Visit to Charles Dowding’s garden

The first thing we were shown was the compost loo and instructed that pee loo was on the right (pee onto straw bales) and the poo loo was on the left. I don’t think any of us explored this further.

An overview of Charles’ garden this time of year

Over half of his neat weed free beds were covered with fleece weighted down with rocks, beneath these young plants were growing: carrots, radish, pea (harvested for pea shoots rather than peas), beetroot, leaf radish and an array of lettuces & mustards. The greenhouse and polytunnel were bursting with crops of salad and seedlings.

Charles’ garden soil is loam over clay which is very good for growing particularly when enormous volumes of organic matter are added annually (12 tons / year on ¼ acre)


Cover up the weeds with some cardboard and 20cm of well rotted organic matter and you are away (maybe retain this bed temporarily using some wooden sides for the first season). Start now and you can have beautiful productive vegetable beds this summer. A few perennial weeds may / will poke through but consistently dig them out using a (copper) trowel.


 Covered mushroom compost to keep the weed seeds off

 Cardboard is laid along the edges, 20cm of well rotted organic matter is laid on the soil, retained temporarily with timber.  Raspberries are planted.  This was made a couple of months ago.  Some dandelions are starting to poke through and will be removed with a copper trowel

Much of Charles’ garden is already planted up with summer crops

Inorganic mulches – used to kill weeds
Landscape fabric – tidy looking black fabric, it lets some light through so use a cardboard beneath it.

Black polythene – put over coarse weeds (e.g. couch grass, dandelion) for 2 months (or longer) before removed and built up into a bed (see Summary above)
Mypex – this shreds annoyingly when it is cut

Organic mulches – used to discourage weeds and improve the soil
Viridor green waste compost – very weed free
Mushroom compost – weed free
Well rotted cow manure – not weed free
Home made compost – not weedfree
Use less well rotted manure on perennials rather than seedlings

How long to leave mulch on for
1- 1.5 years depending on your weeds

Plant protection
Enviromesh was laid over emerging sea kale to keep off rabbits, pigeon

Beds do not have sides so as to reduce slug habitat

Beds are weedfree to reduce slug habitat

Fleece is used over newly planted out seedlings at this time of year to protect against the cold wind, reduce water stress, protect against rabbits & pigeons. This is left on for 4 weeks.

Regular weeding to remove habitat for slugs. ‘Weed before you see them’

Grow garlic in a polytunnel to avoid getting rust

The outers salads leaves are picked every week for approximately 10 weeks

Mustard ‘Green in the snow’ – very hardy can be grown through the winter outside or in a polytunnel
Lettuce ‘Grenoble Red’ – not very common but Franchi seeds supply it

Spinach ‘Butterfly’
Beetroot ‘Bolthardy’ for early sowings
Perennial Kale ‘Taunton Dene’ (this is only propagated by cuttings as it does not flower)

Potato ‘Charlotte’ – tasty and stores well
Potato ‘Sarpo’ – harvest before the end of August for better flavour (it will grow on but flavour deteriorates)

Raising plants
All salad plants are raised as multi seeded modules (5-6 onions seeds or 4 seeds for beetroot / module) except carrots & parsnips that are sown direct

Sow a few radish seed into your rows of carrot & parsnip, it helps you see your rows

Rather than using an electric heated mat for propagating seeds, Charles’ makes a ‘Hot Bed’. A 4 foot square box / strawbales filled with fresh horse manure and a propagation bench on top. After a couple of weeks the temperature will reach 50oC. This will need to be replenished with fresh manure after about 1 month to keep the temperature up.

When planting out, do not be afraid to plant your seedlings deep, this reduces rock and water evaporation.

Charles favours ‘West Riding Multi purpose compost’ for seed sowing, this is Soil Association Approved and is a waste product of the water industry (although does contain some peat).

When to sow seeds

Sow salads in September for harvesting all winter long – do not over-water

Valentines day is a good time to start sowing (e.g. tomatoes, celeriac, salad, spinach, dill, coriander, onion, beetroot…)


Charles double crops his beds to increase productivity, for example: onions will have beetroot seeded between them before the onions are ready to harvest. Rocket will be seeded beneath lettuce before the lettuce stop producing.

Charles is a firm believer in no-dig gardening and planting on a waxing moon (plant all your seeds 2 days before the full moon) however he doesn’t want you to take his word for it and has 2 permanent beds testing these theories with all produce being weighed and recorded.

There are other beds testing ‘mushroom compost’ and ‘cow manure’ again in dig, no-dig permutations.

Breaking the rules
Charles’ asparagus beds were not dug prior to planting the crowns. The plants got off to a slow start but are doing well. (This is a greedy plant so add lots of cow manure).

You can walk on beds made of organic matter ‘a la Charles’ without damaging soil structure below
You don’t necessarily have to rotate your crops just try and grow things in a different bed each year.

You only need to buy fleece & organic matter

You only need to let one lettuce, pea, tomato plant go to seed to give you enough seed for the following year. See also ‘The Seed Saver’s Handbook’ by Chaffers & Fanton.

Water seedlings / salads in the morning so they are drier by the evening, this helps reduce slug damage


notes by Angela Morley