials and confirmation of the effectiveness of no-dig gardening.
Those that enjoy the tactile experience of reading books will be happy to know that Dowding has written a few. His first book was published in March of 2007 and covers vegetable growing. A second book that focuses on salad leaves followed suit in 2008.
Maximizing Efficiency With No Dig Gardens
The best way to compare harvests in dig and no-dig beds is to run a trial. A side-by-side comparison arrives at a more accurate conclusion than simply looking at different plots of land. To display the effectiveness of no-dig gardening, Charles Dowding conducted comparative trials in 2018.
Standardizing the tests is important in drawing useful conclusions. The beds Dowding has been using for his comparisons since 2007 have a surface area of 7.5 square meters each. The numbers in the 2007-2017 timespan show a 59.5kg harvest advantage for the no-dig plot.
Dowding notes that often there isn’t a huge difference between the two methods, but early spring seems to be the most advantageous for no dig. This is best demonstrated in the cold spring of 2018 where the soil conditions favored the compost placed on the no-dig bed.
Micro-Organisms Are Your Allies
The soil is an ecosystem full of life. It is far more complex than people give it credit for. For example, one tablespoon of soil can contain over 50 billion microbes. This is approximately six times the current world population.
Things like algae, fungi, bacteria, and much more make soil the drawing board of life. You will also find earthworms and other insects that are the workers in the topsoil. It’s no coincidence that space exploration probes are sent to check the soil on other planets.
Bacteria maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with the roots of plants. Worms and other insects serve to cycle nutrients so that life’s miracle can continue perpetually.
By digging into the ground, sensitive aspects of the cultivation lifecycle are injured. Air dries out important ingredients in the soil. The increase in UV exposure from the sun causes sterilization of the soil, killing various important organisms in the process.
The Effects of Tilling
Farmers that mass-produce crops are fond of tilling because of the effects that become apparent upon digging into the soil. In effect, the process of tilling kills many of the tiny organisms in the soil that help you grow your garden. These dead organisms release their nutrients into the soil, making it more fertile. However, this is a one-time trick. Since these tine helpers die off, they are no longer able to continue helping with their work. Their bodies are spent on the current harvest and your soil becomes poorer as a result.
Charles Dowding realized this early on in his journey. That is why he not only prefers no dig but also places a great emphasis on doing his own composting.
Three Simple Tips for No Dig Gardeners
Charles Dowding has plenty of wisdom to impart to his audience of active and prospective gardeners. To gain a high level of understanding of his methods, one ought to read his books and watch his insightful videos. However, there are three tips that Dowding believes can help gardeners boost their productivity today.
Feed the Soil, Not the Plants
If you retain only one thing from learning about Charles Dowding, that should be the importance he places on the soil. While offering convenience, no-dig gardening’s biggest lesson is the preservation and nurturing of the soil.
Easy Does Not Mean Lazy
Dowding is a firm believer in working smarter, not harder. It’s not about cutting corners but rather leveraging your efforts to produce the best results.
Do Your Due Diligence
Each food plant grows best under its own circumstances. Put in the effort to learn about the best sowing and harvesting times. It will pay off in the quality of your food.
Charles Dowding loves nature and humans are a part of the ecosystem. While Dowding is a fervent proponent of his style of gardening, he loves engagement. He describes himself as a true empiricist rather than a stringent ideologue.
Dowding is happy to film his garden during all seasons of the year. He has a big smile on his face as he points out his Brussels sprouts in the winter. His enthusiasm when discussing composting is that of a true connoisseur of nature.
It isn’t rare for Charles Dowding to offer advice on creating and improving gardens. Catching a talk he gives to a gardening club is akin to a college course in terms of the value offered. Dowding prides himself on the ability to open minds to the many possibilities of no-dig gardening and how people can create something beautiful and healthy in their back yards.