BHOGG Exclusive Interview: Charles Dowding

BHOGG was pleased to be asked if we wanted to interview Charles at the Seedy Sunday event in Feburary. Our online editor Jenni takes up the story.

When I was given the opportunity to meet with Charles Dowding at Seedy Sunday for an exclusive BHOGG interview – I jumped at the chance.  It was only later, waiting in the Green Room, I realised that although I had carried out some interviews in my time, I was by no means a journalist; I looked through my list of questions nervously.

In some sense I needn’t have worried.  Once we’d established that I was not the Head Teacher of the college providing the venue (“Do I look like a head teacher?!” I’d exclaimed), Charles and I chatted like old friends, soon finding our common ground and finding interest in what each other had to say.  In another sense, I can’t say I conducted the best interview ever.  My list of carefully curated questions went unreferenced and largely unanswered, and the resulting rambling discussion bore no real revelations from Charles over and above what he later went on to talk about in his session at Seedy Sunday that afternoon.  I have tried to pull out some of the key elements from the generously long chat I had with Charles over his late lunch.  I’ve kept longish verbatim quotes to give a flavour of the conversation, although I’ve made changes where necessary to make some parts clearer.  I hope this resulting version conveys some of the depth of Charles’s thinking and the genuine warmth and passion he has for his subject. 

Common Sense versus Science

Charles grew up in a farming family, following a pretty standard approach to arable farming.  He was able to use these embedded skills and knowledge to push the envelope on how to garden, in particular coming to realise that soil health was at the heart of it all.  Charles wasted no time in diving straight into describing his twin ‘rules’: supporting the soil and throwing the rules out of the window. 

Soil health may be all over the environmental news these days as some kind of newly discovered phenomenon, highlighting the presence of soil fungi and bacteria as fundamental to life and therefore growth of all plants.  But as Charles observes there’s nothing new under the sun: “In 1981 when I was beginning [to grow organically], I read a book about mycorrhizal fungi, because they were known in the 1870s even. But they were promoted a lot by…. Elizabeth Rayner. She was a microbiologist, worked for the Forestry Commission in 1930s, Wareham Heath in Dorset. Anyway, she was trying to get trees to grow in pots, and they wouldn’t grow. And she was using fertiliser and it still wouldn’t work. And then she gave each little pot a bit of well-made compost, and they grow! and she was thinking ‘it can’t be due to nutrients’.  She did microscopic work and discovered mycorrhizal fungi at work; she then worked with Albert Howard a bit, the early compost maker.  This is the early days of the Soil Association, late 1930s, 1940; with the Soil Association founded in 1946. They were fighting Monsanto or whatever it was in those days, in era of Silent Spring and that kind of thing.  And they talked a lot about compost, mycorrhizal fungi and soil.  And then that just got forgotten.”

Alongside this is Charles’s no dig approach which he says is “just like common sense.”  Charles’s market garden was certified organic in the 1980s.  At that time, Charles said, everybody was using a rotavator, all the organic growers. But worse than that, nobody questioned it.  Charles also recalls reading at that time a scientific journal in 1981 that said “vegetable roots do not associate with the mycorrhizal network.  And now we know. And that’s what makes me suspicious of science. And this horrible phrase ‘follow the science’, whose science?”  Charles feels more that “there’s only nature and what we can observe from it, and deductions.”

It’s not that Charles isn’t into comparisons and testing whether his methods work, it seems more to do with the labels applied. In conversation with Sheila ???? of the RHS (who Charles says had ‘to fight’ for no-dig edibles at Wisley) Charles talked about his side-by-side comparisons of dig/ no dig.  “She said scientists don’t own that word. That’s a trial. We do trials, but they’re not randomised. What’s it called, where they, you know, you have to do ten different ones in different places? Randomised replication.  For me, that’s been a great one for teaching, side by side photographs.”

This frustration for studies to undo or disprove what Charles sees as “common sense” in his approach to gardening didn’t end there.  Garden Organic (the then Henry Doubleday foundation) carried out a trial in the 1960s, investigating no dig, which “concluded that after four years, soil needed to be dug. No dig wasn’t working anymore.  It was a badly run trial, and I think they weren’t using enough compost. Just the opposite of what I found in my work. The more years you go on with no dig, the better it gets.  Feed the soil a bit every year. I’m doing a trial where I grow potatoes in the same place every year and last year was year eight. It was the best year so far.”

 Charles went on to comment on the widely adopted practice, even in amateur gardening, of 4-year rotation.  “So many things could be rethought, but the four-year rotation, it’s just because that’s a really common one in the organic world. And when I was in the 80s, when I was getting first into organic gardening, it was like a gospel of four-year rotation…actually, when you go no dig, you realise the soil used to be much clearer and more fertile.”

A diet of Seed saving for the masses with a side of radicalism

Charles’s challenging of the widely held ‘norms’ of growing don’t stop there.  As the conversation inevitably turned to seeds, Charles talked about how he keeps his own potatoes to grow as seed potatoes the next year.  “And you’re not meant to, are you?”  Charles went on “I think it’s actually part of a bigger agenda, which most people don’t know about, even who are still perpetrating it, which is the powers that be, they want us to keep us in our place and keep us busy. So, they’re not going to make it too easy to grow our own food. If you save your own potato seed, that’s one more bit of freedom and reduced cost.”

As well, we discussed that there is an appreciable difference in quality between commercial seed and those for us ‘amateur’ gardeners.  In fact, Charles believes that the old seed not bought by commercial farmers finds its way to gardeners.  As he says “it never tells you when the seed was grown or produced. It’s always packeted year ending.  No guarantee of age. Only they have to do a laboratory test. The lab test they do on seed before they sell it is in perfect lab conditions: 24 hours, temperature of 25 degrees. And germination is counted as a little emergence of a radical movement. It’s not only that you get less germination, but the growth is weaker, too.”

This led to talking about how important it is to save seed, even though it can be a complex thing to do for some plants.  Seedy Sunday with its seed saving pirates, needs to keep up the radical side of its work.  We’ve come a long way from the early days when what was being done was a kind of seed piracy.  Charles urges us not to lose sight of that.

Why no dig with no rules, rules

I was intrigued by the idea that Charles feels that the establishments don’t want us to grow our own food.  How does that square with things like Dig for Victory, with the Allotment Act and all the rest of that after the war?

“Well, I think the Dig for Victory, that’s easily explained: if they couldn’t keep enough people alive, they wouldn’t have an army.  And then allotments you’ve got to have workers. I don’t know, I’ve become more cynical as I grow older how awful the world is, the way it’s run. The world I’m talking about, not the Earth.”

“I mean, I find it ironic that I’m a market gardener and grow on a third of an acre producing a lot of salad leaves, mainly because that’s my main sale, because I find it’s pretty much the only vegetable that I could make a wage from growing. But even then, I still can’t make a living.  And that feels wrong, but I don’t know what you can do about that, so I subsidise my garden with my other work.  But I don’t want food to be more expensive.”

“That’s a whole other thing. Well, I feel that what I want to do is enable more people, like millions more people, to grow their own food. Because I see that, as some people call it, a revolutionary act. Well, it kind of is, but more than that, it’s just a very positive thing for health and well-being and that thing of the brain and mind and actually getting happier and more clear in yourself.”

We agree about the vitality of allotments and their huge popularity in Brighton & Hove.  I’m all for Charles’s ‘no rules’ approach, but what about Allotment rules?  “So that’s really hampering people’s efforts to grow their own food. Whereas no dig is the opposite. It’s really favouring it. It’s a total win win. It’s a win win in so many ways. You get fewer weeds; you get better moisture retention. Summers like last year, we really see that. You get better drainage, though, as well, because you haven’t disturbed the structure and the water can flow through and healthier crops, you eat better, then your brain starts to work better. This whole thing that’s been kept from us, the links between soil biome and gut biome.”

“The complexity comes if you want to really improve soil and make sure you protect from pests. So that’s also the information I’m sharing. I’m not only about no dig, it’s about growing great vegetables, but the two go together because if you get that first bit right – the soil – plants grow better, for one thing, more healthily and you get many fewer weeds. And weeds is the thing that have really held people up, I reckon, because you see allotments being religiously dug over and then the crop of weeds is just mind boggling and so many people just give up at that point.”

Social media versus traditional media

I asked Charles why No Dig’s apparent popularity now and why him?  I was surprised to hear Charles talk so positively in response about social media; how in some ways this is a radical approach.  He finds it a way that he can reach people.  “I’ve not had to go through a magazine editor, a BBC Producer. I can go direct to people. I can show them the results and I explain it and they get it because it’s common sense. It’s not hard to understand.”

“So, the long and the short of that is that I’ve reached now millions of people, and they’re likewise reaching people around them, sharing this great knowledge. And that, I think, is why it’s finally spreading.  As long as we can keep that freedom of the internet and as long as you build a big enough audience.” Charles acknowledges that it’s not so easy now with social media being “overpopulated”. Charles’s secret: I started in 2016, have always had a beautiful garden and also, I’ve always had experience behind me to explain it. I don’t do hashtags; I don’t post at certain times a day. None of that stuff. I just put out stuff when I want to. I ask a question.”

By way of contrast Charles tells a story about receiving an award for No Dig Home & Garden, and as he and the cowriter walked to the stage to receive their award, a certain newspaper editor said to him ‘you win’.  “That’s how she saw it,” Charles exclaimed, “as a sort of fight or an argument because she’d been turning down my no dig ideas.”

Eating a peck of dirt before we die – how nutrition led to soil health

I ask Charles about how he got started and who inspired him. I mention my now nearly 90-year-old father who had the patience of a saint in introducing me to all things gardening at a very young age.  Charles mentions his growing up on a farm and, his first interest in nutrition.  ‘Got to eat a peck of dirt before you die’ I say – quoting my mum.  Charles recognises the saying “Valuable old knowledge.” he nods.

From his interest in growing for health he discovered organic growing “which I hadn’t heard about growing up on a chemical farm, normal farm” Charles pauses, repeats almost to himself “Normal.”  That pause emphasising the still abundant assumption that non-chemical farming is different, unusual, a bit weird.  “So, then I realised if I had the chance to put the two and two together, I had access to the land and I wanted to grow organic food and for me, mainly, well, become like a market gardener, so that was how I got into it. And then no dig followed from that because I started thinking about soil and no one was doing no dig in those days.”

“So, when you got healthy soil and you’re eating your own homegrown food, rather than supermarket sterilised food, you’re getting some actual microbes there which help your gut to digest it better. Your gut is a quarter of your brain. That means your brain starts to work better. And that’s also what the authorities don’t want. We start to actually think.”

Why BHOGG should be BHGG

Charles suddenly interjects to our chat: “Brighton and Hove Organic. It should be just Brighton and Hove Gardeners…. for me, it’s the wrong way around. Organic is the one that’s been pushed on the edge, niche word, and the chemical has appropriated the word conventional, which, if you look that up in the dictionary, it means normal and natural.  What does organic mean? Now? I feel the word has been so abused itself.”

“And you’ve got these so-called organic composts. I don’t know if you’ve seen them or use them. Sacks of potting compost, with the word organic on, which is meaningless because they don’t have certification.  But the frustrating thing is, because I get this, a lot of people ask me questions, they say, ‘but my sack said organic and it’s just not working, it’s not growing’, and sometimes they’ve even got weed killer in and they’re allowed to use that word and that’s so wrong. So that’s diluting this word that we like and use.”

“Because people need to be, I think, more aware of the power of words and the evil powers that are out there, they are very switched on with it. They grab this word, for example, ‘immunisation’ in the current climate, off topic, I know, but it’s so wrong that they should do that. They make people guilty if they’re not doing something they want, basically, and get their money.  It’s all related.  Gardening right at the bottom and at the bottom in the nicest way with the ground floor, the base is the start of the scaffolding upwards, and we can build a better world from that base.”

Why humans should make like underground mycorrhizal systems and network

At the Oxford Farming conference recently, Charles was struck by a rep from the Landworkers’ Alliance who made a really good point to the huge audience “he said, you’re all doing really great things but you’re not working together enough”.  Charles and I discuss this a bit, how we get stuck in our silos promoting no dig or organic, or permaculture, or biodynamic and we haven’t got time to actually make those connections.  That maybe we should work more putting people together. Charles reflects however that people in our kind of movement are nicer people.

“And there’s always that personal element, isn’t there, as well? Mostly I do find, actually, that I meet very strongly like-minded people who I can really relate to, that we can work together and do both our things together. So, we’ve just got to hang in there with that, I guess, as much as we can in the time available.”

“Like with good organic growing, no dig, we all need great compost so it’s wonderful to work with people …. and having time to support each other.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Having basked in Charles’s warmth and interest for the best part of an hour, I come away from the interview feeling buoyed up and nourished by our chat.  I happily wind my way through the crowds of people flocking to hear Charles speak and allow myself to imagine a future where no dig is the norm and communities like ours provide a huge nurturing network of learning and experience.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s