If we set aside whether to grow organic or not, no topic is more hyped right now than whether you should dig your soil or not, so let me get my bias declared up front.

As a general rule I'm a fan of disturbing the soil as little as possible and using a compost mulch to suppress weeds and lock in moisture, but I don't make many other claims for the advantages of this approach to gardening.

I don't strongly promote no-dig and I certainly don't consider it to be the cure for all of our gardening ills. I'm fortunate to garden close to two growers who dig and one who rotovates and their plots are extremely productive, grow beautiful crops and they have quick and efficient processes that rival mine.

The main differences between these plots and mine have almost nothing to do with whether we dig or not and everything to do with how intensively we grow and the extent to which we extend the seasons. There's so much more to successful gardening than whether you dig or not!

Aside from the topic of digging, lets quickly consider three other topics that whole bookshelves could be dedicated to: regenerative agriculture, organic and permaculture.

Here's the approach I take:

Permaculture is a very broad philosophy that goes way beyond the scope of this book. It's most applicable to people who have a lot of space and therefore don't need to focus on yield and it's also more applicable to climates where perennials have long harvest periods. None of these characteristics are applicable to me and as a result, although aspects (common to organic) are applicable to the way I garden, it doesn't have a very big influence on me.

Organic by contrast is very applicable, although I can't call myself organic because I have too little control over my inputs and none over my history. Many of my favourite varieties are not available as organic seeds. I can't control fertiliser or pesticides that might blow from others plots onto mine. My gardens were not organic when I took them on. I can't control my compost supply chain. I have used (very carefully) targeted applications of weed killer to eradicate weeds like Bindweed that are rooted in some of my perennial beds. However I don't use non-organic insecticides, herbicides or fertilisers.

Regenerative agriculture is the best description for the way I garden. In that I try to improve the health of the soil, minimise erosion, minimise run-off, feed the soil food web, grow a diverse range of crops and encourage wild-life.

All that said lets 'dig' into the specific pragmatic recommendations.

There are five main aspects to looking after the soil that I follow.

Not disturbing the soil

I really don't like talking about dig and no-dig because it's so binary. I much prefer to say that I try to minimise the extent to which I disturb the soil, but before we cover my approach lets look in a bit more detail at the broader topic.

Before writing this chapter I reviewed a lot of scientific research about the differences between dig and no-dig (till/no-till) approaches and also the intriguing ad-hoc records kept by Charles Dowding. The conclusions were mixed.

Most of the scientific literature found little difference in yield between the two approaches, which is consistent with a statistical analysis of Charles Dowding's data that also found no significant differences. Drop down a level and look at individual crops and it seems that different approaches suit different crops: potatoes like dug soil, cucumbers and tomatoes don't for example.

Charles Dowding's data is intriguing because his results swap around from year to year: one year lettuce does best in dug beds, the next year it does better in non-dug. All dozen or more crops that he grows flip flop around in a seemingly random fashion. Except that is for potatoes which almost always do better on dug soil and beetroot/cucumbers which normally do better on non-dug soil. In fact cucumbers do so much better in un-dug (most years) that they account for almost all of the higher yields seen on his no-dig beds.

What most research agrees on though is that un-dug beds deals better with rainfall extremes. In dry weather they have less run off and retain water, in wet weather they drain better. As a result crops that are sensitive to water levels (cucumbers, celery etc) normally, but not always, to do better inun-dug beds.