Last week was the first in this two-part conversation with British gardening legend, Charles Dowding. If you missed it, I recommend you start there. That episode focused on Charles’ background and the no-dig garden method for which he is so renowned. Today’s discussion focuses on how Charles is using compost for more than just a great soil amendment.
Charles and I had so much to discuss and share that I couldn’t pack it all into one episode, so here we are with Part Two. As a couple of organic gardeners who love to teach and have been in the public eye for a number of years, we have plenty in common.
One of our greatest commonalities is the joy that we feel from the garden. Hopefully, you experience that too. It doesn’t matter how many years you spend caring for the plants in a landscape, there is always so much more to learn – so much to challenge us season after season.
The joy of gardening becomes most powerful once you embrace all of the opportunities to experiment. There are nearly infinite opportunities out there to try new plants, new methods, different arrangements, etc. There is always more to explore. This stuff just never gets boring – even after decades.
Charles and I love to experiment with various aspects of gardening. At his Homeacres garden in Southwestern England, Charles has been planting trial beds for several years, comparing production from beds which have been dug and those which haven’t. Here at the GardenFarm, I’ve been geeking out on various aspects of starting seeds indoors for about two years. I’ve compared lighting, soil and all kinds of variables to see how the results stack up.
Don’t be afraid to experiment in your garden. Start small, so you don’t feel overwhelmed. Then, gradually build and develop – applying the lessons of each season to what comes next. Gardening is a great opportunity to become your own authority as you observe and learn from your mistakes. So, dare yourself to try new things.
Even if you just try one new pepper plant to see how it compares to the variety you’ve always loved to grow, or try mulching one bed with wood chips and a nearby bed with shredded leaves to see what you like best as the season wears on. Sometimes, the littlest shifts in our normal approach make a big difference.
It’s pretty clear from last week’s portion of the conversation that Charles is a big believer in the power of compost, and you probably know by now that I am too. I’ve used all kinds of compost systems through the years, but it’s my three-bin compost system that I love most. Charles enjoys using a system that is quite a bit larger.
We’ve each shared a number of YouTube videos to teach our composting practices. So, check out Charles’ videos and check out mine – then, all that information can help you to adopt a system that makes sense for you.
Here’s the biggest takeaway: Composting isn’t complicated. Charles and I are both proponents of teaching a simplified process, because it works. Backyard composting is one area that confuses and intimidates so many gardeners, but it shouldn’t. As long as you understand a few basic principles, making your own compost really is easy.
When you maintain a balance of brown materials (leaves, paper, cardboard, etc.) and green materials (kitchen scraps, plant debris, manure, etc.) in a compost heap, nature does a pretty good job taking care of the rest.
In fact, sometimes, Charles and I will opt to create a pile out of a single material, and we just wait it out. We allow it to break down – to compost – all on its own. For example, I gather leaves each fall into a wire corral and let them be as they compost into leaf mold through the winter. I’ve also left a pile of arborist wood chips undisturbed to compost all on its own over the span of two or three years. Each of these materials converts to a beautiful form of compost. It just takes a little time.
All those intimidating rules and ratios you may have heard about are, fundamentally, nothing more than a means to speed up the process. The truth is, much of all that complicated advice just isn’t necessary at all.
In my three-bin compost system, I build piles of various materials to approximately 4’x4’x4’ in size. Once a week, I use a garden fork to turn over the composting piles, and I wet the materials down to keep them slightly moist. I aim for a balance of brown and green material. That’s it. Those are the basics I follow, and it results in great, finished compost in about eight weeks.
Charles opts not to turn his compost heaps at all. He allows all his composting materials to break down in place on their own. The process is slower, but composting takes place all the same. Over the course of a year, Charles makes about six tons of compost.
If you aren’t doing it already, give composting a try. And just because you may not be able to make it yourself, or need more than you can make at home, you can buy quality bulk compost products from reputable suppliers. Both Charles and I rely on outside sources when the need arises. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you can trust the product and the provider. It is one of the best things you can do for your garden.
Twice each year, I apply compost to my GardenFarm beds, along with a dose of Milorganite® (organically derived nitrogen fertilizer). I amend first in early spring and second in fall – both applications are just before I plant my cool-season crops. Charles applies compost only once in the fall and doesn’t add any other nutrients.
Unlike the nutrients in fertilizer, the nutrients in compost don’t leach or wash away. They are consumed by the microorganisms of the soil food web and, through that cycle of life, remain available in the soil ongoing – until the plants need them and take them up through their roots.
In both our gardens, this compost regimen results in vigorous and productive plants. As a market gardener, that is especially important for Charles, because he’s responsible for providing crops for his two customers – a local restaurant and market – every month of the year. Compost is the fuel that drives Homeacres’ productivity.
What to Watch Out For
There are a few materials that you should consider keeping out of your compost as a precaution, and some materials you should avoid altogether.
In my high humidity, plant-disease-prone region here in Atlanta, GA, I prefer to keep diseased plant debris out of my compost system. Personally, I just don’t want to take the chance that the disease pathogen might survive the composting process and re-infect a new season of plants.
Charles, on the other hand, chooses to add those materials to his compost heaps. So far, he hasn’t experienced issues with disease spores remaining viable. The climate where Charles gardens is less conducive to plant diseases – which, no doubt, plays a part in his decision.
If I pull weeds that have developed seed heads, I don’t add those to my compost either. I throw them out, because I don’t want to risk the seeds remaining viable in finished compost either. At the end of the day, I want to feel confident that my finished compost is weed and disease-free. That said, I will compost the weeds which haven’t gone to seed. Their foliage, stems and roots are no risk. It’s only the seeds which are the potential problem.
This is another choice where Charles and I differ. Even if a weed has formed seed heads, Charles will add it to his compost. He trusts that the sustained temperatures his system creates will kill the seeds, and he accepts that he might have to deal with a few additional weed seedlings that survive. His rationale is accurate and based on his track record of minimal weed pressure. Perhaps I should take a note from his playbook and do the same.
So, what you add to your compost system is up to you. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to these types of materials. Just keep the risks in mind as you make your choices.
Some materials present greater risks, and Charles and I both opt and recommend to keep them out of the compost. Avoid adding meat or dairy products (except eggshells), anything which has been chemically-treated, and manure from meat-eating animals (which can carry harmful bacteria). Manure from herbivores – like horses and cows – should also be avoided whenever there is a risk that the animals were fed hay which has been treated with an herbicide.
These days, manure from horses, cows or other hay-eating livestock can be risky. Many farmers treat their hay fields with aminopyralid – a persistent herbicide designed to kill broadleaf plants. The herbicide will remain viable through the composting process, and even a trace as low as 4 parts per billion can damage or kill plants. If this killer makes its way into your garden, it can take years to recover.
I used to compost the manure from my horses at the GardenFarm. One year, I purchased hay from a farmer who used aminopyralid in his field. I didn’t realize it at the time, but boy, did I pay the price. I added the composted manure from my horses to my raised garden beds. It didn’t take long for me to realize something was very wrong.
Many of the plants in my beds began displaying deformed and stunted growth. That’s when I realized my mistake. Knowing how long it can take for the herbicide to finally disperse, I had two choices: replace all the soil in the beds (an expensive proposition) or deal with the damage by taking steps to speed up the recovery process.
What I should have done before adding the manure to my beds was to perform a bioassay test. It would have taken a few weeks, but the test would have shown the herbicide was present and saved me so much time and effort in reversing the damage. If you are interested in using composted manure, Charles and I strongly recommend that you sidestep the risks by doing a bioassay test before you bring the manure into your garden.
What if the herbicide does make its way into your soil? Well, you can speed up the recovery process by repeatedly digging into and turning over the soil. The increased exposure to UV rays and oxygen wears down the herbicide over time. The downside to this process is that it causes severe disruption to the soil food web. Soil structure is lost and exposure to oxygen will burn up a lot of the nutrients held in your soil.
Charles has had experience with aminopyralid in his garden too. He helped his soil recover by covering it with regular layers of fresh compost. This increased the microbial activity in the soil, so the microbes broke down the chemical more quickly.
In either case, recovery is not a speedy process. It took my garden about four years to fully recover. Lesson learned the hard way.
Pests and Disease at Homeacres
Living in different parts of the world means our biggest pest and disease issues are different too. Likewise, there will be some which are more prevalent for you, based on what area of the world you garden in. So, your first step in management is to do a little research to learn what your likely enemies are.
Talk to other area gardeners. Call or stop by your local County Extension Office or Master Gardener program to find out which pests and diseases are most common in your area.
In Charles’ English garden, slugs are the greatest challenge. Like me, Charles prefers not to apply pest treatments. He relies on manual removal, and he takes steps to block the slugs from reaching his plants. As mentioned earlier, Charles doesn’t use traditional mulch, because it provides a habitat slugs love.
Charles also sees a lot of flea beetles, and he’s noticed that the flea beetle problem in his area is worse in recent years. He attributes their increase to pesticide applications in the surrounding countryside. Pesticides are just as lethal against the insect predators as they are against insect pests. The pest populations are able to recover more quickly, which is creating unbalance.
Flea beetles are a big problem in my Atlanta-area garden too. The flea beetle moth seeks out certain plants on which to lay their eggs. Once the eggs hatch, it’s the flea beetle larvae that feed on the plant and cause damage.
So rather than treat, Charles and I use the behavior of the pest as the best weapon against them. We place reemay or floating row cover over susceptible plants in spring when the moth is active. By preventing the moth from accessing the plants, we prevent the eggs from being lain. No eggs means no flea beetle larvae to damage plants.
Rabbits are another problem for Charles, and they are especially fond of his newly-planted seedlings. Rather than surround the garden with rabbit-proof fencing, Charles covers young plants with bird-netting until they are mature enough that his neighborhood rabbits are less inclined to nibble.
For all our pest issues, Charles and I rely on manual controls and barriers, but there is one treatment product that we will apply on occasion. It’s Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt is pretty much the only treatment I feel good about using it, because it is an organic treatment that is only effective against caterpillar or larval pests.
It is just as lethal to beneficial caterpillars, so careful application is still important. However, Bt is not a risk to humans or animals. Ironically, Charles reports that – although Brits can purchase Roundup all over the U.K. – organic Bt is not available for purchase there. He has to buy his Bt treatment from Italy, but this treatment is effective and safe enough to be worth the extra effort.
As for diseases, powdery mildew is common and late blight is an occasional problem at Homeacres, but Charles doesn’t experience many other disease issues.
In his experience, powdery mildew doesn’t inhibit a plant from producing, so he doesn’t treat for it or remove it. He accepts the aesthetic damage and moves on. I can vouch for that too. I’ve never seen powdery mildew cause any harm other than to the appearance of the plant, and I would rather live with the less-than-perfect looks than treat for it.
If Charles or I notice any signs of other diseased foliage on plants, we remove it to prevent further spread. In fact, Charles had made it standard practice to harvest with two buckets by his side. One is for the crop, and the other is to hold any diseased foliage that Charles finds and removes during harvesting.
He never applies any disease treatments in his garden. When a plant is healthy, it will be less susceptible to disease, so Charles focuses on plant health by providing the optimal conditions required by each type of plant.
As organic gardeners, we certainly experience our fair share of issues and less-than-perfect results, but we know it will pay off in the overall health of our soil, our plants and all of the life that visits our landscape.
I asked Charles what a typical year in the life at Homeacres is like. It was no surprise to hear that January is his slowest month in the garden. If he is looking to take a vacation, January is just about his only opportunity. In February, plant propagation begins, and he grows most of his plants from seed started in his large greenhouse.
Seed starting continues through April, but meanwhile, Charles’ leafy green crops are already producing and really hit their stride through March. Unfortunately, so do the weeds. March and April are the most weed-challenged months of the year at Homeacres, but tackling them early makes quick work of it.
In April, Charles begins planting more crops outdoors. Spring temperatures are cool at Homeacres, so most planted beds are protected by row cover until early May.
May and June are Charles’ favorite months in the garden. Weeding is minimal, temperatures have warmed up, but only a few crops are ready for harvesting. The pace picks up in July and August when Charles and a few helpers spend several hours a day just to bring in the crops and prepare them for delivery.
As late September rolls in, shorter days slow production – and the need to harvest – from a frantic to a more manageable pace. There’s still a lot growing, and harvesting continues through the fall and winter. However, the pace eases enough that Charles is able to reclaim more writing time and opportunities to host courses at his Homeacres garden.
That pace remains fairly steady through the end of the year, when the cycle begins all over again. It’s hard work, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s joyous work that keeps Charles challenged and always learning.
Like me, he loves sharing what he’s learned. This year, I launched the first of my online courses, and Charles has courses as well – online and onsite. In fact, students are traveling from all over to participate in the thirty or so Homeacres demonstration courses.
Fortunately, interest in gardening continues to grow during the past several years. That thrills me, and it excites Charles too. With an increasingly urbanized society, it’s so easy for people to forget where food comes from – to lose sight of that vital connection with the Earth.
There are people today who may have never actually experienced the sensation of soil in their hands. Charles and I are both eager to change that. If you are hesitating to try growing something – don’t. As Charles likes to say, dare to have a go.
I tell people that the biggest mistake you can make when it comes to gardening, is to not get started. Grow something in a container. Create a small garden plot or a single raised bed. You really can’t get it wrong.
If your plant or plants don’t do as well as you’d like, welcome to the club! That’s an experience every gardener goes through nearly every season, but that’s a beautiful thing. Those are just opportunities to learn. Every season will bring success and challenge. Every season will bring joy – as long as you get started.
Whether you’re just getting started or you’ve been gardening for years, there is always more to learn. Charles and I both plan on teaching what we’ve learned for a long time, and we hope you’ll join us for the journey.
Be sure to take some time to listen in to my talk with Charles. Scroll to the top of the page and click the Play button in the green bar under the title. We haven’t met in person – yet – but it was like having a conversation with an old friend. So, I hope you’ll join us.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases and Weeds – my newest online course! Just $47 for lifetime access.
Charles Dowding’s Veg Journal: Expert no-dig advice, month by month; by Charles Dowding
Charles Dowding’s Vegetable Course; by Charles Dowding
Charles Dowding’s Vegetable Garden Diary: No Dig, Healthy Soil, Fewer Weeds; by Charles Dowding
How to Grow Winter Vegetables; by Charles Dowding
No Dig Organic Home & Garden: Grow, Cook, Use, and Store Your Harvest; by Charles Dowding and Stephanie Hafferty
Organic Gardening: The Natural No-dig Way; by Charles Dowding