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Review: How To Create a New Vegetable Garden by Charles Dowding

February 8, 2015

I often wonder about my next garden, if we ever have to move house. What would I want?  Would the garden be the priority and dictate the choice of house? It most certainly would, and I’d need to consider whether space was required to grow fruit and vegetables or whether I’d keep the allotment and simply enjoy a great garden. I am pretty sure I’d keep the allotment because there’s something special about escaping to it as soon as the weather warms up.  A packed lunch and a flask of coffee, preferably some sun to get the cheeks glowing, no interruptions from the phone, and with a time limit of three hours max I return home feeling fitter and very satisfied.

If ever I wanted a seriously large productive garden attached to a house then ‘How to Create a New Vegetable Garden’ by Charles Dowding  www.greenbooks would be the book to get me started. A key principle underpinning Dowding’s methods is one that his fans will be familiar with – he’s the leading authority on the no-dig method of soil cultivation. I have all Dowding’s books and I admire his pragmatic approach to gardening, based as it is on many years of experience.

This latest book explores the practicalities and methods Dowding used in making his new garden, Homeacres. It’s three-quarters of an acre and designed to provide a backdrop to teaching, writing and experimenting with different techniques for clearing, ground preparation and various growing practices. But the methods explained can be applied to any size of vegetable garden or even to a relatively small allotment space.

In the first half of the book Dowding deals with clearing the ground and preparing the soil, and he suggests that winter is as good a time as any to begin.  An essential first job is to make a compost bay in a central position accessible to all areas. Then in regular stages you must aim to clear the soil of all weeds in Year One. He suggests you hoe and rake the soil surface 1″ deep at the first sign of tiny green leaves. Repeat this throughout spring when many annual seeds will germinate as their dormancy is broken. With perennial weeds such as bindweed, buttercups, dandelions and couch grass Dowding discusses different methods and materials and demonstrates that covering the soil with a light-excluding mulch for a sufficient time will starve roots of their food stores and eventually see them off.

Mulching with organic matter adds fertility but equally useful is cardboard, wood shavings and various polythenes.  He shows tables comparing all the light-excluding methods with an analysis of cost, the time taken to get results and any drawbacks. More tables analyse the results of dig versus no-dig beds and whether or not compost was added to the beds.  No-dig saves time initially and also reduces the subsequent workload since undisturbed soil germinates fewer weeds. Vegetables are hungry plants and Dowding points out higher yields are achieved in both these methods where compost is added.

The second half of the book is on sowing and growing and he gives the best times throughout the year for ensuring earlier and better harvests. The chart for when to sow summer and autumn vegetables is really helpful as a guide but if it’s cold and wet in spring he says you may need to sow a month later. If you are new to growing produce, whether at home or on an allotment, he suggests you start your very first bed by making a wooden framework on the ground.  Filled with compost or good top soil, and regardless of how weedy or stony the soil, it will be transformed into a surface ready for sowing and planting. What a hugely inspiring start to a growing project and with basic carpentry skills one that could be achieved within a few hours. The frame below is full to bursting with produce leaving no room for weeds and I can imagine three in a row, made in a day, leaving time to sort out the essential layout of the garden at a steady pace.

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Dowding draws on many years of experience as a grower and delivers his message in a quietly confident manner. He has charted the project’s progress from day one and demonstrates that systematic stages and techniques can ensure produce within the first six months to full self-sufficiency in three years.  His wealth of experience and his communication skills provide advice and techniques which can be applied as much to a small allotment as to a huge plot designed to provide produce all year round. Below is an image of Homeacres just ten months after starting it from scratch and it looks as beautiful as any garden.

 

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It’s too chilly for the allotment at the moment but the broad beans have germinated in the warmth of the kitchen window here. And I’ve pruned the Clematis ‘Jackmanii’ which is a Group 3 type meaning it will produce flowers on this years growth. It is already showing signs of healthy green buds but I cut back all the stems to 50cms from the base and gave it a feed. It covers a wall and mingles with a bright pink rose which also got a bit of a prune and a feed at the same time.

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In the garden the hellebores have started flowering and I’ve added more to that bed but kept one back for the table since there’s very little in flower to pick for a vase. It’s Helleborus niger ‘Potter’s Wheel’ and I’ll plant it out in a week or two.

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