No Dig / Green Manure - does soil improve every year?

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There are a number of organic approaches (green manure, no dig etc) that focus on feeding the soil life rather than fertilizing the plants. One of the key 'selling points' seems to be that your soil improves each year using these methods.

As an example, one of Charles Dowding's experiments has been running for many years is where he compares a no dig bed with a bed where all else is the same but the compost is dug into the bed. His results always show that the no-dig bed produces better results than the dig bed. But what we're not seeing is improved harvests over the years. Likewise with his experiment where he has grown the same crops (potatoes, broad beans) in the same bed for 8 years in a row with no reduction in quality or size of harvest. But what he doesn't mention is no improvement either.

I've used no-dig for 4 years now. I got outstanding results in year one. I don't measure things in detail but I haven't observed any improvement in subsequent years (although the soil LOOKS better). But as my results were good in year one why would it matter?

How long does it take to get beds using no-dig, green manure or other similar approaches to reach optimum levels? (I get that it depends how bad things are before you start).

How would we establish what optimum levels are? For example, some focus on NKP levels, or the specific needs of a given crop. But others (Dowding for example) argue that it's the soil life - primarily the bacteria - that matters. Get that right and all plants will thrive. Well, if my soil was producing great results in year one (within 3 months actualy) presumably soil life/bacteria builds up to sufficient levels very quickly?

Has anyone used one of these 'feed the soil' techniques and actually recorded harvest sizes, quality or some other measurable variable over the years? At what point did YOU reach peak soil fertility? And how do you personally assess soil fertitlity? I don't think soil testing is a good guide as it makes assumptions about what's important in a soil and it seems not all experts agree on this. Tests might show your soil getting better, but are your crops improving in quality or harvest size?

If your soil has been trashed by aggricultural practices you might have a lot of remedial work to do. But in your average garden does it take more than a couple of weeks or months to establish sufficient soil life to grow great veg? Dowding's approach requires 1 inch of compost a year. Nothing more. That's enough to sustain 2, 3, 4 harvests in a year. Even with hungry crops there's nothing more added. This works even when you plant directly into a brand new bed.
 
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I have four hen runs of about 400 sq.feet (say 40 sq.m.) each and I rotate the hens and plant the run they have just left. 18 months ago, I moved into my oldest run and was shocked to find the soil had compacted. This was my best 20-year-old soil! Eventually I worked out that the hens had eaten all the life in the top few inches of soil, and not watering for three months, had killed the rest of the soil life. It's very hot and dry in summer here - even mint will die if you don't water it.
I viewed 'edible acres' on utube about this guy who keeps sixty hens in New York state. He keeps areas alive by placing rubbish, pallets, old boxes etc. on the ground so no hen can scratch those places and then he keeps piling up the organic matter on the soil until it is a complete mat sometimes a pile two foot high. This is my new practice to keep the soil alive. And if it's alive it is aerated and spongy. It is also full of worms and other life forms. You are probably right about feeding the soil not the plants. It is hard to measure results except by looking, feeling and tasting. I don't know what peak fertility is, but you can lose it quickly with malpractice.
 
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I have four hen runs of about 400 sq.feet (say 40 sq.m.) each and I rotate the hens and plant the run they have just left. 18 months ago, I moved into my oldest run and was shocked to find the soil had compacted. This was my best 20-year-old soil! Eventually I worked out that the hens had eaten all the life in the top few inches of soil, and not watering for three months, had killed the rest of the soil life. It's very hot and dry in summer here - even mint will die if you don't water it.
I viewed 'edible acres' on utube about this guy who keeps sixty hens in New York state. He keeps areas alive by placing rubbish, pallets, old boxes etc. on the ground so no hen can scratch those places and then he keeps piling up the organic matter on the soil until it is a complete mat sometimes a pile two foot high. This is my new practice to keep the soil alive. And if it's alive it is aerated and spongy. It is also full of worms and other life forms. You are probably right about feeding the soil not the plants. It is hard to measure results except by looking, feeling and tasting. I don't know what peak fertility is, but you can lose it quickly with malpractice.
I'd be very interested to hear how quickly your 20-year old best soil takes to get back to how it was before the chickens trashed it!!
 
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I'd be very interested to hear how quickly your 20-year old best soil takes to get back to how it was before the chickens trashed it!!
Not as long as it took me to find what the problem was. I started watering, composting and planting despite the compaction. Things like silver beet never missed a beat. A lot of the others were planted into the two inches of compost I put on top the soil. I would guess that the vitamins and minerals were in the soil and the aeration return with watering and growth of the plants.
 
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Your question of annual improvement is simple. If you're using organics, then yes, the effects are good and accumulative. If you're using chemical fertilizer, then no. Chemical weed control, pest control and fertilizers are turning grasslands and woodlands into a desert. We live in a nature that relies upon microscopic lifeforms to feed our plants. The same is true of our digestive system. Millions of microbes are digesting our food and rebuilding our bodies every day.
The connection between our bodies and our gardens is our food. If chemical inputs are killing microbial life in the soil, then the food from that soil is dangerous to our microbial dependent body.
The use of no-dig or green manure seems a sideline issue to me. There are organic methods that include burying cow dung in cow horns and others of planting into established clover fields. So long as we return to the non-chemical practices of our grandparents' era and try our best to live with nature and not fight it things will get better.
 
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Is green manure a system or just part of farming? Our 'normal' farmer here changed over to the organic practices of cover crop and green manure so long ago they don't realize it's organic. If the agriculture dept. of the govt. tells them to change to minimal tillage, multi-cropping, removal of glyphosate and NPK fertilizers they will do that too.
On the 'no-dig' gardens I see on TV and the media I have to say they look more like a 'photo opportunity' than a garden. They are so ridiculously orderly and clean they look like a military parade ground. I wonder if they earn more from the tourist dollar than the sale of produce.
It's a beautiful day here at last. The morning was cold (5C). I'm pruning and weeding until sunset. Just thought I would let you have my thoughts during a little break.
 
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When I say does it improve every year I really mean in terms of ability to produce great crops.

I think the actual fertility (the soil life to feed your crops) builds rapidly. Once you have enough soil life to provide the food the plants need there is no benefit to having yet more. As I've said - with no dig people tend to get sufficient fertility in year one.

What will improve over the years is soil structure, drainage etc. But again, you only need so much to get great crops. Once you've achieved 'good enough'.....

For me, the key thing is something being sustainable. You want to get your beds up to speed (and I think this happens quidkly) and from there on in all you really care about is keeping them there with minimum effort and cost.

Dowding has been running side by side test beds to compare dig with no dig, and no crop rotation. He has 10 years of data and you don't see improvement over the years in harvests. They've been good from year one.
 
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Permaculture is a broadacre approach that can be used in the small garden. It generates its own fertility - compost and animal manures. They use poultry, ducks, geese, chickens and can incorporate other grazing animals as well - which also recycles waste products from the farm. It includes orchards and wetlands in a wide usage of landscape to encourage biodiversity. It will allow the use of tractors to till. I consider their broad approach to landscape, animals and water catchment to be more sustainable than Dowding's approach.
Permaculture has involved itself with a worldwide search for a cure for desertification.
I personally keep six water bowls full all year to attract birds. I have a wetland and an Australian native tree wood lot. I allow a wide range of useful plants to self-seed, and this gives me free amaranth, marigolds, comfrey, parsley, tomatoes, broad beans, sweet peas etc., as well as making all my vege beds polycultures. I also allow spiders to build their webs across pathways and between fruit trees. I have resident populations of pigeons, sparrows, honeyeaters and magpies. I am a lot more sustainable in a natural world than Dowding.
 
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Permaculture is a broadacre approach that can be used in the small garden. It generates its own fertility - compost and animal manures. They use poultry, ducks, geese, chickens and can incorporate other grazing animals as well - which also recycles waste products from the farm. It includes orchards and wetlands in a wide usage of landscape to encourage biodiversity. It will allow the use of tractors to till. I consider their broad approach to landscape, animals and water catchment to be more sustainable than Dowding's approach.
Permaculture has involved itself with a worldwide search for a cure for desertification.
I personally keep six water bowls full all year to attract birds. I have a wetland and an Australian native tree wood lot. I allow a wide range of useful plants to self-seed, and this gives me free amaranth, marigolds, comfrey, parsley, tomatoes, broad beans, sweet peas etc., as well as making all my vege beds polycultures. I also allow spiders to build their webs across pathways and between fruit trees. I have resident populations of pigeons, sparrows, honeyeaters and magpies. I am a lot more sustainable in a natural world than Dowding.
Dowding is a commercial grower - he's taking a lot of produce out of his land. He'd need a whole farm of animals to replace the nutrients taken out.

Homesteaders are still bringing in organic matter for livestock in the form of grain etc. Unless you grow your own animal feed, but in this case you're stripping nutrients from the land where you grow the animal feed to put them on the veg beds.

Putting it crudely, the problem is that we're taking produce out of our 'ecosystems'. Even if we just feed ourselves, the human waste is being pumped away from our property. If we're selling produce we're taking huge amounts away from our ecosystem each year. Everything taken out needs to be replaced and even with animals you simply can't do that without bringing in organic matter from outside. If we were willing to process our own human waste and return it to our land we could be completely sustainable I suspect.

We have access to as much horse and cow manure as we want. Also seaweed. Additionally, my next door neighbour has a garden the same size as mine (1/4 acre or so) and she gives us all her garden waste - grass clippings, tree and shrub trimmings, weeds etc.
 
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The chooks prefer grass to grain or mash. That surprised me. The eggs are glorious. So, animals are not really a drag on the system. Grasses like alfalfa, clover and barley are easy to grow and can be used for food, stock food, fertilizer, mulch and even left for the birds. Lots of wild birds enjoy the wild grasses - their flower heads and their roughage too. But Dowding takes much effort in eliminating weeds and his young homesteading appendices are more devoted to weed removal then he is. His system and the raised bed style have taken on big time. Probably because of widespread contaminated soil in urban vacant lots.
I would like them to take a look at Permaculture, slow down the avid commercialism, and revise their thinking on the benefits of nature connection.
 
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The chooks prefer grass to grain or mash. That surprised me. The eggs are glorious. So, animals are not really a drag on the system. Grasses like alfalfa, clover and barley are easy to grow and can be used for food, stock food, fertilizer, mulch and even left for the birds. Lots of wild birds enjoy the wild grasses - their flower heads and their roughage too. But Dowding takes much effort in eliminating weeds and his young homesteading appendices are more devoted to weed removal then he is. His system and the raised bed style have taken on big time. Probably because of widespread contaminated soil in urban vacant lots.
I would like them to take a look at Permaculture, slow down the avid commercialism, and revise their thinking on the benefits of nature connection.
The point is, if you aren't bringing anything in for your chickens and you aren't processing your own human waste and returning it to your land then your system isn't sustainable. Either you bring something in, or your land loses fertility over time.

Dowding brings compost in each year (but makes most himself). Other well known people that use his approach (such as Liz Zorab, Huw Richards) have chickens and ducks. Liz Zorab has pigs too I think. There are others that have ducks, chickens, goats, pigs, sheep. The one thing they all have in common is they need to bring something in to make up for the (excuse my language) the human sh*t that is funnelling nutrients to the local sewage works.

Dowding has said many times that there is next to no weeding. Just a few minutes here and there (that's my experience in my garden). The young people he employs are mainly occupied with regular harvests of the salad leaves he sells, and also in sowing, tending and planting plug plants for succesion sowing. You mentioned before how meticulously clean and tidy his beds are. In the UK if you leave rubbish lying around you'll get slugs, and you can't afford to be having slugs if you're a commercial salad leaf seller. My garden beds are tidy like that too - it doesn't take any time. The compost keeps it looking neat and tidy and you just pick of any dead or dying leaves and pull the odd weed. The weeds in the soil don't germinate because of the compost layer so all you ever get is the odd weed seed blowing in on the wind. Hoeing eliminates them in seconds. I think the big selling point of Dowding's approach is because it's easy. It's not sustainable because you need to bring things in. But that said - the only way to do things sustainably is to process and spread your own poop!!LOL
 
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I actually like weeding. I allow plants to invade my yard and figuring out what they are and how they fit into the ecosystem. This is also the best way to attract all kinds of life.

However, because of where I'm located I can't get any large animals, such as deer, so I make sure that I'm always chopping and dropping. I can chop/drop so much that I no longer have to bring in mulch; which, I do occasionally by going around the neighborhood and picking up yard waste left on the curb.

I get snail and some slugs, but they mostly like the dead organic matter. Although I didn't have much in the way of snails when my yard was simply grass; I also didn't have much life, both in the soil and above.

Some examples, many are birds I never seen here until I did away with my grass. I have so many more pics...
 

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The point is, if you aren't bringing anything in for your chickens and you aren't processing your own human waste and returning it to your land then your system isn't sustainable. Either you bring something in, or your land loses fertility over time.

Dowding brings compost in each year (but makes most himself). Other well known people that use his approach (such as Liz Zorab, Huw Richards) have chickens and ducks. Liz Zorab has pigs too I think. There are others that have ducks, chickens, goats, pigs, sheep. The one thing they all have in common is they need to bring something in to make up for the (excuse my language) the human sh*t that is funnelling nutrients to the local sewage works.

Dowding has said many times that there is next to no weeding. Just a few minutes here and there (that's my experience in my garden). The young people he employs are mainly occupied with regular harvests of the salad leaves he sells, and also in sowing, tending and planting plug plants for succesion sowing. You mentioned before how meticulously clean and tidy his beds are. In the UK if you leave rubbish lying around you'll get slugs, and you can't afford to be having slugs if you're a commercial salad leaf seller. My garden beds are tidy like that too - it doesn't take any time. The compost keeps it looking neat and tidy and you just pick of any dead or dying leaves and pull the odd weed. The weeds in the soil don't germinate because of the compost layer so all you ever get is the odd weed seed blowing in on the wind. Hoeing eliminates them in seconds. I think the big selling point of Dowding's approach is because it's easy. It's not sustainable because you need to bring things in. But that said - the only way to do things sustainably is to process and spread your own poop!!LOL
 
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We have a septic system so the human waste stays on site and feeds the soil microcosm. It's the driest state on the driest continent in the world here. The city's sewerage is processed and goes back onto farms and has done so for decades.
The king's Highgrove House looks more at ease with nature than Dowding's sample plot.
Some of our young female reporters on TV have faces so made up, with eyelashes, eyes, hair, jewelry, lips and skin so perfect I feel like asking "are you a robot?". I'm guessing that is an outcome of AI. So I'm guessing that the faultless geometry of the public face of no-dig gardening is also because of the computers' 'virtual reality' presentation style. I'm just not convinced that it has the survival gene. It wouldn't last long here. Everything thing is based on irrigation here,
 
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I actually like weeding. I allow plants to invade my yard and figuring out what they are and how they fit into the ecosystem. This is also the best way to attract all kinds of life.

However, because of where I'm located I can't get any large animals, such as deer, so I make sure that I'm always chopping and dropping. I can chop/drop so much that I no longer have to bring in mulch; which, I do occasionally by going around the neighborhood and picking up yard waste left on the curb.

I get snail and some slugs, but they mostly like the dead organic matter. Although I didn't have much in the way of snails when my yard was simply grass; I also didn't have much life, both in the soil and above.

Some examples, many are birds I never seen here until I did away with my grass. I have so many more pics...
Nice one Roadrunner. It is a relief to see others are trying to work with nature.
 

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