Horticulture Magazine

No Dig Gardening Explained For Beginners

using cardboard on soil in a no dig garden

Learn all about no dig gardening, this eco-friendly and sustainable organic gardening method.

As you read about organic gardening, you will no doubt come across the term ‘no dig gardening’ or ‘no till’  and may wonder what it means.

No dig gardening is not complicated, but it does depart from some ‘traditional’ gardening lore.

While some traditionalists may baulk at this idea, it is now increasingly apparent that gardening in this way is the best way to maintain a healthy and productive organic garden.

What Is No Dig Gardening?

using a pitchfork to add wood chips to a no-dig garden

No dig gardening is a term that is largely self-explanatory.

In a no dig garden, you do not dig or till to prepare the soil in your growing areas or to work in organic matter.

Instead, you lay organic matter on top of the soil and you let nature do the work for you.

The goal is to leave the soil as undisturbed as possible.

Since the soil in a no dig garden is left largely undisturbed, the complex web of soil life is allowed to thrive. [source]

And that life, from the earthworms to the microscopic bacteria and fungi, will slowly break down the organic matter and incorporate it into the soil.

man setting up a no dig garden with logs, manure and strips of cardboard

In no dig gardening we:

  • Don’t dig or till wherever possible.
  • Take steps to avoid soil compaction.
  • Keep the soil covered with mulches or living plants at all times, keeping a living root in the soil as frequently as we can.

Understanding Organic Matter

If you are new to gardening, you might not be familiar with the term organic matter.

This is a term that it is vital to understand if you are trying to garden successfully in an organic, sustainable way.

Organic matter is material containing carbon that derives from living things. In general terms, it is dead plant or animal matter, and animal waste. [source]

Soil organic matter is one component of a healthy, living soil. And gardeners add organic matter to improve the soil and add fertility.

The types of organic matter added to soil might be brown organic matter: composts, manures and rotted dried leaves (leaf mould).

hands holding brown organic matter

They might be green organic matter – green leaves, vegetable scraps etc.

green organic food waste ready for composting

Learning how to add more organic matter in your garden is always crucial to success.

It might be helpful to think about organic matter as “nature’s recycling”. [source]

Adding organic matter to the soil surface in your garden growing areas mimics the natural processes which take place in nature on a forest or woodland floor.

The leaves fall, and begin to decay, and the complex web of soil life returns the nutrients they contain to the system.

No dig gardening is about harnessing this natural process to create a closed-loop, natural system in your cultivated garden.

No Dig Benefits

Understanding why no dig gardening is a good idea involves understanding soil.

Soil is far more than just ‘dirt’.

hand holding garden soil

Healthy soil is a living ecosystem, which we depend upon for almost all our gardening endeavours.

It is made up of:

  • Minerals
  • Air
  • Water
  • Organic Matter
  • Living Organisms

No dig gardening is the best approach to keep these elements in balance, and the precious soil ecosystem functioning as it should.

hands breaking apart organic matter that has composted in place

Remember, without the soil, we could not grow anything in our gardens.

We rely on the soil for so much, and we should always be sure to take care of it.

Environmental

woman with red wellies digging garden soil

When we dig or till the soil, and when we leave it bare, we cause damage to this ecosystem.

The soil can more easily lose its nutrients, be eroded by wind and rain, become compacted or overly saturated. [source]

When we disturb the soil, the beneficial organisms working away below the surface decrease, and the fertility of the soil slowly diminishes over time. [source]

Research from IPCC has confirmed that tilled or dug soil also becomes an emitter of carbon and greenhouse gases. [source]

Their work found that tilled soil produced 31% greater Global Warming Potential than non-tilled soil (on an area basis).

So no dig gardening can also help you play a role in tackling our climate crisis.

By keeping soil covered and avoiding disturbance and bare soil, a no dig gardening approach increases the amount of carbon stored in the soil in your garden – keeping it out of the atmosphere where it causes global warming.

Increasing Yields

vegetable garden with high yields

What is more, no dig gardening can often be easier for the gardener too, since you will avoid the back-breaking work involved in digging garden beds manually.

Gardeners and researchers are discovering that taking a no dig approach can increase yields and enhance species diversity over time. [source]

This is the most effective way to build new garden growing areas and to maintain existing beds and borders.

No Dig Garden Bed Types

If you would like to create a new growing area in your garden, there are several different ways to do so if you are taking a no dig approach. The most common options are:

  • Lasagne Gardens
  • Hugelkultur
  • Straw Bale Gardens

Lasagne Gardens

prepared lasagna garden with cardboard sheeting and a layer of straw

A lasagne garden is a no dig bed which is, essentially, a type of composting.

The idea is to layer organic matter on top of the soil.

Since (just like in a composting system) you add different layers, the idea is called ‘lasagne gardening’.

Just as you would build up the layers in the classic Italian dish, so too, in a lasagne garden, you layer up the natural ingredients to prepare your growing area.

straw covering cardboard in lasagna garden

To make a lasagne garden you:

  1. Mark out the area for your new bed, adding bed edging if you wish to keep things neat. Remember that you can use a range of natural or reclaimed materials as bed edging. Make sure that you can easily reach all parts of the bed, so you will not step on and compact it.
  2. Layer untreated cardboard over the soil (or grass if you are creating the area over a lawn).
  3. Add a layer of carbon rich material (wood chips, dry leaves, straw, bracken etc.) over the cardboard. Aim for around 5cm in depth.
  4. Next, add a 5cm layer of nitrogen rich material (green leaves, manure, vegetable scraps etc.)
  5. Continue to layer carbon rich and nitrogen rich materials until your bed is at least 35cm deep (or the required height for the raised bed).
  6. Add a final layer of good quality compost, topsoil or loam into which you can plant.
  7. Water the area well, making sure that the layers are all moistened.
  8. Plant up your new raised bed.
  9. Mulch around the plants with a suitable organic mulch. Different plants will require different mulches, since different types of organic matter will have different properties and provide different nutrients.

Hugelkultur

gardener preparing hugelkultur mound

Hugelkultur is another type of no dig raised bed.

The word hugelkultur comes from the German for ‘mound culture’. [source]

A hugelkultur bed is a mounded bed which is built up in much the same way as a lasagne bed – with one key difference.

Before the layers are added, as above, a central core of rotting wood is created.

This core forms the skeleton of the new growing area, creating a hilled shape, usually at least 50cm and sometimes up to 1.5m or more high at the centre, rather than a flat-topped bed.

Benefits

man adding partially decomposed biomatter to hugelkultur beds

The wood slowly decomposes and the mound will sink over time, but as it does so, it will retain plenty of moisture, and harbour plenty of beneficial life.

Another benefit of hugelkultur is that it increases the growing area available.

The mounded shape also provides different environmental conditions, so that a number of different plants with different needs can be grown in a smaller area.

Planting

Plants that prefer sunnier conditions can be placed on the south or west side of the mound, and those which like less sun to the south or east.

Moisture-loving plants will thrive near the base of the sides, while those with deeper roots, and/or more drought tolerance, go at the top.

Once the central core is created, you should proceed to add the outer layers as above.

You can then plant up the mound to stabilise the sloping sides right away.

Straw Bale Gardens

a straw bale garden

One other interesting idea to consider is straw bale gardening.

As the name suggests – this involves growing plants in the tops of straw bales, rather than in the soil.

Strawbales can sometimes be found free of charge from local farms as an agricultural byproduct, or (more commonly) purchased for a small price.

a straw bale garden with tomatoes growing up poles and plastic weed barrier used on the floor

The bales can simply be placed where you wish your new growing area to go.

They will break down over time and can be contained with bed edging for a neater appearance.

nasturtium plants in a straw bale garden

The bales should then be watered with a compost tea or other nitrogen-rich feed to begin the process of decomposition – and topped with a layer or with planting pockets of good quality compost into which plants can be placed.

Transforming An Existing Garden Bed

a potato plant sprouting in a bed of straw

Even if you do not want to create a new growing area, you can still get started with no dig gardening.

Converting to no dig simply involves sheet mulching – laying organic matter over the soil surface to protect it and gradually improve it over time.

Mulching

Any areas of bare soil should be covered – either with living plants or with organic mulches.

Remember, mulches should be chosen with reference to the plants already growing in the area.

Generally, the best time to add a mulch is in the spring, though mulches can be added at any time of the year.

If you are sheet mulching around existing plants, there is one important thing to remember – keep the mulch away from the trunks or stems of the plants.

Mulch piled around the base of plants can cause them to rot.

hands placing straw on an existing garden bed

Heavier mulches with woody material are best restricted to perennial shrubs and trees, since woody material will sequester nitrogen (one of the essential plant nutrients) as it breaks down.

Though you can add woody material as part of a mixed mulch as long as there is also plenty of nitrogen-rich material to provide the additional nitrogen required.

It is often a good idea to grow plants that provide you with materials for mulches.

Many plants grow quickly and are good at accumulating certain specific nutrients.

Plants that are good at gathering certain nutrients are called dynamic accumulators. [source]

comfrey foliage covering a large area

These can be chopped and dropped as mulches around existing plants.

But the most important resource to have in a no dig garden is a good quality compost and of course, it is much cheaper, easier and more eco-friendly if you make your own.

Maintaining A No Dig Garden

person lifting blue bucket filled with shredded cedar wood chips

Once you have created a no dig gardening area, maintenance is all about keeping the soil covered with plants and mulches and building up new layers of organic matter over the area over time.

Usually, mulches will be replenished each spring, just before the start of the main growing season – compost will often be added when switching out crops in rotation.

Other mulches may also be added for specific purposes and at specific times.

Placing a mulch of potassium-rich comfrey leaves around tomatoes when they begin to set fruit is one example.

Weeding

woman with curly hair weeding a no dig garden covered in straw

Weeding is much reduced in a no dig garden, since mulches suppress weed growth.

And since the soil is not disturbed, fewer weed seeds are exposed to the light and germinate.

But you may well still need to weed here and there in a no dig garden.

Weeds are usually lightly hoed, or pulled by hand little and often.

Planting Consistency

Remember that it is always best to keep living plants in the soil as much as possible.

This means thinking about successional sowing throughout the growing season, and about placing cover crops or green manures in the ground over the winter months or during gaps in rotation.

No dig gardening is a great choice for any organic garden.

There is of course more to learn, but this beginner’s guide should help you get started in your garden.

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