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, alage 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.
In your soil, not only are there billions of different organisms, there are also many layers to the 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 garden on the other hand is a 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.
A no-dig 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 to block sunlight and to stop the weeds growing through. Over time this lasagna layered bed decomposes and merges together to create a rich dark soil, teeming with life.
Preparing Your No-Dig 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.
First find your ideal spot. Ideally it is one that gets at least 8 hours a day and sheltered from 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.
Roughly mark out your area. Lay down layers of newspaper or cardboard about 1cm 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 material such as dead leaves, leaf mould, 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 such as couch grass or dock, a slightly different initial approach may be necessary.
For weeds like that, you can prep the no-dig bed the same way as described above, water it well, then cover it with a tarpaulin, old carpet or black plastic. Leave this covering on for about 4 months. The worms and microorganisms will be able to work even faster with the aid of the heat that the covering will help trap in the soil. There is also no sunlight seeping through and helping weed seeds germinate.
After 4 months, the bed will be ready to be planted into. Invasive weeds like couch grass will probably grow back but less so than they were and they can be maintained by hand weeding. Densely planting out the bed 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. Read more about crop rotation here.
Have you got a no-dig vegetable garden? Tag and show me on instagram! @home_grown_happinessnz