Possible Experiment – No-Dig, Narrow Beds

Next year I may bring some more land into production. I’m thinking about experimenting with a different growing system based on no-dig 30 inch (75 cm) wide beds. This is a system being used with success by the new wave of permaculture and regenerative agriculture market gardeners.

Raised beds in field plot

Raised beds in the field plot with the woodchip covered area I’m thinking of bringing into production in the foreground.

These are people who are not experimenting or blindly following gardening theories – they are making their living growing crops to sell in a way that improves rather than degrades the soil. Rather than trundling hugely expensive heavy machinery around fields, this method is geared for production using hand tools and small scale machines like rotavators.

Is it a good system for home growers?

I’m not trying to start a market garden but the question I’m trying to answer is how useful this method could be to allotment holders and home growers. I’ve used and am using deep raised beds with success but they have their drawbacks.

  • First of all deep raised beds work best when the soil is retained which costs money for wooden sides etc. And they won’t last forever.
  • Second, the normal size, if there is such a thing, is 10 ft long by 4 ft wide (3M x 1.2M). This allows for easy access to the middle of the bed from the sides with paths to swap sides.

The 30 ins bed system is narrow enough to step over and even straddle to work on. Because they’re easy to cross, they can be as long as you wish. Some of the commercial growers use 50 ft or even 100 ft bed lengths. They generally don’t need retaining walls because the compost is added initially in a 10 cm layer and after that in annual 5 cm layers.

Limitations of the system

Because our soil is so stony and compacted I know this narrow bed system won’t work for root crops like carrots and parsnips. They’ll just hit the rocks and fork. I should be able to make it work for crops like salads, onions, swedes, turnips etc. though.

There is a further complication I need to consider. The field area is very exposed to the wind and, boy, do we get wind here! That rules out crops like sweetcorn, climbing beans, peas and even broad beans are a bit dicey unless supported.

I’ve planted trees around to break the wind but the only ones that have grown enough to be useful so far are Leylandii. They’re not a bad tree in the right place but I don’t want too many of them dominating things.

Root Crops

If I was to dig the ground over and pick out the stones that would enable root crops in a narrow bed system but it’s a difficult and slow job. Just getting the spade into the ground is hard as the blade stops going in when it hits a stone. I could possibly rotavate. Getting it to bite in is hard but it does cope with the stones – well the smaller sized ones. Still time consuming to pick out those rocks though.

The Plan

The plan at the moment is to mark out the beds, scrape off the woodchips  covering the area and then fork them. Not fork over, just stick the fork in and rock it back and forth to open up the compacted soil. If I get to it this year I’ll cover with cardboard and then a layer of compost about 10 cm (4 ins) deep.

I think it will work out but until I’ve actually given it a try for a couple of years, I won’t know for sure. Theories are great but experience proves or disproves them. Incidentally, I still believe that raised deep beds have their place but have become over used. If you’ve a large area of good quality, deep soil there’s not a lot of benefit to them.

Posted in Allotment Garden Diary
8 comments on “Possible Experiment – No-Dig, Narrow Beds
  1. Cindy long says:

    Great idea, check on Charles Dowding website he no dig for yrs. I used large stones round beds, keeps the warmth in the beds if it gets chilly. Also we put a wild hedge round as a windbreak that attracts birds and insects. Looking forward to your results

  2. Kathy says:

    Bringing that new area into use after it has been covered for a while will perhaps reduce initial weeds.I guess you are only limited by how much compost you have available?

    • John Harrison says:

      Hi Kathy – I’ve got quite a bit of home made compost, about a cubic yard, and about 2/3rds of a cube of bought in windrow compost. 🙂
      My biggest constraints are time and energy! Especially as the years go by.

  3. MikeFromLFE says:

    I didn’t realise this had a name! I’ve been making beds this Autumn that are a ‘roof tile’ wide and about 2.4m long, so that my wife (who’s got bad arthritis) can get to them to weed. I use a board as edging though.
    I did some experiments last year with various widths and this seems to work for me. (Heavy clay soil, no extreme weather)

  4. Rowland Wells says:

    its going to be very interesting how your experiment works out John opening up new ground for no dig

    I have to say I have though about the no dig idea for some time but I’m sceptical to actually try although I did think the same about raised beds as I was always brought up the old way of digging the plot

    but three years ago I bit the bullet and made 20 raised beds with re-claimed timber and all painted [white] although we still have some open ground kept for beans and potatoes raised beds where the best thing we done and are better to manage

    we to don’t have the best ground for growing parsnips or carrot but my daughters allotments is the best parsnip and carrot ground lovely black soil hardly any stones but since talking to other’s on A&G site things could be looking up for next season’s parsnips and carrots anyway John I trust you will be keeping us informed how this experiment turns out good luck

  5. Snowdrops says:

    H ave you considered visiting Charles Dowding’s garden, I went yesterday & found it very inspiring. I had already decided to go no dig before I visited on his first open garden day.
    Rowlands Wells, you might consider a visit as well, always good to learn a new approach, just because we’ve always done something one way there’s no harm in trying a different way, you never know you might be pleasantly surprised. I’ve grown fruit & veg for over 30 years so I consider myself with a modicum of experience.
    He does run day courses that I would love to go on but it is a bit pricey. I’ve had 1 of his books for years & earlier this year bought 2 more & I feel I’ve got plenty of info from them but one can always learn more face to face. You never know we might meet up there one of these days

    • John Harrison says:

      I’ve a couple of his books and spoken to him but in fairness his underlying soil is a lot better than we have here. There’s a lot to be said for no-dig but I don’t think it’s a universal solution.
      The main thing is to find ways that work for you in your situation.

  6. Rowland Wells says:

    good reply John can’t argue with that

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