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Featured Farm Craft: Charles Dowding

How long have you been preserving the traditional art (craft) of designing, planting, growing and harvesting a garden? Do you think that taking a blank canvas of land and planting a garden can become an artistic expression of oneself?

I created my first market garden in 1982, for cropping through 1983. I realized straightaway how important it is that a farm and area should look beautiful as well as being productive. The two are synonymous and much more I think, than is commonly acknowledged.

I made raised beds by hand in those days, after rotating the soil, pre-cardboard and tarps. I shoveled soil from what became a pathway to what became a bed, and the land looked beautiful laid out in those geometric shapes. Then it became even more beautiful once the vegetables were growing.

What (or who) inspired you to learn these skills?

I had joined the Soil Association in 1981 and they were promoting organic methods. I was a vegetarian so I really wanted healthy food for myself, and to sell. Then I came across a book by Ruth Stout, and she affirmed my feeling that soil biology is so important, yet is so easily destroyed by cultivation. Furthermore, I had noticed that most organic growers were struggling with weeds, and were even overwhelmed with weeds. I was sure that a no-dig method with mulch materials on top would help me to grow weed free.

What specific materials do you like to use? Do you incorporate any of your own or local raw materials? Do you save your own seeds?

Above all I’d like to make my own compost and use that as the basis of fertility. I also use local animal manures from stables and farms, except there are now problems of chemical residues especially the pyralid weedkillers. That has drawn me towards using wood chip more, as a healthy soil amendment. I am fascinated by its association with soil fungi and the work, for example, of Professors Johnson and Su in Texas.

What do you enjoy most about the “crafting of your garden” process?

How it connects me with the deep forces of nature, and that helps me to appreciate the beauty and wisdom we are surrounded by. Not to mention the physical benefits of eating healthy, super tasty food!

How do you live in harmony with your garden? Do you carry out certain practices that ensure the health of your garden? If so, what are they?

No-dig is the best part because it clarifies how doing less can give more results. It also gives me time to explore the possibilities of what I call energy gardening, working with forces we currently cannot measure. Biodynamic farming is a good example of this, notice how science really struggles to explain it! I have to say it makes me smile! I also like the work of Professor Callahan, having read his book Ancient Mysteries, Modern Visions in the 1980s. I could say more…!

Why do you garden? Is it for nutritious food, medicine, exercise, overall health benefits and/or education?

Every one of those for sure and increasingly for education. I noticed a desperately sad lack of knowledge about the benefits of growing and eating healthy food, and how gardening in general can help so many people with mental issues. I would include myself in that category! Thanks to my YouTube membership program, I have funds to contribute to community gardens and this is exciting!

You are world renowned for pioneering the no-dig method and have written several books on the topic. Which book would a beginner gardener most benefit from? Where can one purchase your books? 

Probably my Diary is a good point of entry. I deliberately wrote it with as few words as possible, leading occasional people to complain that there is not enough information! I do acknowledge that, but the aim is to offer common sense understandings about easier ways to garden. Then for more detail about no-dig, I suggest my latest book which is modeled on the first online course. It has a huge amount of information, there’s almost two books in one, with 900 photos.

What resources or materials do you recommend to others interested in learning the traditional craft of gardening? Do you hold in-person workshops or offer virtual online gardening courses?

The feedback to my YouTube channel suggests that it’s a good place to begin any journey into gardening. Comments on the channel often reflect how gardening and farming has been made to sound unnecessarily difficult, in many books and videos and teachings. My aim is to bypass this apparent complexity, and explain how it is not difficult and to share a feeling that all of us can be successful at growing food.

Knowledge is Power and we all need to enrich ourselves as much as possible with growing knowledge. I have created online courses, so check my website for details, and we shall soon be releasing course three which is a compendium of lessons about how to grow 30 different vegetables, in the simplest yet most productive way.

FARM STORY

What is the name of your Farm, Ranch, or Homestead?
It’s called Homeacres, a property of 3/4 acre on level ground, on one side of a small and pretty village.
Homeacres was a farm in the 1960s to 1980s on a larger area of 2.5 acres. Then the nurseryman died, I suspect from using a lot of chemicals to grow his dahlias and chrysanthemums, and his widow plus sister lived here while all the greenhouses fell down.
The ground was cleared by a bulldozer a few years before I arrived, and there is much glass in the soil.
It was covered with grass and weeds when I moved here in November 2012, to create a new, no-dig garden. The soil is good, silt over clay, and it’s the first time I have farmed on level ground.

 

Where are you located? 
In South West England, 120 miles East of London, and 35 miles from the sea to north and south. We have an oceanic temperate climate, zone 8 in winter (lowest temperatures low twenties) and zone 6 in summer – highest temperatures in the seventies, occasionally eighties.
Rainfall is 36 to 38in per year, spread evenly through all seasons, sunshine is often limited and we are 51 degrees North, same as Newfoundland, but warmed by the North Atlantic Drift.


How and/or when did life as a farmer, rancher or homesteader begin for you?

I grew up on a dairy farm but did not enjoy working with cows, mainly helped with the summer harvests and autumn cultivations, when not at school.

Then at Cambridge University I became interested in animal rights, food quality and nutrition. Which led me to join the Soil Association, and find out about ways to grow food without using synthetic chemicals. In the 1980s that was considered odd!

More than that, I wanted to grow Health from the Land, and put that slogan on my first sign by the road.

In 1982 a friend told me about Ruth Stout, and I read her book No Work Gardening. It all made sense, and I bought a load of old hay. I was worried that weeds would be a problem on my acre and a half. However the bigger problem was slugs, which are endemic here, so I moved from hay to compost mulch.

By 1986 I was cropping 7.5 acres of no-dig beds, with four helpers in the season.

What do you grow and/or raise?

My main harvest since 2003 is salad leaves, sold mostly to local shops in polythene bags. I have not yet found an eco replacement for the plastic.

Other vegetables are less economic for me to grow, and I sell just a few in weekly boxes, plus to the shops. My garden is not full-scale commercial, because it has a lot of teaching and trials content.

My main mission has been to show and teach the methods and benefits of no-dig. There has been powerful resistance to change! However I am helped by social media, which has made and makes it possible to reach a wide audience, such as yourselves. With my social media audience now over a half million people, I see a new and fast-growing acceptance of swapping rototiller for mulching, and working with soil biology rather than chemistry.

You could say that I am growing the evidence to show people easier and more natural ways to produce healthy food.

What traditional methods do you use on your farm to grow your crops and/or raise your animals?

The main one is to use no synthetic chemicals. Because even so called ‘organic’ products like ferrophosphate slug pellets are, in my view, harmful to soil life (because of the chelating agents used).

Traditional is a funny word because its meaning depends on perspective. In the UK, many see the nineteenth century Victorians as traditional. However, they brought in a lot of new ideas and products. They developed a lot of what I consider unnatural practices, such as double digging!

For me the best tradition is how nature works, and I replicate that as far as possible. However a garden of intensively grown vegetables is not natural! Therefore I need to ‘compromise’ by having, for example, no trees in my garden. And I need a blank canvas every spring (apart from overwintered vegetables) in order to succeed with new plantings, and to work quickly.

Cover crops are great in many situations, but not for my work. My cover is vegetables in the growing season, and compost though just 3-4 months in winter.

I find that a mulch or cover of compost on the soil, applied before winter, protects and feeds soil organisms, without harbouring pests such as slugs. We can rapidly and successfully plant up the garden in spring, then replant with succession crops through summer.

Active soil biology means no need to re-apply compost in summer. I add no other amendments except for occasional seaweed and basalt rock dust. They are not vital, but amendments may be needed for some soils. Generally, less than recommended, in my view.

What is one of your favorite farm-infused recipes you wish to share? 

I don’t work to recipes, preferring to create dishes from whatever is available from the garden. For example, the roast vegetables in my video “Old and New Potatoes”. I like the deep flavors of vegetables grown in healthy soil, and served with say vinaigrette, mustard, balsamic vinegar and a little salt. I use olive oil, and butter sometimes.

For those who want recipes, my business partner Stephanie Hafferty sells a great book The Creative Kitchen.

What is at least one farm tradition you uphold?

Working with nature’s process, interfering as little as possible.

Eating fresh food from the farm, not spotless clean – I want the microbes! My mother quoted how we should “eat a peck of soil” in our lifetime. She was thinking of minerals, whereas I value the microbial life of healthy soil, because it’s in symbiosis with our gut organisms. This sharpens the brain, since gut and brain are so interlinked.

What inspires you to continue a farm lifestyle?

A big bonus of the work is living close to the land, following the seasonal rhythm. Sometimes it’s quiet, and mostly that is good!

Before Covid I was doing a lot of classes here, and traveling to teach a lot. I had in summer a full time helper, often from another country,

Now all that has stopped, and I miss it. On the other hand, I am in the garden more. Also, I am doing even more with the computer and online, not always the most healthy work, and it’s great to balance that with being outside among plants and also creating compost.

What words of inspiration or uplifting wisdom to you hope to impart on the future generation of farmers, ranchers, beekeepers, and homesteaders?

Acquaint yourself with climate, microclimate and soil.

Follow your gut feelings, don’t believe all the free advice you are offered.

Start small and grow from there. That means, if new to farming, your mistakes are small.

Learn about making compost, and find sources of local waste organic matter to increase your production.

Where can people find you/your products online? 

Website, includes seasonal updates and shop

Online courses, cost around $240 for both, according to exchange rate

Instagram charles_dowding

You Tube Charles Dowding

Twitter @charlesdowding

New book appearing autumn 2020, available from Chelsea Green plus Barnes & Noble

 

 

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