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  • Susan Low

Allotment tales: learning to dig ‘no-dig’ gardening

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

It’s June, and the flowers are running riot in London’s front gardens. Roses are shyly opening their velvety petals, brazenly scented with come-hither perfume. Bumblebees tumble from the dark centres of poppies, drunk on nectar and covered in pollen, like last night’s drunks stumbling from a seedy saloon. Foxgloves are thrusting skyward; look closely at their flowers and you’ll see the psychedelic patterns that lure pollinators in for a drink and a quick, entirely licit pollen exchange. The merest bit of sunshine transforms these small, often unkempt patches of green into smile-inducing hotbeds of sensual pleasure.

I love plants but, to be frank, I’m a much better cook than a gardener. Thankfully, I share a garden and an allotment with @realguydimond, who grew up on a Scottish smallholding and has the green thumbs to show for it. Under his tutelage, I’m channelling my inner Monty Don, learning to discern weeds (which, I’m repeatedly told, are “just plants growing in the wrong place”) from would-be fodder, and how to turn packets of seeds into living, growing plants – some edible, some ‘merely’ for pleasure. I’m living proof that it’s possible to teach an old dog new tricks – just as long as you’re happy with a dog who’s more Battersea Dogs & Cats Home than Crufts champion.

I’m at the stage of my gardening learning curve when, as Socrates would have put it, “I know that I know nothing”. So, to try to thrust myself further along that steep curve, to try to shed some of the sheer weight of my own horticultural ignorance, I signed up for a one-day Grow the Seasons course at The Small Holding, a restaurant and garden in Kilngrove, Kent, near Tunbridge Wells, run by brothers Will and Matt Devlin.

Food lovers will know this place as a farm-to-table restaurant serving top-notch, hyper-local, seasonal food and drink. It has a well-deserved green Michelin star for sustainability. The place opened in 2018 and, when the brothers took over, they converted the pub garden into (you guessed it) a smallholding – and they now grow 20-25% of the produce used in the restaurant (they buy the rest from local farms). The cooking, judging from the lunch I and my fellow students were served, is accomplished and polished yet delivers pure pleasure on the plate.

The farm is run on organic principles, using low-intervention ‘no-dig’ gardening techniques. The hands-on Grow the Seasons courses, part theory and part practical, give a thorough 'grounding' (sorry) in the logic behind no-dig growing. It’s a lot better for soil structure, for one thing. The aim is to preserve the beneficial fungi and bacteria that live in the soil, such as mycorrhizae (part of what’s been called the ‘wood wide web’ in forests). The mycorrhizae interact with plants symbiotically, helping them to exchange nutrients and to resist pests – so breaking up the soil is detrimental. No-dig is also much easier on the back muscles, there being no digging...

We students were also taught how to build structures and supports; I made a rather fetching hazel-branch teepee for growing these beautiful ‘painted lady’ beans up. The tutors also passed on lots of useful tips on preparing soil and keeping it nourished, composting, sowing seeds, planting out seedlings, biological pest control – the sort of stuff that experienced gardeners take for granted and that novices really value. I’ll be applying a lot of this new knowledge to my allotment adventures this summer.

But the most important thing I learned? “Be observant.” It’s a good rule, and not just for gardeners. And this time of year, there’s plenty to observe.

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