No dig gardening is an old approach to cultivation favored by many organic gardeners (I’ll share the step-by-step in a minute). It can be similar to a raised bed garden in the sense that you can set up your site on top of the existing soil without really working into the ground.
However, many gardeners use these no dig garden sites as a technique to utilize the site for a season, immediately reaping seasonal benefits (crops) while enriching the garden site for the long haul as well.
No dig gardening basically consists of adding multiple layers of organic materials on top of the soil so that over time, you will have put together a growing environment that’s loaded with nutrients for your plants, vegetables, fruits or herbs, thus making almost every location suitable for growing plants.
No dig gardens are by far the quickest, easiest way to get home grown vegetables on to your dinner table. There are many ways you can implement a no-dig garden. One way is to lay out cardboard or newspaper, a generous portion of mulch, and then set out transplants.
Another technique is to plant your seedlings straight into a bag of topsoil prepared by poking drainage holes in the ground side and slitting open the top. A good technique for a large area is to take bales of straw and enclose the area with them, using soil, compost and straw to fill it in.
Wood can be used to make smaller frames which you then fill with topsoil and compost materials. Other materials on hand could mimic a more ‘traditional’ frame as well, such as heavy brush, roughly split or recycled wood to form a rough barrier.
If you have planned ahead, an effective technique to use is to make a small compost pile or series of compost piles over each site adding some layers of soil into the compost for root stability. Once you get it set up, your no dig garden should not need more than a few hours of care each week.
Some of these techniques such as the compost pile and straw bale beds can require large amounts of water and mulch to work, but if used as an opening act to improve the soil of the site for the future, can help provide a jump start to rich soil for future crops. The organisms attracted to the no dig garden environment benefit the soil underneath in a top-down manner.
8 Steps to a No Dig Garden
No Dig Garden Step #1 – Prepare the Area
If your no dig garden is going over the top of grass or other weeds, it is a good idea to mow the area first to get rid of any big woody weeds and excess growth. You could also use animals, such as chickens or guinea pigs, to do this work for you.
Alternatively, you could kill the weeds by placing black plastic temporarily over the area for several weeks.
No Dig Garden Step #2 – Soak Your Newspaper
Start by soaking your newspaper. A convenient place to do this is in your wheelbarrow. If you don’t have a big enough container, you can always wait until you have layered the newspaper on the ground and thoroughly soak with a hose.
Best to do this on a day that’s not too windy though so you don’t have newspaper blowing all around your yard.
No Dig Garden Step #3 – Water the ground
By watering the ground, you will encourage the microorganisms and worms to come to the surface. If you are placing your no-dig garden over grass or other weeds, watering will encourage growth.
But after the newspapers are put on top, the weeds won’t get any light and so they will die quicker because all the energy has just been put into growing new leaves.
No Dig Garden Step #4 – Layer Your Newspaper
Lay your wet newspaper over the garden bed area, completely covering the ground, making sure the pages overlap by at least 2-4 inches (5-10cm). Make sure that you extend the sheets to go under the garden bed walls so that weeds will not be able to grow up in the gaps. The picture above shows this step half completed.
If you are building your no dig garden on top of existing gardens with good tilth, you newspaper layer need only be about one or two sheets thick. If you are building over lawn you will need your newspaper layer to be about 6 sheets thick.
If you are placing your garden beds over particularly horrific weeds, you could use cardboard from flattened boxes. Make sure you remove all tape first. You could alternatively use old carpet but make sure that it’s all natural, including the backing since this disintegrates.
Also be careful when using carpet since much carpet has been treated to make it fire retardant and insect repellent and so therefore won’t be organic.
No Dig Garden Step #5 – Build Your Garden Walls
Build your garden walls out of you chosen materials on top of the wet newspaper. We used railways sleepers here. For more ideas on what to use to make the walls, see this article*WF48.
No Dig Garden Step #6 – Fill with Animal Manure
We are blessed to live near some racehorse stables which get cleaned out every day and the bags of horse manure are placed out on the path to be collected for free.
You can use manure from other animals instead or as well, but some, for example chook or pig manure, are very hot and would burn your young plants. It is best to compost these with added grass clippings first.
Fill your garden bed almost to the top with this manure, along with any compost you have, and spread out with a rake or garden fork.
No Dig Garden Step #7 – Add Layer of Mulch
Now add a thick layer of mulch on top, such as straw or sugarcane mulch, and water well.
No Dig Garden Step #8 – Plant Vegetable Seedlings
Now the really fun part – planting your seedlings! Push aside the mulch and make a hand-sized hole in the manure. Fill this hole with potting mix or fine compost. Then plant your seedling into this.
Pull the mulch back around the seedling. It is best to plant seedlings in this new bed but you could use instead plant some of the bigger seeds (such as peas or broad beans) straight in place.