Charles Dowding
Photo by Ben Taylor

Charles Dowding - No Dig Gardening

Interview by Phil Simpson on 15th August 2013 | Photographs by Ben Taylor

Charles Dowding , pioneer of organic no-dig vegetable growing, writer and teacher, grew up in Somerset, lived in France, and then returned to his native home. His love of the soil, and belief in the importance of healthy food, has moved him to create the best and most simple methods for growing good organic vegetables. Charles Dowding speaks to Localeyez about his passion for his work, gardening myths, what transformed his world view from conventional to alternative, and how he is still seeking freedom.

What is your memory of Bruton when you were a child? Has it changed very much?
It seemed so dull and dark! The high street was very unwelcoming, with its dirty stone facades. There wasn’t even a one-way system as there is now, although there wasn’t that much traffic either! Things changed in the 1980s, with incomers setting up new ventures in Bruton. Now, there seems to be a nice balance between the locals and the new residents. I think we’re lucky, with places like Bruton, Castle Cary and Wincanton, where there isn’t one big town. This has resulted in a thriving, small local economy, which I think works quite well and makes these towns attractive to newcomers.

You grew up in Somerset, but then moved to France for several years, what drew you back here?
I didn’t feel fully accepted and integrated in that particular part of rural France. I also had a sense that it would be better for my children to grow up in a place with more opportunities, and closer to our relatives in the UK.

What do you like about Somerset?
Apart from the natural beauty of the countryside, it feels like a very special place, with a unique, and some might say, spiritual energy.

Did you always know that you wanted to make a living from growing organic salad and vegetables?
I knew when I had just left university that I really didn’t want to work for a corporation or in an office. At that time, my parents and brother were working on the farm. I then became interested in organic matters, and decided to join the Soil Association when it was still quite a revolutionary thing to do. This was when I realised that I could combine organic soil and growing to produce healthy food: healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people.

I really like interacting with other gardeners and learning new things. I like the idea of sharing the unusual and interesting ways of growing food and picking salad that I’ve discovered during my life.
Charles Dowding - Homeacres
Charles Dowding's Homeacres. Photographed by Ben Taylor

What convinced you to use organic methods of growing vegetables when you started your own business?
Joining the Soil Association and meeting like-minded people convinced me that it was the right way to go. There weren’t many of us in those days, but there was a common bond. We were compelled to do something radical, and it just felt like the right thing to do. Furthermore, in the 1980s, I was quite shocked at the severe damage that was being caused by the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and decided that this just wasn’t a viable option for the future.

Because the whole organic movement was quite controversial at that time, some people were suspicious of it. So, I didn’t shout about it from the rooftops, and just got on with growing. However, people did seem interested in what I was doing, and the phone kept ringing with orders, and I had plenty of vegetables to sell. Although, there was no marketing or expansion plans, I started with an acre and a half in 1983, and managed to expand that to 11 acres by 1989.

How did you create your no-dig approach to vegetable growing?
In 1982, I took on some land and started to develop an organic market garden. I actually rotovated the soil, because at the time it seemed to me the clearest way of achieving a good clean soil. The following year, when I was deciding what to do with the soil, I came across Ruth Stout’s book, No Work Gardening. She had achieved great success mulching with hay. I was experimenting with different mulches, and discovered that her advice was based on 1950’s Connecticut, which was a very dry climate with no slugs, nothing like the climate in Somerset! So that autumn, I experimented with well-rotted compost as a surface mulch, which worked really well. Since then, I have been developing and evolving that system with a lot of success.

What inspired your legendary salad bags?
It was actually Phil Butler, from Bill the Butchers in Bruton. One day he mentioned that there was a real demand for fresh salads. He suggested I supply him with salad bags. We gave it a try and it worked really well. I think the thing that makes them successful is the fact that, as well as being organically grown using healthy soil, I pack them with natural moisture, so they stay fresh and retain their life force and taste. I also use leaves that are in season, and like to mix in less conventional, and sometimes unusual tasting leaves like chicory.

Charles Dowding talking about the simple approach to life. (photographed by Ben Taylor)
"The forces of the world seem to be pushing us in the wrong direction. Most of what is needed for a healthy life is already known, yet we seem to be doing more and more of the opposite!"

You have published several books. How did you get started with writing?
My father was very good friends with Elizabeth Montgomery of Montgomery’s Cheddar. Her sister, Mary Langman, was one of the founders of the whole organic movement back in the 1940s. She had also been one of the founders and runners of Britain's first organic whole food shop in Baker Street in London. When I met her, she was in her 90s and struggling to finish her biography on Lady Eve Balfour, founder of the Soil Association. She asked me if I would help her to finish writing it. Sadly, she died before we were able to do this together, so I completed it on my own. It then turned out that what she had written on Eve Balfour’s life, was actually a rehash of a manuscript she had obtained from Eve Balfours’s nephew, Michael Brander. By this time, Green Books were ready to publish, but of course when this came to light, we had to abort the project. Meanwhile, Green Books said they really liked my style of writing and experience with growing, and encouraged me to write my own book. So, that very afternoon, after I spoke with them, I wrote a sample chapter, which was later to become chapter 1 of my first book Organic Gardening - The Natural no-dig way.

Is writing about growing vegetables as much as a passion as growing them?
If it came down to it, I’d be quite happy just to do the growing and gardening. However, I do enjoy the writing aspect, and sharing what I know with others. So I’d probably say that the passion is equal for now.

What motivated you to start running courses on growing vegetables?
I really like interacting with other gardeners and learning new things. I like the idea of sharing the unusual and interesting ways of growing food and picking salad that I’ve discovered during my life. I like to feel that by running courses, I can empower people to do the things that really work. I’m running about two courses a month and they’ve been going really well. All in all, it’s a very rewarding experience.

What main piece of advice would you give to a novice vegetable grower?
The main advice I would give is to be ambitious and grow what you love to grow. Also, do your homework before you start, and make sure it’s feasible in your location and area. You might want to grow salad at the beginning as it has a really quick yield. You also need to consider the space you have, for example, if you want to grow cauliflower, you’re going to need a lot of room. So, if you have a small garden, you need to grow some of the many vegetables, which need less space.

Charles Dowding - no dig carrots
Charles Dowding - no dig soil
Charles Dowding - no dig - sowing seeds
Healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people. (photographed by Ben Taylor)
Charles Dowding - no dig - fresh tomatos

Next spring you are publishing a book on gardening myths. What inspired this new venture?
I’m trying to put the record straight about what is actually true and what works from my own experience, so that people can save themselves time and money. In essence, it involves doing things more simply. I’ve really enjoyed writing it, just from the point of view of dispelling the mountains of nonsense, which are out there. I suspect the book may receive a rocky reception as, like my no-dig approach, it is going against the generally accepted view of how things are done.

I’ve also got two other books coming out. One in February 2014, which is entitled Charles Dowding’s Veg Journal, and is being published by Frances Lincoln. The other is about my first year at Homeacres, which will appear in September 2014.

For a sneak preview, what is your favourite gardening myth? Could you give us a summary?
One myth is that you shouldn’t water during the day in direct sunlight because the sun will burn the leaves due to the magnifying effect, which just isn’t true. Another one is about it being better to water the garden in the evening to prevent premature water evaporation. However, this is untrue, because it leaves the soil moist over night, which the slugs love. It also means the leaves stay moist for longer, which results in mildew and leaf diseases.

Writer, teacher, gardener, you have a broad career. What does your typical day involve?
At the moment, I feel fortunate to have a good balance between gardening and writing. I spend two thirds of my time in the garden in the growing season, and the other time writing and giving advice. Because I’m working on my own, it can become quite solitary at times, so writing is a way of communicating with people. It’s an odd thing, because although I know I’m just sitting at my computer writing, I do feel that I am interacting with people. I’m often getting enquires, requests for advice, and also really nice feedback about how my approach to gardening has helped and inspired other people.

What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?
Just knowing that I’m doing what I love. I also like the variety, and the mixture of the physical and the mental.

When you are not working in the garden or on gardening related projects, what do you love doing?
It’s interesting how our society makes the distinction between work and play. My work is my life and passion. Having said that, I do have a hobby, and that’s bell ringing at St Mary’s Church in Bruton. However, I do not like church services and have always struggled to come to terms with the contradictions and assumptions of Christianity. For example, I believe in reincarnation; that my sins have consequences and are not forgiven at death, and that the Christian festival days are, more importantly, about the natural world: the birth of the son is the birth of the sun at winter solstice; Easter is the spring full moon and harvest festival, and thank goodness we still have that! I also study the weather.

Charles Dowding in the garden
Photographed by Ben Taylor

You have recently moved from Lower Farm to Homeacres. What has been the best thing about starting a new garden?
The best thing has been re-evaluating and retesting some of the ideas and techniques I have been writing about in my books and teaching on my courses. This has helped me to become more focused on the core aspects, and pushed me to learn new approaches to growing. You can never stop learning!

You say that to grow good vegetables you need the right soil. What do you think we humans need in order to flourish?
I feel that children don’t have enough access to nature, which means they lose touch with the natural world and therefore themselves. This causes the need to turn to stimulation to fill the void that is created. The forces of the world seem to be pushing us in the wrong direction. Most of what is needed for a healthy life is already known, yet we seem to be doing more and more of the opposite! Nature is the one thing that can be a real help to us in that respect, because it takes you out of the system and slows you down. You discover that life isn’t just about instant gratification, and instead, you learn to work with the natural rhythms of life.

Who or what has been the greatest inspiration in your life?
This might sound a bit impersonal, but I think the biggest influence on my life has come from the things I’ve read at important periods in my life. When I cast my mind back, the time when I changed the most, was when I was about twenty in my last year at university. Before that, I was quite conventional in the worst sense of the word, quite consumer focused, and just did what I was told. It was certain political and philosophical writings that I encountered at university, that had a profound effect on my outlook.

What has been the greatest challenge of your life?
I have found the greatest challenge to be the continual push and pull of fitting in with the world we all live in, and to listen to that voice inside which says 'there is a better way’.

What is your vision for the future?
My vision is to attempt to shed the conditioning that I feel I’m still imbued with so that I can become a freer person. Sometimes I sense I’m not really being my true self when I’m with other people. Hopefully, by living my truth, this will inspire others to do the same.

You can find out more about Charles Dowding at his website