Do you have a spot where nothing (but weeds) will grow? Do you have a patch of lawn you’d rather use for growing food? No-dig gardening may be the answer.
Digging out a lawn is hard work, and it damages the living things that help soil stay healthy. Areas of ground that regularly fail to support plant life often have poor soil structure and are lacking beneficial soil microorganisms. No-dig gardening uses layers of organic material to create the conditions needed for worms and other invertebrates, plant roots, and soil microorganisms, to transform a barren or compacted piece of ground into a friable, fertile place to grow healthy food.
No-dig gardening is the opposite of traditional cultivation. For thousands of years, we have drilled holes, cut furrows, and plowed up the land we use to grow food. Traditional cultivation provides many benefits. It hides crop seeds from birds and other seed eaters, removes perennial weed roots, exposes pest eggs and larvae to predators, and it loosens the soil (sort of).
Unfortunately, traditional cultivation also has a bad side. All that digging increases topsoil loss due to erosion, disturbs beneficial soil microorganisms, worsens compacted soil, reduces water absorption and retention, and brings dormant weed seeds to the surface, where they then germinate. We counteract these negatives with the addition of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and more water.
All those chemicals and disruptions are creating problems, and we need sustainable solutions. No-dig gardening may be one of those solutions.
Natural processes that have evolved over millions of years rarely result in furrows being dug in the ground. Instead, leaves, seeds, flowers, fruit, blood, urine, feces, and dead insects and animals all fall to the ground and lay on the surface. This mix is then walked on, blown around, and rained on until it is ground into tiny bits. These tiny bits of organic material are then pulled into the soil by worms and other invertebrates, and gazillions of microorganisms, that all convert organic matter into mineral elements plants need to grow and thrive. These processes also create soil with important spaces, called macropores and micropores, that allow the soil to breathe, and make room for water and roots to move freely. This nurtures soil microbes, which generate biologically active enzymes, vitamins, antibiotics, and glomalin (the glue that holds soil particles together). [Did you know that plants release one-third of all the organic matter they generate through their roots, to attract and feed nearby soil microbes? Pretty cool, eh?]
So, maybe we don’t need to dig to be able to garden…
How to no-dig gardening works
Clearly, if you are going to plant a bare root tree, you need to dig a hole. But, if you have a patch of ground that you want to convert into a garden bed, digging is not necessary in most cases. Instead of digging up weeds and existing, unwanted plants, you simply smother them with a 3 to 4” layer of organic material, be it compost, aged manure, wood chips, or whatever you have handy.
By blocking the sunlight, most annual weeds will die. In doing so, they and the mulch add nutrients to the soil and improve soil structure and texture.
Garden plants are then installed in this layer of nutrient-rich, friable mulch. Over time, more mulch and other organic materials are added on top. This is why no-dig gardening is also called sheet mulching, sheet composting, or lasagne gardening, because organic matter is simply added in layers over time, without digging any of it in. Like other gardening methods, no-dig gardening has its pros and cons.
Benefits of no-dig gardening
First, let’s face it, digging is work. If your soil is heavy clay, like mine used to be, it’s damn near impossible to break ground in summer without power tools. In addition to saving your back, no-dig gardening leaves the complex world of soil life alone, to do it’s thing. This means beneficial fungi and bacteria, worms, and other invertebrates can go about their business, eating and pooping, unmolested, converting organic matter into plant food, and improving soil structure and texture as they go.
This is an excellent way to put those autumn leaves, and all that yard and kitchen waste to good use. Placing all that organic matter on top, rather than digging it in, reduces the number of weeds you have to deal with, and it encourages worms to come up to the surface and grab a bite before heading back down to safety. All that worm traffic helps aerate the soil.
No-dig gardening reduces erosion. Every time you dig or plow, you are exposing more soil surface area to sun, wind, and rain, which can lead to erosion. Over time, this exposed area develops a protective crust that repels water, interfering with the absorption of rain and irrigation water.
No-dig gardening also reduces soil compaction. Here me out on this: as you rototill, dig, or plough the soil, one layer gets churned up and aerated. Below that level, however, everything gets compressed, potentially creating hardpan, or plow pan, an impenetrable barrier to delicate roots.
So, why wouldn’t you want to try no-dig gardening?
Drawbacks to no-dig gardening
The first downside to no-dig gardening is that a lot of mulch and compost are needed on a regular basis. If you’re like me and raise your own chickens, this is not a problem. Or, if you live near a stable, manure is readily available, just be sure to age it first. If you have seriously compacted soil, no-dig gardening can and will, eventually, improve soil structure and texture enough to make it easier for plant roots, but it will take some time. [One of the easiest ways to reduce soil compaction in the garden is to install designated paths. This is true regardless of what gardening method you use.] Finally, because decomposition is occurring all around your garden plants, you may find that snail and slug, sowbug, and gopher populations skyrocket. While they are there to eat (and breakdown) all that compost, they may find your lettuce and young seedlings irresistible.
How to create a no-dig garden patch
If you want to try no-dig gardening, start with a small patch. First, water the area well. If there are any large, perennial weeds present, cut them off at ground level and cover the area with a thick layer of coarse wood mulch. Water the area again. Then, cover your patch lasagne-style with layers of aged compost or manure, straw, mulch, and other organic material, water it, and let it settle for a few days. While it may take a year or more for the benefits of no-dig gardening to fully take effect, you can plant large, spreading plants, such as pumpkins or squash in this patch right away, assuming its the right time of year. As the organic matter breaks down, simply add more layers on top and let nature do all the work. I use this method in my raised beds, adding organic material as a repeated top dressing.
Once your no-dig garden is established, you can install new plants by simply clearing an opening with a dibble, your hand, or other garden tool, and water around it. No-dig gardening may not be the cure-all to your back and garden problems, but it is certainly worth a try!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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