Building Soil Over Winter- No dig garden beds

A vegetable plot built from layers of mulch and compost, where nature does all the hard work. Too good to be true or a dream come true?

I side with the latter, I am a major fan of ‘No Dig’ garden beds.

What exactly is a no dig garden bed?

It’s a garden bed that relies on nature to do what nature does best. It’s made with layers of mulches and compost that whilst decomposing, encourage the growth of worms and millions of microorganisms that benefit plant growth.

When you physically dig up a garden you disturb the amazing frameworks underground that are built by these organisms, as well bringing up buried weed seeds that will start growing. A no-dig garden eliminates this.

My soil is hard clay, will this still work?

Yes, it will, but time is a factor. Luckily nature has some helping hands for you in the form of worms.

Earthworms are amazing, a gardener’s best friend really. The larger amount of earthworms you have, the better your soil. These wonderful little creatures turn over and aerate your soil brilliantly, whilst simultaneously excreting worm castings which are bursting with nutrients. You can encourage more worms by adding manure and compost to the layers in your bed.

When should I make a no-dig garden bed?

You can make one any time of the year but I think autumn is the ideal season. Starting this garden bed in autumn means over the winter, all the layers will start breaking down in time for you to use it in spring.

If you’re not using your garden bed straight away, plant green crop over the bed as these plants have long roots that will grow down and help break up the soil, whilst also providing a cover to stop weeds from growing.

Preparing Your No-Dig Bed

First, find a spot that will get lots of sunshine, especially in spring and summer. Weed eat or mow the little section first if the grass is long.

Then lay out layers of newspaper or cardboard about 1cm thick, making sure it overlaps the edges where you have marked out. If you’re after a neat look, border your garden bed with untreated wood slabs, or pavers. Make sure there is a bit of extra cardboard around the edges, that overlap the vegetable plot you have marked out. This is to stop weeds from creeping an around the edges.

Water the newspaper or cardboard, then cover with a layer of mulch. The mulch can be anything such as leaves, grass clippings, leaf mould straw or hay. Lay on a generous layer of this mulch.

On top of the mulch, add a layer of compost and other organic material such as aged manure, chopped up seaweed, old coffee grounds etc.  All this will provide nourishment for worms and microorganisms, who will help break down everything for you and turn it all into rich soil.

Repeat these layers at least once more, though feel free to do more layers for a higher bed.

Now the worms and microorganisms can get to work, breaking down and enriching the soil without any hard graft from you. You can plant straight into a bed like this.

If you are planning on not using this bed for the winter, sow over a green crop. This will stop weeds from growing in your bed and protect the soil while it all breaks down. In spring, this green crop can be chopped down and used as a mulch around new spring seedlings.

Difficult Weeds

If your section has some really persistent weeds such as couch grass or dock, a no-dig garden bed as I described above may not get rid of these completely.

For weeds like that, you can prep the no-dig bed the same way as described above but instead of planting in it or sowing a green crop, cover it with black plastic. Leave this plastic on for about 4 months. The worms and microorganisms will be able to work even faster with the aid of the heat that the black plastic will give the soil. There is also no chance of sunlight seeping through and helping weed seeds germinate.

After 4 months, you’ll have a completely prepped garden bed ready to plant into.



3 comments / Add your comment below

  1. What a wonderful idea! And the way you have explained it, makes it easy to make this no-dig garden happen 🙂
    Thank you!

    1. Lupins, buckwheat, mustard… Or any legume,which then provides you food and nitrogen for the soil. Over winter you could plant peas or broad beans as the green crop. 🙂

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