A no-dig vegetable garden is the easiest way to grow your own, delicious food.
It's so simple to set up and your soil will never be healthier.
A no-dig vegetable garden sounds pretty good, right? A vegetable patch with no back-breaking digging work. It’s as easy as it sounds too, but first I think it helps to understand what’s behind, actually what’s under a successful garden bed.
The first thing to understand is that healthy soil is a living thing. Woven in between organic materials, sand, silt, and clay is a bustling, thriving environment of life.
Worms, insects, bacteria, fungi, algae, and many more microorganisms are hard at work in your soil. This soil life, in a nutshell, is responsible for breaking down and decomposing organic material which in turn feeds plants. They eat, excrete, reuse, and recycle.
This busy ecosystem underground is made up of carefully constructed frameworks and a myriad of symbiotic relationships. These organisms underground can barely be seen but the amount of work they do is astronomical.
Now you know a little more about what goes on underground and how complex ‘soil’ actually is. Keep this in mind next time you are in your garden. Under your feet is an entire world of activity. This is where ‘no-dig’ gardening comes in.
Why shouldn't you dig?
In your soil, not only are there billions of different organisms but there are also many layers of soil. Most of the organisms live and reproduce in the top layer of soil. This is the layer made up of all the organic waste. They have created their habitats full of intricate channels and frameworks.
If one was to dig in this, it completely destroys that part of the underground ecosystem. Frameworks are ripped apart. Organisms that live in a lower layer of soil are brought to the top layer. Organisms that live in the top layer are dug into a layer further down. Digging and flipping clumps of soil causes underground havoc.
A no-dig vegetable garden on the other hand is one constructed with layers of organic matter placed on top of the soil. It’s a garden bed that relies on nature to do what nature does best. Decompose, reuse and recycle.
Where can you make a no-dig garden?
A no-dig vegetable garden bed can be made directly on top of the ground you wish to plant in. I follow a process of layering organic materials such as compost, seaweed, aged manure, worm casting, and straw.
The initial bottom layer of paper or cardboard blocks sunlight to stop the weeds from growing through. Over time this lasagna-layered bed decomposes and merges together to create rich dark soil teeming with life.
Preparing the garden bed
The beauty of no-dig gardening is you can start as big or as small as you like. If you begin with an initial small space, it's very easy to expand it later on.
Find a spot
First, find your ideal spot. Ideally, it is one that gets at least 8 hours a day and is sheltered from the wind, however, sometimes you just have to work with what you've got!
A less sunny section can be a perfect space for leafy greens, while a windy section can be planted around with shrubs to create a windbreak
If the grass or weeds are long, mow them. You can leave the clippings on the ground.
Mark out the area
Roughly mark out your area. Lay down layers of newspaper or cardboard about ½cm thick, making sure it overlaps the edges where you have marked out. This is to stop weeds from creeping in around the edges.
If you’re after a neat look, border your garden bed with untreated wood slabs, or pavers.
Water the newspaper or cardboard well. This added moisture will help speed up the decomposition.
On top of this paper layer, add a generous, thick layer of good-quality compost and other organic material such as aged manure, grass clippings, chopped-up seaweed, old coffee grounds, and worm castings.
This layer of fresher ‘green’ organic waste will provide nitrogen when it breaks down, and it helps to bulk out the bed.
Cover this with a layer of mulch which will provide some carbon as it breaks down. You can use dead leaves, leaf mold, shredded paper, wood shavings, or straw. This layer helps to bulk out the bed, especially if you don't have access to a whole heap of compost.
Repeat with another layer of compost and green organic waste. At this point, the bed will be between 10-20 cm thick depending on the layers used. It will sink over time and that's fine.
You can plant directly into this bed now. When planting seedlings, create a hollow in the soil and place the seedling in. Firmly pat the soil around the seedling.
To sow seeds, gently rake over the last layer of compost to create a finer tilth. Sow the seeds in and cover sparingly with compost, a light mulch, or a wet burlap sack (though remove the sack as the seeds germinate.).
If your section has some really persistent weeds or grasses, a slightly different initial approach may be necessary.
First, cover the area with an old wool carpet or durable black plastic. Leave this covering on for about 6 months to stop the sunlight coming through. After 6 months remove the covering. The roots of the weeds should be visible and you can remove all those that you see. Then, set up the no-dig bed the same way as described above.
Invasive weeds will probably grow back but less so than they were and they can be maintained by hand weeding. Planting out the bed well will help stop weeds too.
Maintaining an existing bed
Once you've decided to embark on a no-dig gardening journey, it's very easy to maintain. As the layers decompose, they will sink and compact. A fresh layer of compost and/or aged manure is only needed once or twice a year, but you can keep adding organic matter via a chop and drop method.
When removing spent plants, chop them at the base. Don't rip the rootball out of the soil. By keeping the roots in the soil you're keeping the food source for the microorganisms.
Unless the plant was diseased, it can be chopped up and allowed to decompose right where it is, in situ. Spent plants make a great green mulch layer to add to the soil. It is a beautiful cycle of growing, harvesting, and returning the plant to the soil.
Crop rotation is important to keep your soil healthy. It ensures your soil is not depleted in any nutrients and keeps pathogens at bay by changing up what is growing.
Does no-dig gardening really work?
Yes, 100% it does, and extremely well at that!
Hi Eilen, love your site. Your lovely garden seems to have lots of self sown vegetables (I think). I assume means they are coming up in the same beds as previous years.
What do you reckon about crop rotation? Is it necessary?
Hey! Thanks so much! I try and practice it a bit in my main gardens (heavy feeders, followed by legumes and then light feeders), and I try to keep a big of a gap between planting the same crop twice there to avoid those really nasty soil diseases like clubroot. But that being said, in the areas that are a bit wilder, I definitely do just let things grow where they like and self-seed!
Thanks for sharing all your knowledge! Does a no-dig garden follow the same process if planting flower beds?