Before we get into what no-dig gardening means, let’s investigate the following scenario. This coming spring, you hire someone to rototill your vegetable garden. The soil is rich and brown. A perfect blank canvas for this years garden! But, in a matter of weeks, the inevitable happens. Tiny weeds come growing in like a carpet. What can be done? More tilling? Hours of weeding? These are some of the reasons why I’ve begun to investigate no-dig gardening!
I had heard about gardening without work years ago. I even have Ruth Stouts book Gardening Without Work. Her method involved mulching with old hay. She had some fantastic ideas. It’s worth looking up some of her old interviews. After helping the local Seed Saving group mulch a garden in this way, I didn’t like the hay method because it seemed to harbored snakes. Not my thing!
A friend gave me Lee Reichs book Weedless Gardening. His strategy calls for more mulching. Definitely some great ideas for taking a lot of the backbreaking work out of growing vegetables. I have even used grass clipping for moisture control. But, I hear what you are saying, aching backs and worn out knees just go hand-in-hand with gardening. Don’t worry, there is still much to do. Just no digging!
This spring, I was introduced to the term no-dig gardening. I really didn’t understand because how do you have a garden if you can’t dig in the compost? Or how do you harvest potatoes and parsnips? I always thought that any ground good for planting had to be cultivated as far down as possible. I had never subscribed to idea of double digging, too much work. Then I began thinking about my own beds. Raised beds that I occasionally top dressed with manure or compost. Two of my beds were built on top of rocky ground. With a cardboard layer spread out to squelch any grass beneath, layers of loam and compost made my two above ground beds. So essentially, besides mixing in compost, I was doing a lot of the things recommended in a no-dig garden.
As I became more interested in no-dig gardening, I decided to start reading a book by no-dig expert Charles Dowding, How To Create A New Vegetable Garden. The book meticulously chronicles how to start beds without digging in at all. Using layers of materials to achieve fertile planting ground for all sorts of flowers, herbs and vegetables. Trial gardens demonstrate side by side comparisons of tilled gardens next to no-dig beds. Amazingly there is little difference in productivity. Vivid photos and commentary on how he transformed the abandoned gardens at his Somerset, England property called Homeacres. Mr. Dowding came upon the idea many decades ago after tilling up a garden and then he was faced with a question: Would he till it again next year? What would happen if it was just mulched? This was the start of the no-dig garden. He has used this way of gardening at many properties.
One of the negatives of tilling is that the disturbed soil is a perfect place for weed seeds to germinate. Tilling can also mix in weed roots and get them mixed deeper into your garden. I tend to fight this no-dig gardening idea because nothing looks better than freshly cultivated soil. But, I’m trying to rethink some of the traditional methods. We are forced to think that if we want any productivity we must break our backs to get it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty to do in the garden. Yearly top dressing of aged manure, starting new beds, harvesting and watering. The idea is that you don’t have to dig everything to get your garden to produce. Have I lost you yet?
Raised Bed Gardens
If you already have raised bed gardens, no-dig is easy to incorporate. Simply top-dress your garden beds every season with well aged manure or compost. Most raised beds don’t need much cultivation anyway. Any small amount of weeds can be removed while you are working.
When plants are ready to be removed, a twist and pull action is recommended. Most crops do not not need a shovel for harvest but a garden fork may be used for vegetables like parsnips.
Traditional Garden Beds
To create a new garden bed, blocking out grass and weeds is a top priority. Boards, tarps or cardboard can be put down in advance to kill off vegetation. When you are ready to start, add layers of cardboard and compost right on top of the ground. If the garden has paths, use cardboard. A thick layer of wood chips would be a great addition.
Creating new flowers beds can be done in the same way. Permanent flower gardens love yearly applications of compost.
In The Greenhouse
You may want to consider using no-dig if you have a greenhouse. There are enough new nutrients in the organic matter near the top of the soil where the crops need it most. Such fertile gardens are a nice home for worms and beneficial insects.
When I was in the Master Gardener course, the instructors where always talking about tilling being a necessary evil in the garden. Chopping up worms and destroying soil structure. Now I’m beginning to see how gardening can be done in a more natural way. It just makes sense!
This may be a foreign way to garden for you. I know at first I had trouble wrapping my mind around it. There are many of you out there that I know struggle with getting your garden going and have a hard time producing vegetables. Just consider what less work in the garden could mean for you and your subsequent harvest. We all have different ways of gardening but we never stop learning! I’m sure this is not the last you will hear about no-dig gardening. Thanks for checking out Everlongardener this week! Remember that you can subscribe for free in sidebar!