Why no-dig when digging is so GOOD for you?

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“No dig is where it’s all at Matt, you should try it!”. No thank you very much… digging is one of my favourite gardening past-times. I LOVE digging. The smell of the freshly lifted soil as the fork comes up, the loss of thought and mind as I constantly scan for Horsetail (Equisetum) and creeping Couch grass roots, the smug satisfaction as I pile up invasive weeds, the happy robin who joins me for his worm lunch and the satisfying clean brown empty canvas at the end. Who doesn’t also love a hot bath to relax those aching biceps and hamstrings after a marathon digging session?

No-dig gardening would make me fat!

Did you know that digging burns between 200 and 400 calories per hour (depending upon your work rate)? Given that I have twenty semi-raised beds on allotment 47b right now and each takes 30 minutes of intensive digging to rotate (at a single fork’s depth) that’s 10 hours of lovely digging and 4000 calories burned off twice a year. Around 8000 calories and 2.5lbs of fat burned doing something that I love. I haven’t even started on my new plot 47a yet, that’ll be another 2.5lbs. If I embraced no-dig gardening it could make me 5lbs fatter each year, after three years I’d put on over a stone in weight! MrsGrow wouldn’t like that very much, I’m not sure she likes the ‘one pack’ that I’m already carrying around without me giving up digging as well… I like my wheelbarrow but I’m not sure extra manure journeys would be as pleasurable as digging.

There are also muscles to consider, from hamstrings to biceps, shoulders to buttocks they all get a workout from digging! The continuous weed root collection squats and lunges are at least as good as anything one can do on a rowing machine or sitting on a yoga mat. The times I’ve seen small groups of 20 somethings with a personal trainer in our local park stretching and bending, I always want to shout “Get an allotment, you’ll get fresh veg too!”. The exercise of digging makes you just as fit and healthy and helps you live longer (as demonstrated by my ‘Head Gardener’ Great Grandad who lived to the age of 108 and he never heard of ‘no-dig’).

My Grandad – Digging (not no-digging)

You can of course dig badly in relation to your own body – risking injury if you do not bend your knees correctly or over-stretch your reach. In ‘A Novel Biomechanical Analysis of Horticultural Digging‘ load bearing studies were conducted to analyse the impact of digging on the human body. There is certainly potential for back injury if posture is incorrect. However, given correct posture ‘The results of this study, relating specifically to the task of digging, could potentially benefit both amateur and professional horticulturists. In relation to amateur horticulturists, it is suggested all ages could benefit through increased regular exercise and older people through extending the practice of gardening into even older age by maintaining fitness and reducing the decline in musculoskeletal function attributed to aging‘. Which I interpret as ‘digging is good for you!’

In addition to the physical fitness benefits digging also brings mental health improvements, there are not many mindfulness techniques around to rival a few hours of flat out digging. I never come away from a digging session with a busy mind and come bedtime all I see when I close my eyes are roots and soil. Stress is a very hard thing to hang on to after digging, I treat it as the horticultural equivalent of the punch bag, motoring through bed after bed with the aid of a few litres of drinking water. Take that weeds!

The benefits to your soil from digging are numerous:

  • reduced soil compaction enabling roots to spread more easily (especially on heavy clay).
  • Improved drainage and soil aeration brings more oxygen to the roots of plants and reduces the growth of weeds like Horsetail which prefer poor conditions.
  • digging in organic matter (such as rotted horse manure) or leaf mould helps to improve the soil’s quality.

Of course it’s possible to do a bad job of digging; double-digging (two spades deep) can mix top soil with sub soil if not managed correctly and that’s definitely a bad thing. You also risk spreading weeds further if you don’t carefully remove their roots when digging and accidentally chop them up. At the end of the growing season I dig over my beds and then rotate each year between a green manure crop to dig in the following spring or a couple of inches of well rotted manure – both options keep the weeds down and replenish the nitrogen.

So Why No-Dig At All?

The argument for no-dig is that digging, rather than improving soil, could disturb the networks of mycorrhizal fungi that connect plants together otherwise helping them share nutritional resources or to communicate with each other about pest attacks. Digging might also disturb worms (I’m pretty sure the moles on our allotment site are already doing that) and digging increases the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by increasing decomposition time. No-dig apparently keeps weeds down but if you ask me so does regular digging with an annual manure mulch. Above all no-dig is touted for saving time – you know… that time you would have spent digging, getting fit and healthy, de-stressing and burning off fat whilst maintaining your musculoskeletal function.

Of course in this post I’m being slightly facetious, I know that the main proponent of ‘No-Dig Gardening’ – Charles Dowding insists that his crops are better in trials from no-dig beds and that has to be worth finding out about. I also accept that for those with physical impairments no-dig could be the soil management technique that keeps them coping with an allotment. I however need a lot of persuading if I’m going to get fat in exchange for improved crops!

On Wednesday 14th March 2018 at 8pm Charles will give a talk entitled ’Successional Sowing and No Dig Gardening’ in the Main Hall of East Horsley Village Hall, Kingston Avenue, East Horsley, Leatherhead, Surrey KT24 6QT. This talk is free for NVS members, £1 for members of affiliated societies, £2 for RHS students, and £5 for all other visitors. Charles will be there wearing his ‘Charlie Says Relax’ t-shirt and I’ll be carrying my ‘Fight Fat – Dig For Britain’ placard. OK no he won’t really and neither will I… but I do have a Joe Swift signed Dig for Britain poster so anything’s possible.


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About Author

Matt Peskett is GrowLikeGrandad (if you want to know why read 'About the Editor). He has a few 'heavy clay' allotments and is Chairman of the Dorking Allotment Holders Association (DAHA). Matt also has a medium sized 'sandy soil' hillside garden (Italian terrace designed) and enjoys photography - especially nature. Matt takes inspiration from gardens like Hidcote and Great Dixter and enjoys watching anything on TV presented by Monty Don or Louis Theroux.

1 Comment

  1. I have to admit I agree with you, I’d much rather have a veggie garden to dig than a gym membership, but it’s something that seems never-ending once you get into it! We’re forming a new vegetable garden this year and you’ll be appalled to hear that I’m doing a Richard Briers and going to dig out our new beds using a rotavator!

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