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Charles Dowding

Charles Dowding showing us around his polytunnel

For my birthday at the end of last year, Wellyman kindly bought me a day with Charles Dowding. Charles has been growing salad crops and selling them for nearly 30 years now. He has, over that time built up quite a reputation not only for inspiring the British public to be a bit more adventurous with their salad growing but also for following the ‘no dig’ practice of mulching beds and then letting worms and other soil organisms do the hard work of improving his soil structure and fertility.

Charles runs courses from his farm, where he explains the thinking behind his ideas and you get to pick his brain and see his philosophy in action, and this is how I spent yesterday. From his farm in Somerset Charles runs a successful market garden, selling bags of mixed seasonal salads to businesses within a 4 mile radius. With 2 polytunnels and over an acre Charles makes £30,000 a year from growing salads. The site is less than ideal facing north and on clay but by using the ‘no dig’ technique of mulching with compost and well-rotted manure every year he has created soil conditions most gardeners dream of. The colour of his soil and the lack of weeds were the most striking aspects of his farm.

Charles Dowding

Just a few of Charles' incredibly productive beds

The soil is black and just so rich in organic matter from years of mulching with manure and compost. This dark colour means the soil warms up much more quickly in the spring, absorbing the warmth from the sun. The structure of his soil is much improved draining more freely but holding onto moisture when needed. In fact the structure of his soil is so amazing that he is able to walk on his beds when the ground is almost fully saturated, as it is at the moment after several weeks of rain. When he moved his feet you could see the ground underneath spring back and there was no footprint left behind. This really was quite remarkable to see.

Greeted by tea or coffee and tasty flapjack the course started with everyone introducing themselves. There was a broad mix of people, some with newly acquired polytunnels wanting inspiration, others running or planning to run their own market garden and some who just wanted to take away some ideas for their allotment or garden. Dodging the heavy downpours we spent time in the polytunnels seeing what varieties of winter salads he has been growing and getting the opportunity to taste along the way. This was particularly useful. I have never tasted sorrel or chervil before and was impressed enough to be add them to my seed wish list. Charles doesn’t just grow salad crops though and a visit during the summer and autumn will show a site packed to the brim with squashes, tomatoes, leeks, celeriac and much more.

He shared with us seed sowing tips and how to achieve good compost. Part of the garden has raised beds which Charles uses as experiment beds, comparing dig versus ‘no dig’ and the effects, if any, of charcoal as a mulch or when dug in.

A tasty lunch of foraged nettles for a soup and homemade spelt bread and of course some of Charles’ salad leaves was followed by the opportunity to ask questions and a final tour of the garden, which included a trip to the all important manure and compost piles.

Charles Dowding

Black gold - Charles' compost and manure heaps

I had a great day and came away with lots of ideas. The main ones being to track down a good source of manure and to use the space I have got more effectively to produce more salad and with lots of different varieties. For me it was refreshing to see a different and successful approach to growing. For me studying with the RHS for 4 years has been extremely useful, giving me an understanding of the theory behind growing but some of what you are taught is quite rigid and restrictive in it’s thinking. I’m learning that becoming a good grower is an ongoing process, with a great deal of experimentation and trial and error along the way. People like Charles are very inspiring and courses like the ones he offers are a great way of seeing your plot in a different light.

For more details about the courses offered by Charles Dowding visit his website.

If you can’t get to Somerset don’t despair, Charles has written a selection of books on the ‘no dig’ method, organic gardening, salad leaves and how to get the most from your plot in winter. Again have a look at his website for more information.