Can you dig It?

Some guidance for gardeners

It is not possible to teach gardening on a website – we can only give some pointers – but we hope these notes from our Free Training Course will be useful to you.


Home-made OR buy-in-a-bag (lots of different types – sowing, potting etc)



  • One of the best forms of recycling – uses waste products
  • Saves landfill
  • Free plant food
  • Free soil improver
  • Holds moisture during droughts


  • Anything that rots – kitchen scraps, garden clippings & trimmings
  • Cardboard, screwed-up paper, egg-shells, hair, nail clippings
  • Annual weeds, not permanent (perennial) ones – heat will kill seeds?
  • Thick things (twigs) rot quicker if shredded
  • Balance between greens (wet) & browns (dry) – not just grass cuttings
  • Cooked food / fish / meat can attract rats


  • Put it in a heap (stays moist & gets hot)
  • Give the heap some sides & a back – & a removable front
  • carpet underneath
  • Put it in a plastic cylinder

How much work

  • Just heap it up – takes about a year to rot
  • Turn it regularly – rots quicker
  • Keep it moist (not soaking) – rots quicker
  • Chop everything small – rots quicker
  • Spend money on compost accelerators – should rot quicker
  • Urine – will speed it up


  • On soil / gravel – must drain (carpet base}
  • As close to beds / house as possible
  • Lid or carpet on top?

Possible Problems

  • Fruit flies with plastic bin – leave lid off?
  • Smelly? – probably too much of 1 thing, particularly greens/wets
  • Weed seeds survive – not hot enough

Build 2 bins, side by side. Fill 1 during the year – ready by next spring.

Dig out the magic compost, adding un-rotted bits to 2nd bin. Repeat forever.


So what is a weed?

Put simply it is any plant growing in the wrong place. A potato plant growing in lawn could be considered to be a weed and grass growing around a potato plant could also be a weed. Dandelions are often considered to be weeds however, beekeepers see them as beneficial as they provide a nectar source nearly all year round. Young dandelion leaves can be eaten in salad and roots dried and used to make a coffee substitute.

Why control weeds?

Weeds can out-compete the crop for light, water and nutrients. If you do not control weeds then your crop will not reach its full potential. The vegetables may sufferer from nutrient deficiencies and are more likely to be attacked and devoured by disease or pests. A strong plant is more resilient to attack. Weeds can also give a place for pests such as slugs and snails to hide, and can be a breeding ground for whitefly and plant diseases. A tidy vegetable plot helps keep pests at bay.

How to control weeds?

  • Regular hoeing. Deal with the problem early and regularly to prevent them getting a hold.
  • Using mulch around plants is also a good way of suppressing weeds and conserving water.
  • Cutting weeds down before they seed is also a good tip.
  • If you do want to leave some dandelions for the bees make sure you chop the flowers off before they seed.
  • Be careful not to accidentally introduce bindweed, Japanese knotweed or other problem plants when transferring wanted plants from one garden or plot to another.
  • Do not put very invasive perennial weeds into your compost as they may not be killed and could spread.
  • Dispose of perennial weeds via Council’s compost scheme.

If you take on a plot that is infested with invasive weeds then you could try spraying with an approved herbicide such as Glyphosate. This chemical is toxic to most plant species but does degrade quickly, does not harm worms and has a low toxicity to mammals and humans. Always read the label and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines.

Alternatively cover area with an old carpet, or other mulch, and leave for six months, or longer. Digging can increase weeds by sowing their seeds and spreading roots – so you may decide on the no-dig method of gardening.

Soil Health

First Time Growing

  • Untended ground usually good – potatoes good 1st crop
  • Clear permanent (perennial) weeds
  • Dig out, smother, chemicals – don’t rotovate
  • Grass – double dig, dig up & compost, no dig
  • Feed the soil not the plant
  • Add compost / manure in autumn (ideally) – dig in or let worms do it

Types of soil

  • Clay – heavy to dig, drains badly (puddles after rain). Can be nutritious but stay off it when wet. Add grit & sharp sand to break it up + compost
  • Sandy / gravely – feel gritty – drains quickly but food washes out. Add lots of compost or manure to help retain moisture.
  • Loam – the best. Water drains but holds moisture in summer. Add compost
  • Stones – not awful – remove slowly.

If soil very bad then make raised beds filled with topsoil, compost, manure

pH – Acid or alkaline

Rotate crops

Don’t grow the same crop in the same place
– can build up disease
– reduces particular nutrients
Following a formal crop rotation can be difficult because you need to grow same amount of each
E.g. hungry / brassicas / root crops.

Sowing & Planting Out


  • Healthy food – no chemicals
  • Local food
  • Save money
  • Less shopping to carry
  • Enjoyable / satisfying / therapy


  • Things you like
  • Things that are expensive to buy
  • Things which grow easily
  • Things which look nice as they grow
  • Try something new


  • Indoors – heated trays
  • – needs light once growing – windowsill, foil reflectors
  • Greenhouse / cold frame / mini greenhouse
  • – seed trays, pots, plastic gutters – (sowing compost – make own /buy)
  • In open ground – seed bed
  • final place – less work but still have to thin


  • Early – need protection & transplanting, but get earlier crops
  • Later – safer, & they often catch up
  • In stages
  • Read seed packet + how cold/wet is the ground + ask


  • In labelled rows (or draw a plan)
  • Weed or crop? Get more in? Looks neat?
  • Thinly, or 3 or 4 in one place
  • Small seeds just cover with soil, big seeds deeper
  • Transplanting / Planting Out
  • Not too tall & leggy
  • From seed tray to pot From pot to ground
  • Handle with care – hold by the leaf
  • Avoid shocks – harden off

COMPOSTING GUIDE – Brown and Green Materials

Steps to creating great compost:

  1. Add 50/50 brown and green materials – the more cut up, the faster it will decompose. Layer browns and greens
  2. Add some soil between layers to jump-start the process
  3. Add water until the pile is moist, but not soaking
  4. Occasionally turn the pile – this will allow air into the mixture, which microorganisms need to survive. The more often you turn it, the faster the process will go. About three times per month is good.

Browns (Carbon materials) – 50%

  • • Dried, brown leaves and grass
  • Twigs and small branches
  • Chopped woody stalks of plants such as sunflower and corn
  • Sawdust (not too much, or add more eggshells to balance acidity)
  • Shredded newsprint
  • Dryer lint
  • Chopped straw
  • Nut shells

50% Greens (Nitrogen materials)

  • Kitchen scraps – any fruit and vegetable matter
  • Fresh grass clippings (not in clumps)
  • Fresh weeds that haven’t gone to seed
  • Used coffee grinds, filters, and tea bags
  • Pet and human hair (not in clumps)
  • Eggshells


  • Dairy products or meat
  • Oils or oily food
  • Weeds gone to seed
  • Diseased plants
  • Pet wastes

Water Issues

Rainwater is the best and cheapest water to use for most applications. But don’t use rainwater on seedlings from a waterbutt as it may contain bacteria, which can cause ‘damping off disease’.

Water is very heavy so looking at ways of reducing this chore is worthwhile.

Use a “Nucan” from Hursts or B&Q. These just release water via a button to the roots and not all over the place. This can result in 50% less water being used and also prevent slugs and snails moving across the damp ground.

Avoid watering in full sun – ideally water early in the morning before breakfast. Watering in the evening can help the slugs move around on the damp ground.

Use mulch to lock moisture into ground and thus avoid evaporation. Good mulching material can be leaf-mould, compost or bark chippings, sheets of newspaper, old carpets, carpet underlay or polythene plastic sheeting.

Increasing organic content (humus) in the soil also helps lock in moisture, so get composting!

Getting rid of weeds by regular hoeing will reduce water loss via their leaves – transpiration. They also rob the ground of nutrients needed by your crop.

Hoeing also stops the capillary action of the soil – taking water to the surface.

Placing a fleece over the crop will reduce evaporation and transpiration.

Love Spuds?

Some Vegetables take a little more than others…

The best low irrigation potato varieties are Desiree (red skin) and Fianna. These are both good for baking, chipping, roasting and mashing but Desiree is better for boiling.
Beetroot, French beans, chard (the red and green salad leaves), carrots, cabbage, sweet corn and pumpkins all require very little water.

Companion Planting

The improvement in growth or flavour is probably due to the companion plant adding some of the micro-nutrients or the roots may support micro-organisms such as mycorrhizal fungi which improve their uptake. In the case of legumes they fix nitrogen, and White Clover is included in some grass seed mixes, for this reason – it is also drought resistant so ‘greens up’ quicker than grass when used in lawns.

  • Some plants exude protective chemicals called allelochemicals from their roots or foliage, which can deter pests, e.g. African Marigolds produce thiopene which repels nematodes so it makes a good companion plant for root crops which are attacked by nematodes.
  • Beneficial insects can be attracted to a cropping area by planting something which they use as a food nearby, e.g. adult Hover Flies feed on nectar, but their larvae feed on aphids so planting nectar-rich flowering plants will attract them and they will lay their eggs on plants where there are pests.

Based on information provided by

Good Companions Bad Companions
Tomato, Basil, Parsley Potatoes
Carrots, Cabbage, Cucumber, Cauliflower Leeks, Chives, Garlic, Onions
Potatoes, Lettuce Fennel
Broad Beans
Dwarf Beans
Kohlrabi, Dwarf Beans, Onions, Chives Runner/Climbing Beans, Lettuce, Cabbage,
Dill, Celery, Chamomile, Sage, Rosemary Tomatoes, Strawberries, Oregano
Potatoes, Sage, Hyssop, Thyme Strawberries, Rosemary
Brussel Sprouts
Beetroot, Potatoes, Beans, Onions, Sage Tomatoes, Garlic, Strawberries, Celery, Dill,

Mint, Thyme, Oregano

Leeks, Lettuce, Onions, Peas, Tomatoes Dill, Parsnip, Chives, Sage, Rosemary, Radish
Celery, Celeriac, Beans, Oregano Strawberries, Rue, Peas, Potato, Nasturtium
Leeks, Beans, Cabbage,Tomatoes Parsnip, Potato, Wheat
Melons, Squash, Pumpkins, Cucumbers, Potatoes, Parsnips, Artichokes, Jerusalem Artichokes
Beans, Peas, Radish, Celery, Carrots Potatoes, Sage, Cauliflower, Basil
Carrots,Tomatoes,Parsley, Parsnips, Fruit Trees
Beans, Potato, Marjoram
Potatoes, Fruit Trees
Beetroot, Onion, Dwarf Beans Pole Beans, Tomatoes, Cucumber
Carrots, Celery, Celeriac, Strawberries
Strawberries, Cabbage, Carrots, Onions Parsley, Beans, Beetroot, Parsnip
Cabbage, Cauliflower, Cucumber Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Potato, Radish, Squash, Zucchini, Fruit Trees
Cabbage,Carrots,Beetroot, Lettuce Beans, Peas, Parsnip, Parsley, Leeks
Beans, Corn, Cabbage, Horseradish Pumpkin, Squash, Cucumber, Dill, Eggplant, Tomatoes, Raspberries
Carrot, Corn, Cucumber, Beans, Radish Onions, Garlic, Shallot
Sweetcorn, Marjoram Potato
Cucumber, Lettuce Hyssop, Squash, Peas, Nasturtium
Broad Beans, Strawberries, Fruit Trees
Asparagus, Basil, Lima Beans, Cabbage Beetroot, Fennel, Kohlrabi, Broccoli, Brussel

Sprouts, Cauliflower, Potato, Rosemary, Carrots, Chives, Dill, Onions, Parsley,Parsnip, Nasturtium


S = Seed sowing T = Transplant


(1) This table is a guide only, please observe the seasonal weather patterns before deciding when to plant, as there will often be distinct differences in summer weather from one year to the next.

(2) Planting times will vary for different varieties of the one vegetable.

Thanks to Canberra Organic Growers’ Society Inc. 1995, Canberra Organic Growers’ Society Inc

Nutrients and growing

All plants need nutrients to survive and to thrive. These nutrients are absorbed through the roots. The main nutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), sulphur (S) and magnesium (Mg).

These are most common deficiencies

Nitrogen deficiency

Symptoms: Spindly yellow plants or yellow leaves, sometimes with pink tints. Cause: Nitrogen promotes green, leafy growth and deficiency results in yellowing and stunted growth. Nitrogen is very soluble, so is easily washed out of the soil in winter rains, leaving the soil deficient in spring, just when plants are putting on new growth. Nitrogen deficiency is a common cause of yellow leaves in spring.

Remedy: In the long term, mulching with organic matter (such as well rotted garden compost or manure) provides a steady trickle of nitrogen to stabilise levels. In the short term, applying high nitrogen fertilisers such as sulphate of ammonia or poultry manure pellets will remedy the problem.

Potassium deficiency

Symptoms: Yellow or purple leaf-tints with browning at the leaf edge and poor flowering or fruiting.

Cause: Potassium is needed for controlling both water uptake and the process allowing plants to harness energy from the sun (photosynthesis). Potassium promotes flowering, fruiting and general hardiness. Shortages are more likely on light, sandy or chalky soils where potassium is easily washed away. Clay soils, by contrast, hold potassium within their structure.

Remedy: Apply high potassium fertilisers such as sulphate of potash, tomato feed or certain organic potassium sources derived from sugar beet processing.

Phosphorous deficiency

Symptoms: Slow growth and dull yellow foliage.

Cause: Phosphorous is needed for healthy roots and shoot growth. Soil shortages of phosphorous are rare, but may occur in areas with high rainfall and heavy clay soil.

Remedy: Apply fertilisers such as superphosphate or bone meal.

Magnesium deficiency

Symptoms: Yellowing between the leaf veins, sometimes with reddish brown tints and early leaf fall. Magnesium deficiency is common in tomatoes, apples, grape vines, raspberries, roses and rhododendrons.

Cause: Magnesium is needed for healthy leaves and for plants to harness energy from the sun (photosynthesis). Soil shortages of magnesium are more common on light, sandy soils. Over-use of high-potassium fertilisers (such as tomato feed) can cause magnesium deficiency, as plants take up potassium in preference to magnesium.

Remedy: In the short term, apply Epsom salts as a foliar feed in summer. Dilute the salts at a rate of 20g of Epsom salts per litre of water (1/3oz per pint) plus a few drops of liquid detergent. Apply two or three times at fortnightly intervals, spraying in dull weather to avoid leaf scorch. In the long term apply to the soil around the roots either Dolomite limestone (calcium-magnesium carbonate) at 100g per sq m (4oz per sq yd) or Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) at 30g per sq m (1oz per sq yd). Dolomite limestone will make the soil more alkaline, so should not be used around ericaceous (acid-loving) plants such as rhododendrons or camellias, or where the soil is already alkaline.

Information from Royal Horticultural Society

Footnotes: Epsom Salts (magnesium sulphate) is available from Thompsons Garden Centre at Newchurch. Hursts also sell a range of fertilisers etc some of which are Soil Association Approved. Poundland is also worth a visit. Various companies on line sell horticultural products.

We are grateful to the Local Food Fund for making this training possible and helping local people to grow their own food.

Useful Links

  • NSALG is the recognised national representative body for the allotment movement in the UK. The society is owned, managed and funded by its members to protect, promote and preserve allotments for future generations to enjoy. Source of cheap seeds.
  • The Good Gardeners Association promotes ‘no dig’ gardening and a closer relationship with nature.
  • Tips on organic gardening and composing – main organic gardening organisation in the UK. Books and factsheets. Gardening Advice Service for members via phone or email.
  • Royal Horticultural Society. Lots of free fact sheets on line. Including organic gardening, water efficiency and composting
  • Dig My Plot is a website written by an enthusiastic allotment owner. Lots of good tips.
  • Pest and disease identifier and lots of other useful info. Q&A and Message Board.
  • Lots of tips on everything from propagation and other tips.
  • Info on companion planting and soft fruit growing etc.
  • Free downloadable book from this site on composting.
  • Biodynamic ( or lunar gardening ( follows organic growing methods linked to the phases of the moon. Based on the spiritual beliefs of Rudolf Steiner.
  • Residential practical cources on organic gardening and old skills etc.
  • Kitchen Garden magazine – free on line information. Subscription available too.
  • If you would like some great recipe ideas for your homegrown potatoes, try the website.

We are not responsible for the content of external websites, all information given is for guidance purposes only.