How to Create a New Vegetable Garden: Producing a Beautiful and Fruitful Garden from Scratch
Charles Dowding’s Vegetable Course
Frances Lincoln Publishers
Organic Gardening – The natural no-dig way
Over in England, there is a vegetable gardener. His “little” gardens have been bountifully producing for almost thirty years. No tillage. No chemicals. Just compost, light hoeing and lots of planting. Well, not quite “just.”
Charles Dowding is a legend among no-till gardeners on the other side of the pond, and to many in the United States as well. He has been gardening three decades or so and teaching for almost two. Although he has only been writing for about ten years, the three books reviewed here are only some of the many that Dowding has available. He is a wealth of practical experience such as only thirty years of devotion to an art can yield.
Dowding’s overall growing philosophy is fairly simple. Top feed the soil with compost regularly. Don’t dig or till. Stay on top of the weeds, especially in the first few years of establishing a growing space. Over time, this produces a well-nourished, low-weed soil that produces season after season reliably and well, with decreasing work and generally increasing yields.
In terms of style and content, I would use three “Ps” to describe Dowding’s books. The first is, “Packed with information.” The books cover a tremendous amount of ground (no pun intended), answering a variety of common questions. For example, what tools do you need? What approaches work best for starting plants? When should you do things like apply compost, hoe weeds or plant a particular crop? How deep should seeds be planted, and what should you do about various diseases and pests?
The second “P” is “Profoundly simple.” You can find gardening books that are quite complicated in language and approach. These are different. Dowding excels at communicating a large amount of information in an easy-to-follow and understandable fashion. The books’ tone is conversational. I wouldn’t be surprised if the way he writes is similar to the way he speaks and teaches. Chapters and sections are well organized. Specific crop advice is easy to find.
The third “P” is “Practical.” Dowding not only makes it easy to understand his approach but makes it straightforward to apply. He tells you everything you need to know in order to do what he does, including helping you understand the timeline it takes to transition yourself and your land to a no-till gardening mindset. The goal of his writing isn’t information, but action. He wants you to get into the gardening game, so his books’ entire focus is equipping you for food-growing success.
I especially appreciate Dowding’s honesty and emphasis on weed management. If you are growing organically, there is no way to avoid a certain amount of weed work. As the soundtrack to Rocky IV made famous, “there’s no easy way out.” What we need to do is adopt approaches that make things easier over time, realizing that a proper up-front investment on our part will greatly lessen our work down the road.
There are a few small places I would kindly quibble with Dowding, but this is not unusual—if you were to get a dozen gardeners and farmers in a room together and ask them a question, you would probably get a dozen (or more) different answers.
For example, I recommend soil tests and more targeted management of soil nutrient levels, which is not mentioned in any of these books. I also would take a slightly different approach to a few other techniques or areas, such as using pelleted seed instead of pricking for small seeded plant propagation.
Dowding himself humorously expresses puzzlement over some aspects of biodynamic farming and its benefits (such as their digging and double-digging methods) and comments, “Nobody has all the answers! I hope you enjoy using the different ideas and methods presented in this book to create a way of gardening that works for you.” And there is the crux of the matter—Dowding knows that when it comes to creating food, no approach works for everyone at all times and in all places.
Dowding’s principles apply to almost any location, but because he is in England, his schedules and calendar may differ dramatically from other regions, especially in the United States. For example, large sections of his books would apply to people living in New England or the upper Midwest, but not as much to those living in Florida or Texas.
Note, too, that Dowding has spent his entire life working with clay and muck-type soils. If you are contending with sandy soils, some of his approaches and principles—such as his watering advice—may need adjusting for your soil conditions.
Best Charles Dowding book
If you are new to gardening, Dowding’s How to Create a New Vegetable Garden is a great place to start. If you are a more experienced grower and want a more information-heavy volume, his Vegetable Course is excellent. Organic Gardening falls somewhere in between, but all three are helpful and enjoyable reads that I don’t regret having spent a few hours with. Two thumbs up.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2022🖨️ Print post