No-Dig Gardening is Nature’s Way; Organically & Without The Need To Dig, But With Fewer Weeds, No Fertiliser & More Productive Crops. In This Article I’ll Explain How To Start No-Dig Gardening, How It Works And How It Manages To Be So Productive.
No-Dig Gardening is sometimes regarded as new and radical. but its not. It’s natures way of growing plants, without digging and with less effort. And if you doubt that then think about how nature really works. In nature no one comes along with a spade, rotavator or plough. But nature still is incredibly successful in growing plants as can be seen in the woods, forests, plains, savannah, steppes and jungles of the world.
So why break your back digging when by following nature we can have productive gardens? Because it’s true, with No-Dig there are fewer weeds, there’s no need to add fertiliser, the crops are healthier and the yields higher.
Let me explain.
What is No-Dig Gardening?
No-Dig focuses on growing crops on beds that, instead of being dug, are covered in compost. The compost smothers the weeds, encourages worm activity and promotes the growth of the soil microfauna. That’s the useful soil bacteria, soils fungi and other microscopic organisms that live in the soil.
By doing this the soil structure is improved and that has many benefits which I’ll explain in a while.
One of the features of No-Dig is that beds are set up with narrow paths between them. This means that the soil is never stood on. This improves its structure and helps contribute towards increased yields. The paths serve a dual purpose. They not only give you somewhere to walk, they also give the plants a bit of extra space in which to spread their roots. So, though it looks like the paths don’t produce much, they actually contribute to the overall yields.
Beds are normally around four foot wide (1.3 metres) with paths being around 18inches (0.5 metres) wide. The actual measurements really depend on how far you can reach into the beds from the paths. You need to be able to reach the crops without standing on the beds and compacting the soil.
How Can I Start No-Dig?
It’s much simpler than it looks and really depends on what you start with. For example when I moved to our present garden we had a patio that wasn’t needed. So I lifted the slabs and turned it into a No-Dig vegetable garden. It took no time at all.
I explain more in my post on How To Turn A Patio Into A No-Dig Garden . To cut a long story short all I did was lift the slabs (they were set on the soil), cover the soil with a layer of cardboard and cover the cardboard with a layer of mulch. In my case I used the grass mowings from my lawn. But normally the grass mulch is replaced by a 3-4 inch (10cms) deep layer of compost.
Once the compost has settled for a few hours seed can be sown or, better still in my view, module raised plants can be planted.
The reason that cardboard is added is to smother the weeds , or weed seeds, that will be in the soil. In combination with the compost this is normally very successful. If however you have deeply rooted docks, dandelions, brambles etc it makes sense to dig them out before covering the soil. But, don’t worry, this is the only time you’ll dig the soil.
In subsequent years there is normally no need to add more cardboard, just add the compost. This will feed the soil and nourish your plants. They’ll not need fertiliser due to a No-Dig gardening “secret”. The secret is that the nutrients in the compost feeds the plants PLUS the fungi and bacteria also contribute. The fungi form a huge network of fungal “roots” called hyphae. The hyphae go deep into the soil and search out nutrients and trace elements that they pass on to the plants in return for carbon. They also pull up water from deep in the soil and give that to our plants as well.
It’s only in recent years that science has really grasped the interaction between plants and fungi. Old gardeners knew that compost was good for plants and so used it, but they didn’t understand the science behind it. If you want to learn more about how this all works try reading Merlin Sheldrake’s book, Entangled Lives. You can buy it from my bookshop by clicking the link.
Starting a No-Dig Garden From Scratch
Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to lift a patio and create a No-Dig garden as quickly as I did. And, if you have a weedy plot or even a field full of long grass the idea might be a little daunting and appear impossible. Trust me, it’s not. Its actually very simple
Here’s how I’d do it.
Firstly walk over the area and check there are no hidden obstacles in the vegetation. Plots can be hiding anything from dumped supermarket trolleys and bicycle frames to tins of paint. Carefully remove anything that shouldn’t be there.
If there are holes in the ground, fill them with soil.
Then starting with a small area, cover the vegetation with cardboard and compost. Overlap the cardboard to prevent the weeds sneaking upon between the joints. I’d tend to initially make an area that comprises a path, bed and another path. So you need a rough idea of the layout you are aiming for eventually. The paths needn’t be covered with compost. You can use wood chip if you prefer. But don’t be tempted to put plastic or weed membrane under the paths. If you do you’ll regret it. The plastic will hold the water and you’ll have an area full of puddles.
And the weed membrane will not stop the weeds. What tends to happen is that weeds start to grew in the pathways and root into the fabric. This makes it difficult or even impossible to remove and allows the weeds to establish. The way to control weeds is to remove them when they are very small. Do that regularly and you’ll not have a weed problem.
And don’t worry about finding cardboard. There’s loads near most gardens! Shops throw away huge volumes of cardboard and usually have to pay to do so. So they’ll gladly give it to you if you ask. It’ll be doing them a favour.
No-Dig Gardening Practicalities
No-Dig is very practical because it is easier on the back because the need to dig is dispensed with. But, perhaps more importantly, it means we can have a more manageable garden.
Manageable because weeding is easier and because the soil is kinder to our plants.
The reason that weeding is easier is because there are fewer weeds. The compost covers any that are on the surface when compost is applied and, because of the heat generated by the composting process, there are few viable weed seeds in the compost and hence our beds. The few weed seeds that do occur will be mainly blown in on the wind. And, if we pull the weeds out as they germinate, they never seed again.
It might sound arduous having to pull out weed seedlings but it’s far easier that hoeing them out when they are bigger and there ares so few that it takes only minutes to walk along the beds and pull out the odd one. And because we pull them out rather than hoe or dig, we don’t bring new weed seeds to the surface where they can germinate. So, by regularly walking along our beds, say once a week, we can weed a large garden very quickly.
The second reason the weeds tend to be fewer is because No-Dig gardeners tend to go for planting modular raised plants that are transplanted when quite big. This means they soon meet across the rows and crowd out the weeds. And if we go for a high planting density the suppression effect is even higher.
High density planting works well in the No-Dig garden because the soil looks after the plants so well. Because the soil is never dug it retains more moisture so the plants don’t suffer as much drought related stress. And the good deep soils that quickly form provides deeper root runs and a healthier plant that gets its nourishment from the soil/compost and from the symbiotic fungi that the system encourages.
Sowing & Planting In The No-Dig Garden
Seed sowing and planting are easy in a No Dig situation. Where you wish to sow seeds just draw out a shallow drill or make a small depression in the soils into which you can sow your seeds. Then gently cover the sown seed with compost. If the compost is very dry then water the drill before sowing the seed.
The trick here is to ensure you disturb the soil surface as little as possible, so as to not bring weed seeds to the surface.
Module raised plants are even easier to plant. You can either just push the module into the compost or you can use a dibber to make a depression in the compost in to which you drop the module.
Module grown vegetable plants
When I grew lettuce commercially we used to just push lettuce (blocks, which are a sort of module), direct into rotavated soil. We did this in beds that were 48 inches wide … the distance between the tractor wheels! It worked very well and we grew unto half a million lettuce year using this method. Today, having moved to No-Dig, I would just push them into the compost.
Mixing No-Dig Gardening With Other Techniques
In the majority of cases No-Dig is carried out at soil level. However, some people either surround each bed with timber and make a very low raised bed or they undertake No-Dig in a full depth raised bed. I recognise the fact that some people use raised beds for medical reasons or because they have no soil at ground level (gardening on concrete or where the bedrock protrudes at soil level), but I prefer to work at soil level myself. The disadvantages of raised beds I’ve mentioned elsewhere so I’ll not go into them here except to say I prefer not to use them unless its totally necessary.
No-Dig Gardening Compost Alternatives
If I haven’t enough compost I use alternative materials. One of the best is to add a thin layer of freshly cut grass over the soil surface. It smothers weeds whilst letting air and rain through. the worms quickly pull it down and it can be topped up on a regular basis. So by the end of the year quite a quantity can be added without it being so deep at any time that it goes slimy.
Read about the Advantages and Disadvantages of No Dig Gardening below the images.
Spring onion from multi-sown modules
Using grass as a mulch
No-Dig Gardening Benefits/Advantages
- No-Dig is time saving. There is no digging which saves a huge amount of time. And because weeds are reduced, less time is spent weeding. This means we can concentrate on the crop.
- The soil microfauna is allowed/encouraged to grow within the undisturbed soil. This improves soil structure and the mycorrhizal relationship between plants and fungi provides the crop with nutrients and water in exchange for carbon.
- Carbon sequestration is increased. Soil can hold huge quantities of carbon if not disturbed.
- Soil moisture and nutrient loss is greatly reduced. Digging, ploughing and cultivating exposes the soil to the drying air and moisture is quickly lost. By not turning the soil all the moisture is retained. Plus the mulching characteristics of the compost discourages soil moisture lost. Nutrient loss is also reduced due to no weed competition etc.
- Fewer weeds mean less competition for the crop. Weeds normally fight for moisture, light, nutrients and the gardeners time when they have to be removed.
- Improved soil structure introduces air into the soil. The limiting growth factor in many cases is, perhaps surprisingly, a lack of air. I first noticed this when growing outdoor lettuce on a field scale. I would undertake inter-row hoeing with a Bean Tractor and crops raced away after being hoed. It was especially noticeable if I hoed half a bed. The hoed half grew much faster. With No Dig the improved structure means this happens without the need to hoe.
- Improved soil structure leads to a better root system. In traditional growing we frequently see crops not rooting deeply as they hit a “pan” of hard soil through which the roots cannot penetrate. This restricts access to moisture, air and nutrients and as a consequence inhibits growth. With No Dig the crop roots deeper as no pan exists.
- Improved soil structure also means the crop can root deeper and tolerate high winds. So often I see social media posts where people talk about firming soil around sprout plants. In some cases they talk about staking sprout plants. They really don’t need all this effort if allowed to naturally root deeply. And No Dig encourages this due to improved soil structure.
- Though I stress not walking on No-Dig beds sometimes it becomes necessary. Provided you don’t make a habit of it the improved soil structure of a well maintained bed means it is possible with little damage due to improved structure. Clearly the soil needs to be reasonably dry when you do it of course!
- Soil structure is improved mainly due to soil bacteria. Soil bacteria exude a sticky substance which “glues” soil particles together in a good structure. Where soil is frequently turned this is absent. No Dig encourages the soil bacteria and hence better structure is maintained.
- No Dig also encourages larger soil organisms such as worms. When pulling down the compost they not only mix it with the deeper soil, they also form channels in the soil through which rain can drain. This prevents waterlogging.
- The bacterial exudate in No Dig that binds the soil particles together means there are numerous extremely small cavities formed in the soil. These microscopic cavities adsorb moisture and so, whilst well drained and hence containing air, the soil also retained moisture. Adsorption is a magically quality that tis largely absent in cultivated soils. The definition of adsorption is to hold (molecules of a gas or liquid or solute) as a thin film on the outside surface or on internal surfaces within a material. In this case the material is your No Dig soil.
- Money saving. You don’t need expensive cultivation equipment such a spades, rotavators etc. Not only does this save money but it means that expensive equipment doesn’t need storing on allotments .. I see so many cases of theft from allotment sheds!
- More crops can be grown. Because there is no need to dig between one crop and the next its simple to harvest one crop and plant the next within minutes! In fact you can mix crops within a bed with this method. For example, if I were to have planted a bed of multisided salad onions and harvested some I could easily drop a lettuce plant into the gap that had formed. This principle apples what ever crops you are growing. It means that intercropping is easier and that you can rotate crops just by planting into the gaps as they occur.
- No fertiliser is needed. The compost and mycorrhizal bacteria feed the plants.
- No-Dig is more productive. Yields tend to be higher. It’s due to a combination of reasons. Better soil structure; less competition for light, air and nutrients, etc all play their part.
No-Dig Gardening Disadvantages
I came to No Dig after years of farming and growing vegetables conventionally. So I came as an open minded commercial grower with a lot of experience. And though I knew some of the disadvantages of the methods I was using I wasn’t going to fall for the first shiny new technique that came along.
So I examined all the disadvantages that No Dig apparently suffered. There were quite a few listed by people with little experience of No Dig. Sometimes those with little experience of any type of growing were the most vociferously against it (maybe they’d read an article that said it was no good but it certainly wasn’t based on their personal experience!).
Here are some of the alleged disadvantages with my thoughts on them.
- No Dig is expensive. This is often claimed due to the cost off building new raised beds, buying compost etc. Well, as I state earlier, raised beds aren’t needed. And compost needn’t be bought, you can make you own or get low cost manure from farms etc. And because you don’t need to dig any longer you can sell many of your tools! Though I have to caution here that I would start converting to No Dig slowly with just one or two beds to begin with.
- Poor soil structure isn’t changed over night. I agree with this. But if you already have poor soil structure you already have it. Going No Dig didn’t produce it .. but it can solve the problem.
- No digging feels like cheating. you aren’t a real gardener unless you dig or even double dig! My answer to this one is that if you like hard labour why not triple dig .. you know it’ll make you feel virtuous. Me, I want a productive garden, not hard labour and a bad back. I’m not going to try to convince anyone not to dig if they think its important to dig!
- No Dig encourages slugs and snails. My answer here is that it doesn’t in my experience. In fact I’d go as far as to say it decreases the number. Especially if you don’t use wooded beds where they tend to hide next to the timber.
- Too many paths are needed. I disagree. No more or less than any other methods are needed. Unless of course you never lay down paths and walk all over you plot. In that case I agree but of course walking on the soil is going to damage its structure and decrease yields. I’d rather have a few paths and productive, high yielding crops.
- No Dig doesn’t work at scale. Really? Whatever made you think that? Plenty of growers do No Dig on la arge scale.
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