Report on Charles Dowding farm walk, Somerset

29 October 2010

Pioneering ‘no dig’ grower and Soil Association producer member Charles Dowding welcomed 20 enthusiastic growers and Soil Association staff members around his two acres of gardens in Shepton Montaque, Somerset on a fine crisp afternoon in mid-October.

Charles DowdingAfter a quick introduction from Soil Association producer adviser Tim Perrett, Charles gave an overview of the gardens and the principles of the ‘no dig’ system that he's put in practice over the past decade.

Charles believes that using the ‘no dig’ approach with compost spread annually on the surface increases soil fertility over time. This system mimics that of nature, with leaf fall and animal manure being replaced by compost on the surface of the soil. Worms and beneficial soil bacteria increase, leading to better soil structure and healthier plants. Together with the time saved on cultivating the soil, the system was most appealing to those who attended.

Charles demonstrated his approach to the group through his dig and ‘no dig’ experimental beds. He poured a watering can onto each bed for the group to observe how well the soil took in water. There was a group consensus that the ‘no dig’ bed just edged it, but as conditions where quite moist already, this was a real achievement.

Good quality compost is fundamental to the system. Charles composts farm yard manure, vegetable waste and some poultry manure. This is turned over the year and applied thickly on top of beds in autumn, so it can rot down and be incorporated by the worms, resulting in a fine tilt for spring planting.

Planting is done mainly from modules grown in a well organised and productive green house. Larger seeds such as broad beans are sown direct. Questions were asked about the viability of seed, and that percentage germination is not always the best indication to getting healthy plants.

Salad leavesHarvesting for salad leafs is done by stripping the outer leaves of plant, rather then taking the plant whole. Charles believes this method prolongs the plant's life, meaning that high quantities can be harvested over the season. As other growers pointed out this does increase the time of harvest, but the savings on time in establishment and the right market can make this technique viable.

The bulk of the gardens are dedicated to producing leaves for the high value mixed salad bags which are sold through local shops, markets and restaurants. Marketing these leaves correctly can return a wage of £10/hr over the growing season, which is far higher then the other vegetables in Charles' system.

Tool wise, Charles uses hand made copper tools from Implementations - consisting of a trowel, hoe and plugger. He has found that these tools, although initially expensive to buy, are built to last and quickly return their initial value.

We thank Charles for hosting a very engaging farm walk. This is only a brief report on what was discussed on the day. For more information on ‘no dig’ and salad leaf production:

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