Is Frederick Charles King’s “Is Digging Necessary” the 1946 Origin Of No Dig? The Title Suggests It Is But The Content Isn’t Pure No Dig.

Some people argue that No Dig is new and others that it is as old as gardening itself. So what is the Origin Of No Dig? This 1946 publication, “Is Digging Necessary”, seems to imply it was practiced in 1946. But it’s not what I understand as No Dig. Because No Dig is largely weed free and this book implies it isn’t. In fact the author seems to expect a “good crop of weeds”

King writes, “Weeds are valuable for the soil’s ecosystem, and their controlled presence can be beneficial.” I’m of the impression that one of the benefits of No Dig is a significant decrease in weeds. It’s one of there things Charles Dowding mentions in the video I did with him.

Sourcing A Copy of “Is Digging Necessary?

Before being able to read King’s groundbreaking book it is first necessary to find a copy. It is out of print, Amazon lists it but has no copies. I then tried searching online but couldn’t find a copy. Local antiquarian bookshops couldn’t help either.

A book as groundbreaking as this one ought to be easy to find. But is isn’t.

Eventually I found a copy published in Australia in 1946. It is edited in Australian English so I had to suffer words such as labor rather than labour .. but it was worth it to read a copy of this rather surprisingly slim volume.

The “Is Digging Necessary” Book Format

This really is a compact volume. But it does contain interesting information in its 24 pages. But I should warn you pages 11-23 comprise the appendices and a list of references. All are interesting in their own right, but just confirm how compact the book is.

As the book is out of copyright I’m contemplating republishing it with in depth comment from myself. Let me know if you’d be interested in a copy which I’d probably produce digitally initially and in print if there was enough interest.

Who Was Frederick Charles King?

 F. C. King, was Head Gardener at Levens Hall, South Westmorland. Levens Hall is in the English Lake District a few miles south of Kendall. He commenced work at Levens Hall in 1919 and worked in the role for 35 year, leaving in 1954. Currently I know little more of him except he played cricket and must have been a topiary fan.

I say topiary fan because Levens Hall is home to the world’s oldest topiary garden, established in 1694 and designed by Monsieur Guillaume Beaumont.

Chris Crowder, the current Head Gardener at Levens Hall sent me a copy of a few pages in the book he wrote and mentioned King. He writes,

King, the head gardener, had become fascinated by what we would call today organic principles and the value of compost, humus and earthworms. He had been experimenting for many vears, and was certainly well ahead of popular thinking at the time when he published his pamphlet Is Digging Necessary? and his books The Compost Gardener and Gardening with Compost. He was an enthusiastic convert and an evangelist whose message is only now beginning to be more widely heard.

Chris Crowder

Sadly Chris’ book is currently out of print but you may be able to get a copy from a second hand bookshop. Amazon had a copy when I last checked.

Another historical note here. Levens has the oldest example of a ha-ha in the country.

A Synopsis of King’s Publication

King’s approach is very much that of a practical head gardener with many years experience. At the time of writing the book in the early 1940’s he had been at Levens Hall since 1919.

His interest in “resting the spade” is down to aphid. He noticed that in local woodland very few wild garlic plants suffered from aphid attack EXCEPT where the soil had been disturbed.

Spring 1920 saw him plant a few thousand onions without digging. He also tried growing plums via a No Dig method. In those days the ground below a plum tree would be tilled. He tried some without digging.

What interests me most here is that he was scientific in his endeavours. He did a split trial. Some trees were dug under and some not, but did have compost applied. He reports that five years later, ” there were unmistakable signs that the the trees in undug soil were making far better progress”.

So not only did he undertake a split trial but it was a longitudinal study i.e. carried out over a long time period. He continues with the observation that ” at the end of ten years the difference was remarkable”.

King then went on to repeat the experiment with apple tree where he observed that Woolly Aphis was greatly reduced without sprays.

Tomatoes come next in King’s observations. He writes of a trial of 108 tomato plants where they purposely introduced whitefly. all were infected except 25 that were grown No Dig.

King then goes on to extol the virtues of farmyard manure and compost. He remarks on how in nature these products are not dug in but left on the soil surface to be slowly incorporated at nature’s own pace.

He also writes about ashes and remarks on how in nature ashes they are the exception. He then explains that many decomposing materials take time to rot down and be incorporated.

Conclusion On the Origin Of No Dig

This is an interesting little pamphlet and is certainly a forerunner of No Dig. Though I wouldn’t go as far as tot say its the origin. Perhaps the answer lies in our interpretation of origin and forerunner.

Copies Of “Is Digging Necessary”

finding a physical copy of Is Digging Necessary is hard. I couldn’t find one when I searched. Maybe one will turn up soon though.

However, a digital copy is available in Australia.

Tag: Origin Of No Dig

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2 thoughts on “King’s 1946 Origin Of The No Dig Technique?

  1. Simon Wilso says:

    I have a cine ( edited onto a video ) recording of FC King in retirement encouraging two young boys who had built a go kart and were driving it down a lane.

    1. Stefan Drew says:

      How wonderful. To see the man himself rather than just read his words.

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