"Organic Gardening," Charles Dowding

Pros: A thorough guide to organic gardening
Cons: Definitely most useful to British readers
Rating: 4 out of 5

Review copy courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing.
Visit Charles Dowding’s site.

 

Charles Dowding’s Organic Gardening the Natural No-Dig Way is an introduction to organic gardening in general, and the ‘no-dig’ method in specific. The latter is the primary reason why I was looking forward to this book, as it certainly sounded appealing: who wouldn’t want to abandon all the roto-tilling, turning of soil, digging of beds, etc., particularly if it were supposedly better for the soil?

Mr. Dowding takes a very naturalistic view of soil as a living, breathing entity. It isn’t simply a reservoir of nutrients for our plants: it contains a wealth of organisms, from worms to weed seeds, grubs to bacteria, all of which have a role to play in the health (or ill health) of the soil. And naturally, when the soil is at its healthiest, so too will our garden’s contents be at their healthiest. When our plants are healthy they’re better able to resist pests and disease, not to mention they grow faster, produce more, taste better, and give us greater nutrition.

The ‘no-dig’ method doesn’t mean that absolutely no digging will take place: after all, you need to plant things in the soil and sometimes you also need to dig them up again. However, you really won’t need to till or turn. Dowding believes in using raised beds composed almost entirely of rich compost, which worms naturally incorporate into the soil beneath. Using his method you’ll end up with perfectly rich, crumbly soil. The only catch is the necessity to obtain large amounts of the needed compost—but in many areas you can obtain compost from municipal associations that compost yard waste. And if you compost your own yard waste and appropriate types of kitchen waste, it shouldn’t be too long before you have plenty of your own compost as well.

 

Since the no-dig method is meant to be part of a larger program of organic gardening (after all, if you use industrial pesticides and the like then you’ll just kill off all those worms, microorganisms, beneficial insects, and so on), much of the book details various fruits and vegetables you might plant and how best to organically raise them. It doesn’t go into things such as organic pesticides and fertilizers, but instead delves entirely into physical methods of pest control.

I’ll use the parsnip entry as an example. Dowding details how difficult it is to keep each type of plant weed-free and how best to go about it; in this case, he mentions that the small seedlings produced by parsnips can be particularly difficult to keep free of weeds. He suggests that you can either start out with a bed that you’ve carefully cleared of weeds over time, or wait until the first round of weeds germinates in spring, hoe them off, and then sow. He continues by mentioning any problems that can arise from choosing one or the other of these options, as well as his preferred approach.

Next Dowding details thinning the plants out, times for spreading more compost, and when and how you might wish to harvest your parsnips. He details the fact that parsnips can safely over-winter in the garden, and that frost actually improves their flavor.

Finally he delves into potential problems: diseases and pests that like to target the parsnip. For instance, a wet winter combined with a heavy soil can lead to canker; he mentions that it’s often possible to simply cut off the affected tops, however, and enjoy the rest of the root. Carrot root fly can also be a problem, but since parsnip roots tend to be larger than carrot roots they rarely damage extensive areas and, again, the damage can usually be pared away. He details how much compost to apply annually and what might be responsible if you’re having poor germination rates (in this case, parsnip seed needs to be particularly fresh in order to germinate).

Then he includes a simple recipe from his wife’s collection to give you an idea of what you might do with your bounty.

In other entries he addresses all sorts of other relevant information as well. In entries on fruit trees he talks about root stocks, and which ones would most likely be appropriate to your needs. He discusses methods for keeping various other pests away from their favorite foods: thinning out potential slug habitats and strengthening seedlings against slug incursions; netting some crops or putting fleece over them; or even spending time here or there simply plucking pests from their targets and getting rid of them the old-fashioned way. He also discusses which crops he’s had the most difficulties with and why, and what he’s done about it. All of this helps you to make your own informed choices about what you’d like to grow and how. There’s also a very thorough index—complete with a separate recipe index!—to help you along.

 

Unlike Piers Warren’s How to Store Your Garden Produce, in which the British author went to some lengths to ensure that the book would be nearly as useful outside of Britain as within it, Dowding’s book will definitely be of more use in Britain and similar areas. Some of his suggestions are climate-specific, as are many of his discussions regarding varieties, and of course his planting and harvest times will be different than those elsewhere (although at least you’ll get most of that information from your own seed packets or plant catalogs). Measurements and amounts are only given in units of cm and so on with no equivalents in inches and the like. Terminology differences definitely aren’t explained, and there were some cases where I wasn’t sure if a bit of confusion over something the author was communicating was due to something that wasn’t clear in his wording or a bit of terminology that was being used in a different manner than that to which I’m accustomed.

All in all I’d have to say that within Britain and similar areas (in terms of climate, use of measurements and terminology, availability of varieties, etc.) this book rates a 4.5 or a 5. In the US it’s still highly useful for those wanting to explore the no-dig method and organic gardening in general, but it’s moderately less useful—call my rating for us a 4.

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