In the upcoming series Our Sustainability, each member of the Culthread team share their approach to planet-first living. In the first episode, we hear from Sarah Walter, who sheds light on her vibrant, productive garden that she achieved through an alternative approach to gardening - no dig.
Gardening kind of snuck up on me. As a child, I had watched my father return from his commute to disappear for hours into his veg patch, his shed, his herbaceous borders, his woodland, his lawn. He would reappear in the house after hours of digging, tying back, pricking out, composting and dead-heading with a smile on his face and shoulders back to where they were supposed to be. Gardening was what he did to decompress after a long difficult day so he could return to his family as himself.
Aged 45, I too developed a greater interest in Nature; in plants and trees and their invisible power to gift me serenity, clarity and work my body in the process. Much like the meditative preparation of vegetables, the washing, scrubbing, peeling and chopping, my interaction with gardening is my personal therapy. For me, there’s nothing like getting your hands in the soil and growing food to make you feel purposeful and connected
The pandemic has focussed many of us on the state of our planet, its ability to keep us breathing, to feed us fairly and our responsibility to understand how to support it better. Interestingly the circularity of a sustainable fashion business is not dissimilar in principle to a sustainable gardening practice. Take only what you need, get rid of all toxins and unnatural materials, re-use what you can, respect all living things and realise all good things come to those who wait.
Everything starts with the environment, the ‘terrain’ and in the gardening world, this means the soil. Soil needs organic matter to retain its structure and ability to support life. Contrary to modern farming practices, good organic-rich soil prefers to not be disturbed which is why I practise ‘no-dig gardening’ as taught by Charles Downing and, my teacher, Rae Gervis. No-dig gardening allows the soil’s mycorrhizal fungal networks to develop and maintain their ability to communicate, feed and absorb. Think of them as a major global carbon sink.
It’s this living structure within the soil which provides the best environment for plant growth. Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Earth refers to the Wood Wide Web, a connected resource beneath our feet through which plants communicate with and support one another. He says “When we destroy them, we sabotage our efforts to limit global heating”. Along with Merlin if you are as fascinated by this subject as I am, read Professor Suzanne Simard who recently discovered that trees can communicate and cooperate through subterranean networks of fungi. It is mind-blowing.
Back to my garden. My seven large weedy beds looked overwhelming at first. I was taught by Rae to keep cardboard boxes, remove any part which was not wood-derived and flatten and soak them. In their soggy form, I could shape them a bit like hospital corners on a bedsheet to fit my ‘beds’ perfectly thus covering all the weeds beneath. Next came the well-rotted farmyard manure and compost which I luckily had a never-ending supply of. I packed this over the wet cardboard until everything was covered. The weeds died without a source of light and the manure and compost slowly rotted down mixing with the dead weeds into the cardboard which in turn would provide more organic matter.
After a few months with much-improved soil, I was ready to start planting. I was encouraged to put perennial vegetables into each bed to retain the foundations of the soil, the mycorrhizal fungal networks and also to ease my annual gardening workload. My list included Artichokes, Cardoons, Skirret, Spanish Walking onion, Turkish rocket, Welsh onions, Perennial spinach, Serpent garlic, Comphrey (largely for fertiliser), Borage (for the bees), Jerusalem Artichokes, Horseradish, Blackcurrants, Gooseberries and Angelica. The perennials also provided an architectural structure around which I could plant my annuals, the salads and all the green vegetables I wanted to eat at every meal.
No-dig gardening prioritises the health of the soil which in turn produces the healthiest sustainable plants and gardens which require very little additional water and are eventually weed-free. The yield is consistently proven to be higher too. No-dig feels harmonious and has a beautiful circularity to it. If I keep feeding the soil and protecting its integrity, it will keep feeding me.
In Nature, you don’t see any bare soil apart from when it's nutrient-void as in the desert. Plants and dead matter always create a covering or ‘mulch’ to protect the soil and retain its moisture. The rules of no-dig follow these principles too. I was taught to ‘underplant’ bigger, taller plants with smaller ground covering plants thereby protecting the soil. I planted by inserting a ‘dibbler’ (pointed wide stick) into the ground through any remaining cardboard and gently dropping the seedling into it and surrounding it with the soil again. This technique means very little is ever disturbed. When it is time to harvest, again, I remove what I need carefully and fill the remaining hole with fresh compost or manure immediately.
Not much more than a hoe, a dibbler and a good pair of gardening gloves are the only tools you need to sustain the flow of planting and harvesting. I have lots more to learn but now that I’ve got the basic foundations, I feel confident to grow a greater diversity of plants and enjoy my garden and its produce even more.
Charles Downing, an award-winning organic gardener and author of ‘No Dig’
Merlin Sheldrake, a biologist and author of 'Entangled Earth'
Suzanne Simard, a Forest Ecologist and author of 'Finding the Mother Tree'