Starting out a 'No Dig' allotment - costs and benefits.
December already!! How did that happen? As I get down to the winding down time of the year - both workwise and allotment wise - I drink a LOT of tea down there now it is December. .... and when I finally get my shed built bacon butties too is the plan. December is calm, with gentle small jobs to do, and lots of time to sit back and appreciate the journey.
So, a good time to reflect on kinda my first year allotment journey and share some thoughts for other first timers on what I've learned and what I'd do differently and how much I have spent - how much doing No Dig actually costs! First off, I have loved it. Mental and physical health wise the plot has given me a lot. I have explored different methodologies starting with No Dig (don't dig the soil) and a bit of a haphazard approach to polyculture (mix planting up) and permaculture (plant once eat forever). I will put a link in at the bottom to my beginner's take on permaculture.
In this, my first reviewing blogs of the gardening year I thought I'd talk about the real costs and benefits of No Dig. And from the get go - yes I am glad I did it and will I continue? - Heck yes!!! For No-Dig Charles Dowding is the guru but I think Huw Richards explains why it works wonderfully in this video.
I will put a link in later on for the how to get started from Charles Dowding. As Huw rightly says the downside is really in the first year of the amount of compost you need to get started. I had one lorry load of cow manure my first year to lay down two beds in September/ October 2020.
To see the whole process in pictures please have a look at my beginning allotment page (here is the link).
I also ordered another lorry load which I left to mature which I used to lay down another three beds in March. What I'd recommend to new allotmenteers is look at the successful productive plots and see where they get their manure from. The cow manure at our plot came in at £40 for a lorry load.
The next investment was for my premium perennial asparagus. Did you know asparagus plants can live up to 20 to 25 years? So as I was a bit flush at the time I splashed out and spent around £120 on peat free compost in bags as I wanted to give it the ploofiest soil as a starter. I did put cow manure in the bottom of my only raised bed to give it rich nutrients as the roots established.
Would I do this again? Probably not, as I later shared two lorry loads of green waste compost with lottie neighbours which came in at around £100 a lorry load. The first one was shared between 4 of us and that sorted what I call my 'T-bed or second brassica bed) as it crosses the top of my 3 beds,
and the second was between 2 of us and did another 3 beds and a fattening out of another one. We also have some municipal compost delivered which we can buy for 50p a wheelbarrow full so I've spent around £25 on that for infilling my paths and expanding the beds I have so I can grow in circles - but that is one for another blog.
So compost costs in total have been about £295. It could have been less and got the same results (re asparagus above).
Another investment I made was in scaffolding boards. As my plot is on a slope I had this wild idea about terracing it (till I watched videos on what I would have to do - soon did a 180 on that one!). As I said earlier the only raised bed I made was for the asparagus. And looking back would I do that? - probably yes as that is quite a slopey bit on the lottie, but what I wouldn't have done is to line it with weed suppressor. Firstly it shreds plastic, and secondly after watching a video about asparagus I learned that their roots grow really deep so I ended up slashing holes in the weed suppressor so that the asparagus could grow down. Onto the scaff... I wouldn't have bought as much, but did find it really helpful for starting beds off (- see the Charles Dowding video) but I ended up taking most of mine home and making a waist high raised bed at the bottom of my garden. But some scaff boards, just as you are laying down the beds is really useful. I found a supplier in Bristol that sells former scaffolding boards for around £1 per foot (30 cm approx). I spent £120 but most of it got used at home.
One of the real revelations for me about No-Dig is the lack of weeds in comparison to my digging friends. Yes there are a few perennials that get through but they are so much weaker. On our plot we have bind weed and couch grass and I have stragglers coming through but nothing in comparison to other dig plots. Also recently me and another couple of neighbours are helping out other neighbours with their plot. I was gobsmacked by the amount of weed seeds that happen when you turn over the soil. Seriously people don't do it - way too much work.
The next cost was seeds. I've probably spent around £100 on seeds and really there is no reason to spend that much. I have grown lots of different varieties of stuff but there are cheaper ways of buying seeds. I'll put a link in to Steve from Green Side Up's video about buying seed. There are also seed swaps which I really want to investigate further this coming growing season.
The last cost to consider is infrastructure stuff. Here I am talking compost bins, water buts, netting and fleecing and even a shed. I am a self confessed compulsive skip watcher, wall treasure hunter and I also have been lucky enough for mates to give me stuff they are getting rid off and exceptionally lucky that my friend Karen's dad was replacing his shed so he gave me his old one. I was really lucky to be given a lot of butterfly netting, I already had 3 fleeces. I have bought netting and fine mesh netting - I recommend ebay rather than amazon! For my brassica cages I used conduit cable (that a neighbour was giving away) and garden sticks - ah yes I did buy some of those but also some friends were also cutting down their bamboo and gave me a wealth of bamboo canes which I rather think will see me through the rest of my gardening life. Oh and you may have noticed terracotta plant pots in some of the photos, probably one way or another (I bought some Aldi mixes to be sown in them) probably spent around £80. Would I do that again? Probably not in the first year for the way I used them, but I am glad I have them and will use them next year for the bigger polytunnel and definitely for squash plants. But I think my experiments in year one warrant their own blog rather than trying to pack everything in here.
And I bought a small polytunnel which I would do again - only around £25. And I had a couple of plastic houses at home for bringing on seedlings.
Something that Huw mentions in his video is about compost and you won't be able to generate what you need to be self-sustaining without bringing in extra materials and that is certainly my experience. When I was starting out watching Charles Dowding in one of his videos he recommended talking to local shops for their food waste. I took his advice and now I collect veggie food waste from my local shop twice a week. At our allotment site we also get deliveries of free wood chip so those, together with asking neighbours for their leaves, coffee grounds and cardboard is my basic recipe and I think I might get to be self sustaining on compost for the lottie by the end of this year. There is much more to say on compost but I will leave that for another time. But here is a little video of my compost set up and results.
I am enjoying looking back before it all gets crazy activity again. I will do future blogs around poly and perma culture. I've been very faithful to the no dig approach, I've been a bit more flighty and flirty with the others but I will share my learning as far as I have got so far this year.
So, for first time allotmenteers what would be my top ten tips - for stuff I did or didn't do?
Compost - I didn't but wish I had. Make this your first project. I will write another blog about it.
Talk to the people who have the best plots. Ask them what they are doing and get their advice - I did this and learned LOADS.
Start small - one or two beds at a time - this I did, and whilst in other bits of my life I can feel a bit overwhelmed, that didn't happen at the lottie. My ambition the first year was to do a third of it. I am now grabbing land round the edges! So my advice is be seriously under ambitious and then you can surprise and encourage yourself. As a professional coach I would say the total opposite - but as a gardener - working in and with nature is a different rhythm, be kind to yourself, your soil and all will work out.
No Dig - need I say more!
Watch videos on how to grow stuff you are interested in. I did this and it really REALLY helped.
Be gentle with yourself when stuff doesn't work - I will do a whole blog about what didn't work. This is a learning journey not an exam.
Only grow what you like eating - one of the best bits of advice I was given and yup it works.
If you are doing no dig then you can grow carrots and parsnips - I didn't do this. Cardboard rots away in around 3-4 months. Wish I'd have known that one - ooh and bonus a lottie neighbour said start parsnips off in loo rolls at home. This is because they need warmth to germinate, you want to keep the root in tact and germination rates can be low in cold soil outdoors. Will deffo try that next season.
More of a permaculture thing - but really get your perennials going sooner rather than later. I inherited rhubarb and I got my asparagus going, I sowed my artichokes (but for them - ask your lottie neighbours for off shoots in winter- they need to separate them every year anyway otherwise they wont fruit). I wish I'd have got some others going like 9 star broccoli, Good King Henry Spinach - I will do another blog on perennials. I'm not a great fruit fan but if you are - then get started with that.
One thing I did which all perceived wisdom said 'don't' but I did and I'm glad I did, is grow loads of different stuff you love. Well maybe small amounts of it if you are only doing a couple of beds, but have variety - it is the spice of life! And bonus - get your perennial herbs in.
Two bonus tips
And I didn't do this... just sow small amounts of stuff not nearly the whole packet. Some plants are really big and productive and you don't need 20 of them! But do successionally sow - I did this most of the time and it works. Particularly peas, beans and salads, I am hoping it will work for the kales and purple sprouting broccoli - will let you know.
And I learned this from my lottie neighbours and I didn't do it first time round either - plan a seating area to have your flask of hot or cold beverage on and where you can share your journey with your friends.
And finally the tip that I don't know if it is a tip yet but I wish I had done:
Keyhole bed planting. I am intrigued. I plan to revolutionise my planting layout this year as I really wish I had known about it before I started and will report back.
Starting out with no dig with No Dig guru Charles Dowding.
Where to buy seeds from Steve at Green Side Up
Next: What to sow in January