No-Dig, by Darren Stephens

April 2021

Chasing cardboard

You will certainly get a few funny looks if you walked around your neighbourhood the night before bin day, examining people’s street-side cardboard recycling. I know this all too well, as gathering enough cardboard has been the most problematic part of starting the no dig garden. It's laid to suppress weeds (rather than digging them up) before adding manure on top to create the beds.

They certainly weren't my finest moments, but the garden required so much of the stuff I had to find it wherever I could. It wasn't just the 400 meters of beds that needed laying, it was the borders and paths between them and then the re-covering as gaps appeared.

Luckily my neighbourhood was able to provide lots of it! Some online pleas from my girlfriend resulted in many offers; a family moving house, local businesses, including my local coffee house Ruby Jeans and LSI, have been more than helpful over the last month. Community spirit is certainly alive and well!

The strong winds and rain we had in March were simply agonising. They ripped through my most recently laid paths like a tornado through a junkyard and flung cardboard pieces across the field, leaving me on litter picking duties the next day.

Signs that the no-dig method is working are there, a sneak peek under the cardboard reveals pale, weak and matted grass; however, it is not a method that guarantees zero weeds. My new nemesis the Ranunculus Repens (creeping buttercup) dominates much of the field and has managed to find a way through some of the gaps as it searches for light. Quite incredible really when you see how much cardboard and manure it has to get through.

The cardboard paths will look a bit messy, but they are temporary. By May, when the hotel fully re- opens, I will cover them in decomposed wood chips which will improve the aesthetics and in turn nourish the land. In an ideal world I would have laid light excluding mulches in early winter to give the very best weed-free start to Spring, but I was far too busy roasting turkeys and making stuffing to even think about it back then!

 

The excitement of longer days and rising temperatures are now a reality. Cardboard issues are all but forgotten and a busy service in the kitchen, all but a distant memory. My attention now is fully on sowing.  March had many essential dates for indoor sowing; not least tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and chillies all of which I have kept pace with. The lack of a greenhouse or polytunnel (soon to be on its way!) meant I had to start sowing seeds in our little conservatory at home, juggling seed trays around temporary shelving units trying to give a fair share of sunlight to all seedlings. Trays of radish, spinach, onion, lettuce and early brassica seeds soon filled the shelves and window sills held herbs and spices from chocolate mint to lemongrass. By the time I was pricking out tomato seedlings into pots, our dining room had turned into a seed germination room and a selection of garden tables outside resembling a small nursery now holds many of the more hardy seedlings that can put up with any cold evenings.

 

Homewood's currently empty dining domes have come in handy as a holding bay for varieties waiting to be transplanted into the no-dig beds. Some of which will find themselves back coming full circle in a few months, perfectly prepared and served on a plate.

 

April will be another busy sowing month with daylight levels getting close to those of August, so any warmth in the air will mean rapid growth. On the other hand, nights are still very cold, so I must be patient and remind myself to follow correct calendar dates before sowing and planting. This is sometimes easier said than done, as the odd warm sunny day encourages me to reach for the seeds. Trays of leggy chard seedlings desperately searching for more light have taught me how vital light intensity and duration are for specific varieties and why we sow seeds when we do. Having this intimate involvement with every seed and plant can be difficult when they fail, especially due to mistakes and chasing cardboard across a windswept field is trying, but the potential rewards, when they come, are already so satisfying and will be a route to an exciting exchange between soil and plant, offering the chance to enrich our meals and the environment.

 

More to come campers,

 

Darren Stephens

Chef-Gardener, Homewood

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