Charles Dowding has been an avid pioneer of Organic and No Dig principles for nearly 40 years now. He is a best-selling author, Appears on Tv and Radio and his You Tube videos have been viewed millions of times. He has practised his No Dig principles from Argyle to Zambia and is a much in demand speaker and inspiration on the subject. He writes regularly in publications and is a much-followed user of Social Media, always happy to converse with fellow growers over the various platforms.
Dan:Hello Charles and welcome to the Village Grapevine, how have you been lately during these challenging times?
Charles: Fine but missing travelling and live teaching. Encouraged by all the interest in no dig and growing food.
These past few months of lock down have created a surge in people’s interest in Gardening, Allotments and Nature as a whole which is great. But the trick will be keeping these people interested going forward, how do you think would be the best ways to do this, for instance should horticulture be included in the syllabus for younger children at school?
For sure. There definitely needs to be more awareness about the pleasure of grow your own, and the health benefits, both physical and mental. For example I work with three Pru Schools in Surrey, where the teenagers are thriving on their curriculum of gardening for food.
Interest comes from success, and no dig gives that, also with less tedious work such as the continuous weeding which follows digging.
Gardeners who grow vegetables are boosting their immune system in many ways, so it’s the hobby we all need now.
You have had quite a journey from Somerset through Cambridge University, Rural France, Zambia, Kenya, The Inner Hebrides and various parts of the UK, and then to your present garden at Homeacres. That encapsulates quite a few different environments and soil conditions? How have you had to adapt your style/ethos to suit this variation if at all?
A little. However the principles of no dig stay the same and my many gardens show how it’s successful in varied environments, and on any soil.
Through the comments to my videos, I hear of no dig success in countries all over the world. To name a few, the Philippines, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, India, Australia, Bulgaria, Italy, Barbados, Israel and dry states of the US including Arizona.
I love the story of your time in the early 90s of helping set up an organic market garden in Zambia until you were accused of being an Emerald Smuggler! Sounds like a great after dinner speech now, but must have been a bit unnerving at the time?
Yes it was maddening, I had just created many beds and was starting to sow and plant. I had a summons to see the District Commissioner, a two hour bike ride, and naively thought he was going to congratulate me!
I now take nothing for granted and especially from persons in authority. I never got back to the garden I had made, and it was a part of my learning that I did not belong in Africa, and needed to be in Europe.
Also setting up a market garden in Africa, although parts have very fertile land, must have presented some problems to overcome?
For sure, things like termites eating compost 🙂 and there was not much compost anyway. Plus learning new timings and other pest issues, taught me that I knew less than the locals. I had wanted to help, and was encouraged to go by an ex-minister in Kenneth Kaunda’s government.
If you had to choose what would be your favourite season of the year?
Spring, the new hope, every day longer, energy rising and joy in the air. Winter is definitely my least favourite time, especially early winter, say from mid November.
What was Homeacres like when you first saw it? What was it about the place that you felt you could make it home? You originally conceived it would be a great place to teach and write from, but it has become so much more than that now?
In 2012 Homeacres was all weedy, grassy with some brambles, and the house was unexceptional. However I dug a hole (!) to check the soil, and it’s lovely.
Even more than that, I had nowhere else to go. I was on a deadline to leave Lower Farm.
Houses with some land in this area are exceptionally scarce. So I was fortunate to say the least. I would have had to settle in a less desirable place if Homeacres had not been available, and it was on the market for two years before I bought it – nobody wanted it!
Your How To Videos are great on You Tube and have been an absolute hit especially during lockdown. Tell us how they started off originally and how do you think they/you have evolved over time? Do you find it natural to be in front of a camera?
In 2013 I was supplying salad to a local restaurant, and the owner was collecting her leaves on a summer afternoon. She exclaimed how lovely the garden looked and suggested I make a video about it, said her brother had a camera and did editing.
I had no idea about You Tube and contacted David Adams anyway, he said let’s try it. He helped me to strike a cheerful note in front of camera, in the first video No Dig Abundance, then did a great job editing. That was seven years ago, and my channel was born.
I find it easy talking to camera about subjects I know so well, and understand fully. While speaking and demonstrating, I imagine the viewers right there.
In 2015 my youngest son was getting interested in film, so he bought a camera and we made a video about picking lettuce. He was already (age 17) thinking a lot about video details, staging, structure, pickups and colour.
The moment of takeoff came after we made the Fourth summer video in July 2016. I wanted a long one to explain the whole method here, and show the results. Teaching counts for a lot when you can show the outcomes.
We spent time planning it all, what I would say, where to shoot the different stories, and how many garden angles to use. It was over twenty minutes long, not good for those who follow the two minute rule. Then that winter it was picked up by YT algorithms and viewers, and suddenly there was lots of interest. It has been watched 3 million times now.
My aim always is to show the simple essentials, without over-complication or unnecessary “rules”. The videos are straightforward and clear, I am visible, and most videos are shot in one take, which is all I have time for.
Edward and I enjoyed creating the How To series of 2017, whose videos are enduringly popular, without hitting the millions of views. Feedback shows that people are putting them into practice, which heartens me.
My aim with the channel is videos which will endure for many years, because they have the important core quality and information, which is based on experience that works.
You are a writer of course and have many popular books and appear in many articles in magazines, are active on social media and on Tv and Radio and welcome people to Homeacres for courses. But do you have a favourite medium to get your views across?
Both You Tube and Instagram are flying nicely, and the latter is quick for me to use. However it’s growing harder to find time to reply!
They both offer the means to explain things fully, with images that illustrate my points. IG videos are easy to create and great for teaching.
Am I right in thinking you offer some excellent online courses? Is this because of lockdown or an idea that was conceived long before then? Tell us more?
I offered a first course in 2015, after an approach from a company in Sweden. But it was not hugely successful and they took a lot of the proceeds!
Then I discovered the possibility of creating one from my website, using a plugin. I had seen it as a great option for many years, a way to teach in depth, and with videos. Many people prefer visuals to books.
The courses are actually a combination of writing, photos with captions, often sequential, and videos. I can update the information easily, and can sell worldwide without distribution costs.
We have now converted some of the no dig course into the new book.
Charles you have found yourself stranded on a (Fertile) Dessert Island but fortunately you have One Book, One Song and One packet of seeds. What is you Dessert Island Veg?
The Count of Monte Cristo By Dumas for my book
My Song Con te Partiro
And Onions for my seeds
Charles, Permaculture are you an active user of the moon as your planting and harvesting guide?
Permaculture is too vague a word for me: I prefer ‘common sense’! Which includes sowing by the moon.
When seeds are activated by warmth and moisture, they imbibe a ‘horoscope’ of the energies at that moment. It’s one of the many qualities affecting subsequent growth.
Sowing by the moon has been around since probably the dawn of farming and gardening. It’s not permaculture, it’s not biodynamic or any other word. Just sensible.
I’ve seen your recent pictures of Homeacres taken from a drone, they are a very useful tool? Do you find being able to view the garden from a bird’s point of view has given you any advantages on say layout or areas where a problem may arise?
Not yet! Just fascinating to have that perspective. I love the drone’s ability to capture the beauty of my garden, and its productivity.
Charles we all have a veg/plant that works or doesn’t for us, so Charles what is you Plant Heaven/Hell?
Lettuce is tops, and Chinese artichokes is my least favourite in terms of time needed per food harvested.
Is there any space for a more traditional garden at Homeacres with a finely striped lawn and shrub borders?
Traditional, what does that mean? Seriously, the word is as vague as ‘conventional’, which is used to describe chemical + polluting farming and gardening.
Another difficult word is heirloom, which is just a snapshot of a past time. Not always good!
Apart from your own excellent books, what is the best garden book you have ever read or book that you would turn to if there is something you are not sure on.
Albert Howard “Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease” pub 1940’s
We are blessed in this country with many beautiful gardens, estates and areas to visit all around the country. Where would you recommend people to visit once if they get the chance? And why?
Most National Trust properties have fascinating vegetable gardens, often no dig. Sissinghurst is one of the best, with an acre of produce for their restaurant. River Cottage have really come up recently, thanks to @adamgrowsveg
Charles can you give the readers a simple growing tip on something you often find is a problem for them or unneeded process many go through?
When starting out, mulch thoroughly to eliminate all weeds. Keep pulling bindweed and couch grass until they disappear – it’s possible to achieve 100% clean soil.
This saves so much time, our most valuable asset. For sure there is still weeding, seeds blow in etc. But it’s manageable. You are in control, and can be creative.
We can tell you have a strong passion for all things nature but who/what do credit with giving you your enthusiasm for all things gardening? and who have you admired/respected most over the years for their contribution to the world of horticulture/ gardening?
My mother got me started, she was great. Then I met and like Joy Larkcom, Chris Baines and Anne Swithinbank.
I love the now legendary story of how you came to appear on BBC Gardeners World with the great Geoff Hamilton, but your relationship with Geoff and Gardeners World was and is more than just that one appearance on the show?
I should love to have worked more with him.
Back in the 1980s it was less easy to maintain contact, and I was just so intense in my gardening, that I spared little time for social contacts.
Compost! Or more precisely shop brought compost has garnered much criticism recently for the pesticide residue in it, and the wildly varying composition of it, too woody etc. I think that a massive reduction in peat use is needed, but not a necessarily a total ban. But it’s a complex problem and apart from making your own, how do you see us getting to a happy medium?
Yes the “peat free” business has accumulated many problems, and pyralid weedkillers are becoming a serious issue, and awfully common. I know gardeners who now just won’t buy compost.
I wish that compost companies would invest more in getting it right. From my own experience, there is a lot of rubbish out there, and it’s discouraging thousands of people.
For example, there is too much reliance on lab tests to assess growth potential, rather than bio-assays of growing plants. The results of the latter are what we need, but they take more time to conduct. Lab tests sometimes do not pick up the presence of pyralid for example.
Exciting news Charles, Henry VIII has just turned up in his new time machine and he wants you to re landscape Hampton Court Palace, using your No Dig methods to feed his court and show the people of the land how to be self-sufficient. Good news is you can borrow the time machine choose three people to help you on this task from any point in time. So who is on your Garden Dream Team?
Geoff Hamilton, F.C.King and William Cobbett
Well with all this excitement surrounding your exploits with Henry VIII you are in demand, but which show will you chose? Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing on Ice, Bake Off or SAS Who Dares Wins?
None because I don’t own or watch a television.
To be fair Charles you are not missing much, apart from a few good gardening programmes!
My favourite film is Shawshank Redemption though.
You have written some great books over the years two of my favourites are your book you wrote with Stephanie Hafferty “No Dig Organic Home & Garden” and the “Vegetable Garden Diary” But you have a new book on the way “No Dig Garden” which is going to go more into No Dig and composts than any previous book I believe? And the “Vegatable Garden Calendar 2021” is upcoming soon to?
Yes the new book is No Dig Gardening, from Weeds to Vegetables Easily and Quickly. It’s hardback and packed with a lot of information and photos. To guide the reader though why no dig works so well, and how to apply it in both small and large spaces.
For the 2021 Calendar, we have included some extra content about no dig, and seeds plus varieties. It’s printing soon and releases late August.
Charles a lot of authors are choosing the self-publishing route nowadays, and I believe you have used this method for some of your books? Unless you or the subject are en vogue it can be hard to get publishers interested, but what are the advantages/disadvantages for you personally using this method? I’m guessing creative control is high up there?
Your guess is correct, although that can be a mixed blessing as creativity may not link to high sales. It depends what you want, and an author has more freedom to choose subject matter and style.
Another big factor for me is book cover. Some of my publishers prefer stock photos to the beauty of my garden!! I have not however had enough time to create covers which I feel do justice to my books. Probably many authors feel that way!
Finally, what does the future hold for you? Are there any projects or plans you hope to get off the ground in the near future?
Planning is difficult because of Covid. I had hoped to teach further afield, and had trips to Australia and the US in early stages of planning, for 2021. Neither will now happen.
I feel that my methods have a lot to offer to a wider audience, so I continue striving to reach them. I am so grateful to social media for affording this opportunity.