What exactly is "No Dig" gardening? It is a method of growing crops without ever breaking ground. It is achieved by adding layers on top of the ground, much like in a woodland, where layer upon layer of leaves and plant debris build up and compost down on the forest floor. The result is a richly organic, spongy soil, teaming with life.
Benefits of No Dig gardening
When ground is dug, the soil matrix and structure are disturbed and destroyed. Thousands of weed seeds are brought to the surface. Nature doesn't like a void, and will quickly try to recover by stimulating weeds to grow to protect the soil from blowing away. If left uncultivated, the soil has less need to recover and, therefore, there are less weeds.
If we keep adding more organic matter to the top of the bed, it keeps out the light that the weed seeds need to germinate. Any weed seeds that blow in on top and germinate, can easily be taken out with a light hoeing, or by hand pulling. Weeds are very easy to pull, because the soil is so fluffy.
The wonderful thing is that it doesn't matter what kind of soil you start with (heavy clay; sandy; alkaline; acidic, too wet or too dry and hard packed. You create the type of soil you want on top and plants will thrive.
Undisturbed soil is full of beneficial fungi, bacteria and microbes that help the plant find nutrients in the soil. It has a direct beneficial affect on the gardener, as well, by feeding their gut through the cultivated produce. And that's not only for people who eat their own vegetables, either. Whenever my mom used to see another mother get upset about their baby getting dirt in their mouths, she would always say, "You've got to eat a peck of dirt before you're two to be healthy!" Turns out she was right! Just getting our hands in the dirt transfers billions of beneficial microbes to our hands, which eventually gets to our insides, one way or another.
There are all kinds of small and microscopic beneficial critters in the soil, as well. Some, like earth worms, eat and digest the organic matter and turn it to compost, aerate the soil by making tunnels as they eat, and by making the best fertilizer with their poo (castings). Worms will take the compost deep into the subsoil and also bring minerals up to the top layers and deposit them with their castings. There are lots of of other tiny fauna that do the same. Some, like nematodes, feed on other insects and control pests.
Every time we till or dig the soil, we disturb the delicate balance that nature so skillfully created for us. The more we feed the organisms, the bigger and happier the plants will be. It's so simple.
Building a no dig planting bed is so easy, too. Here's how:
Carefully pick the spot where you want your garden. Research the plants you desire and find out what their needs are. Do they need full sun all day? Or dappled shade? Or do they require full shade?
Now, there are two ways you can make a planting bed. You can start with pre-made compost, either homemade or purchased from the garden center, or you can do the "lasagna" method, which I will explain later.
Here is what you will need:
Cardboard. Lots of cardboard. Make sure all the plastic tape and labels are removed. It also needs to be the plain brown kind. No shiny stuff. It needs to break down eventually and become part of the soil. You can also use old cotton or wool rugs, blankets or heavy fabric. Just make sure they are 100% natural fiber, so they will break down over time.
Compost. Homemade or purchased. Enough to make your bed at least six inches deep.
A raised bed frame is optional. If you want to build a frame, make sure it's made of pressure treated lumber and rust proof screws. Railroad ties or garden sleepers work really well, too.
Plastic or metal edging, also optional.
Some kind of natural mulch. Straw, grass clippings, wood chips, dead leaves, or more compost.
Tape measure, stakes and string.
Plants or seeds.
Before you start, mow the area as closely as possible, then measure out your garden. Mark with stakes and string. Wet down the ground really well. This is the time to install edging, if you are going to use it. It will help keep the grass from creeping back into to the bed.
Lay cardboard down on top of grass, weeds or bare ground. There is no need to remove anything, unless it the area is full of woody plants or brush. They must be dug out first. They may be able to push though the cardboard. Make sure that any slits or holes in and around the cardboard are covered. It's fine to use multiple layers. Wet down the cardboard thoroughly.
Then just pile your compost on top, water it in and let it settle for a couple of days. If you make it early enough in the year, cover with a tarp or black plastic. Any weed seeds that decide to germinate will die from lack of light. After that you can plant to your heart's content, following the instructions on the seed packet or plant label. Once seeds have germinated and are a two or three inches tall, add one or two inches of mulch to conserve water and keep any weed seeds that may have blown in from germinating.
Any weeds that do appear, will be seedlings and will be easy to eradicate with light hoeing. I prefer to use a stirrup type hoe or a blade type. Both will slide under the mulch, slicing off the weeds, without disturbing whatever mulch is on top.
You will find that your plants will thrive and you will save a tremendous amount of water. You will want to water frequently when plants are young, but once established, watering deeply once a week should be enough. I can get away with watering only once a month here in very dry and hot Colorado.
When the season is over, just twist off or cut the stems from the roots of the plants, leaving the roots to rot and feed the soil organisms over the winter. Add another couple of inches of compost to the top and do the same in the spring. It doesn't have to be a lot. Just enough to kick start and replenish the garden with new microbes.
Believe it or not, once established, your garden won't need to be fertilized at all, except for maybe a foliar spray of compost tea every once in a while.
Gabbie, the exterminator.
The Lasagna Method:
The Lasagna method is just like it sounds. It's building a bed using layers of different materials to produce compost as things grow! Or, you can start it in the fall and let it winter over to get a good start in the composting process before spring planting.
Abby and Sundance, my principal compost manufacturing team!
You will need two different types of materials: "Browns" or Carbon (dry, dead plant material; cardboard, newspaper, straw), and "Greens" or Nitrogen (fresh green plant material, trimmings, fresh grass clippings, animal manures, vegetable kitchen scraps, coffee grounds).
Be careful of kitchen scraps, however. They can attract mice, voles, rats and raccoons, which can either eat your plants or dig up your garden and make a mess. Stick to raw, leafy green stuff, peelings, and veg. Never, ever, add meat or oils!
Start with a layer of cardboard, then add alternating layers of greens and browns, each about about three inches thick, watering between each layer, and topping it off with four inches of good compost to plant in. The mound should be at least a foot, or more, in depth. It will decrease in volume significantly as it breaks down.
So that's it! An easy and mostly weed free way of gardening. Now you can really enjoy the fun part of gardening, instead of the dreading the toil. At the same time, you can feel proud that you are rebuilding and preserving our precious resources.
Be sure to follow along as this little plot develops throughout the season. I will walk you through it, step by step!
Starting this week, I will be adding a weekly blog post called "Gardeners Grow Together", for those of you gardening at home. I will include tips on growing flowers, as well as vegetables, of which I have many years experience. It will keep us all on track. Including me!
Valmont Valley Farm
Where Beautiful Magic is Always in Bloom
If you would like to join in supporting my flower farm and receive beautiful bouquets weekly, please sign up for my Flower CSA! Get all the details here!
I would love to hear your comments on my blog posts. Please leave your comments below.
If you find this information inspirational or helpful, I would love it if you would share it with your friends!