No Dig Gardening, Sustainable Gardening With Less Effort


Everyone agrees that gardening would be way more fun, and many people would be more inclined to take up gardening if there wasn’t the need for all that back-breaking hard work such as digging… It may be a surprise to many people, but digging IS NOT a necessary part of gardening at all!

So how did we get into the habit of digging up our gardens in the first place? Basically it’s just old tradition. Historically people have treated their gardens like miniature farms, people looked at how huge areas of land were farmed , and then did the same on a smaller scale, because that’s what they knew how to do.

You may be asking “Why do farms till the soil anyway?” The answer is because tillage (i.e. ploughing) helps loosen compacted soil which makes it easier to plant into, rips up weeds, and buries the scraps left over from harvesting.

This then raises the logical question, why is the soil compacted in the first place if it’s constantly tilled? There are several causes re-compaction of tilled soil, namely animal-powered and mechanised farm equipment, such as tractors and oxen, people walking on the soil and rain impacting on bare soil!

Before we can understand the reasons for not digging soil, it’s important to understand what soil is, otherwise it’s not clear what we’re dealing with.

Why We Shouldn’t Dig the Garden!

The soil is not just ‘dirt’ to anchor plant and tree roots, though that’s how many people treat it! The soil is a very complex ecosystem, teeming with very diverse life.

In fact, the soil is more abundant with life and more complex than any other ecosystem above the ground. There are about 50 billion microbes in 1 tablespoon of soil. By comparison, the human population numbers just over 7 billion currently. These organisms include Bacteria, Actinomycetes, Fungi, Yeast, Protozoa, Algae and Nematodes. Furthermore there are arthropods and insects in there as well, including earthworms. That’s a lot of life in the soil!

So what are all these critters doing in the soil? The soil bacteria form a beneficial relationship with plant roots, and soil fungi form a beneficial relationship with tree roots, helping them access nutrients. The soil organisms carry out the important functions of nutrient cycling, improvement of soil structure to aid water and air movement through the soil and also the control of diseases and enhancement of plant growth. Most of the soil fungi occupy the top 15cm (6”) of the soil, while the rest of the organisms live at all different levels.

Digging and turning over the soil exposes a very delicate ecosystem to the air which dries it out, and to the ultraviolet rays of the sun, which sterilize the soil – killing the soil organisms. The soil loses a lot of its nutrients, such as carbon and nitrogen. It also loses a lot of its organic matter, and as a consequence, does not retain water as well. The delicate soil structure is destroyed, compaction of soil occurs, leading to hardpan formation, and reduced water infiltration in the soil, and more surface runoff, which increases soil erosion.

Tillage is the term used to describe the agricultural preparation of the soil by digging it and turning it over. So why are the farmers so fond of this destructive practice? Well, they found that when you first dig up the soil, fertility goes up, and plants grow better. The reason is that the tiny little bodies of all the soil organisms that have just been killed by digging break down, releasing their nutrients to the soil. The catch is, it only works once, and then your soil is sterile and the plants are worse off, and they become more prone to diseases, and require even more fertilizer than they normally would. To further compound the problem, chemical fertilizers are pumped into the dying soil, which effectively kill off what soil life is left. Yes, chemical fertilizers kill soil life! It’s really a fool’s game to destroy the soil life for a short-lived, once off nutrient boost, which really shows gross ignorance and a complete lack of understanding of soil ecology and what makes plants grow!

That, in a nutshell, is why we don’t dig the soil!

Working With Nature, A Smarter Way to Garden


In Nature, soil does not need to be manually cultivated for spectacular forests to grow. What holds true in Nature also holds true in the garden. In a forest, organic matter in the form of fallen leaves, twigs and branches, annual plants at the end of their yearly cycle and other plants at the end of their lives, are all deposited on the forest floor when they decompose into rich humus.

We can add organic matter directly to the soil surface, such as manure, compost, straw, leaves etc. Garden waste such as prunings from trees and shrubs can be fed into a mulcher to break them down into smaller pieces, and then spread over the soil as a mulch.

Adding a layer of organic matter over the soil, in a layer approximately 5cm-15cm (2”-6”) thick is in effect ‘sheet composting’, where the garden beds become large composting areas. By the action of earthworms, bacteria, fungi and insects, the organic matter is slowly broken down and released into the soil, providing nutrients to the garden. Because the soil is not disturbed, a stable soil ecosystem is created, and plant health is improved. Moisture is also better retained due to the mulching, and the organic matter in the soil works like a sponge to better retain the moisture in the soil. The mulching also prevents soil erosion, stops runoff of rainwater across the surface, and assists the rainwater to percolate into the soil. The earthworms will create channels in the soil, which will help both water and air to penetrate into the soil.

How To Protect the Soil and Reduce Work

With no-dig gardens, the soil is not compacted because it is not walked upon! Stepping on the soil destroys the soils structure by compacting it, preventing air and water penetration to the plants roots, which affects plant health, restricts plant growth and reduces productivity. Paths are constructed for people to walk on, the garden beds are for plants ONLY!!! Don’t mix the two and gardening will be a much more productive and effortless experience.

One thing I haven’t mention so far is that Nature does dig, but not in the way we humans do, but far more efficiently – with earthworms!

Earthworms Dig Better Than Humans!

When there’s digging to be done, let the experts do the work!

Earthworm are Nature’s wonder creatures, they are a tireless army of super-efficient diggers, whose abilities we humans cannot replicate despite all the technology we have available. I keep stressing that Nature does it better than we ever could, but for those who need more convincing, here is the evidence:

  • One hectare of land can support up to 7 million worms, which all collectively weigh 2.4 tonnes, and in favourable conditions they can turn over around 50 tonnes of soil per hectare each year, enough to form a new layer of topsoil 5 mm deep. It has been reported that in one trial worms had built an 18-cm thick topsoil in 30 years.
  • Earthworm burrows aerate the soil and allow the the drainage of water up to 10 times faster than soils without earthworms. Uncultivated soils with high populations of earthworms have up to 6 times greater water infiltration than cultivated soils, which reduce earthworm populations.
  • Worms help plants grow better – worm castings are richer in nutrients than the surrounding soil with phosphorus levels four times higher than the soil and nitrogen that is readily available to plants. Their burrows allow plant roots to reach deeper into the soil to access more water and nutrients. In addition, the burrows also contain nutrient rich worm castings.
  • Earthworms improve soil fertility – in research conducted in New Zealand and Tasmania, the introduction of earthworms into perennial pastures (where there were no earthworms previously) initially increased pasture growth by 70–80%, and increased it by 25% over the long-term. Research in the Netherlands showed increases in pasture growth of 20% and in Ireland increases of 10% were observed. In wheat production research conducted by the CSIRO in Adelaide, glasshouse trials showed and increase of 35%, while paddock trials showed increases between 13% and 75% .(Sources: NSW Department of Primary Industries – “How earthworms can help your soil”, Department of Environment & Primary Industries Victoria – “Worm Wise II”)

This clearly shows us that earthworms can dig a lot more soil than we can in a much more efficient manner, but even more so, they can dig soil in a way that produces many additional benefits. When we dig the soil, we damage it! That should be enough convincing that it’s best to let the worms do their job, and that its in our benefit to build no-dig gardens. So without any further ado, let’s look at what no-dig gardening is all about.

The Technique of No-Dig Gardening Explained

In 1977, Esther Dean, an Australian gardener and author, pioneered the technique commonly referred to as “no dig gardening” with the publishing of her book “No-Dig Gardening and Leaves of Life”. Since that time, countless no-dig gardens have been built worldwide and the technique is thoroughly time-proven and tested. It has proven to be an immensely productive way to grow all manner of trees and plants. In the US, no-dig gardening is often referred to as lasagna gardening.

There are many variations of how we can build a “no dig gardening”, but they all use the same underlying principle, which is soil building. No-dig gardens can be constructed anywhere because this technique creates soil – a rich, dark, healthy, nutrient-filled humus which plants love. They can be constructed over soil, existing lawn or concrete.

As a brief description, the way the technique of no-dig gardening works is that of different organic materials such as pea straw, lucerne, animal manure, finely-chopped prunings, kitchen scraps, compost and laid down in layers over each other to create what is essentially a thick, flat composting system that fills a garden bed. To plant seedlings or plants into such a garden bed, small ‘pockets’ or holes are made that hold as much compost as a small pot that you could grow the plant in, they are then filled with compost, and the plants planted into them. It’s really simple, and the results are incredible. Essentially the no-dig garden is constructed of alternating layers of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials, just like a properly made compost heap.

This diagram shows how a no-dig garden bed is typically built:

No-dig overview

How to Build a No-Dig Garden in Ten Easy Steps

Building a no-dig garden is a very simple technique that doesn’t take very long. I teach no-dig gardening classes where students get to build a no-dig garden for the first time ever, and a small group can easily construct and fully plant up a 1m x 4m (3’ x 12’) no-dig garden in around 30 minutes.

There are two main construction methods for building a no-dig garden:

  1. No dig gardens built on concrete, paved areas or rocky ground.
  2. No dig gardens built on existing garden beds or lawns.

The only difference is that you need to add an extra layer first when building on hard or rocky surfaces.

Here are the step-by step instructions for building a no-dig garden:

Step 1 – Select and Mark Location

No-dig 01

  1. Select a suitable location to construct a no-dig garden bed. Ideally it should be on a fairly level surface, and it should receive 5 hours or more of sunlight each day.You can build the no-dig garden over any surface, over existing soil, lawn, concrete or paved surfaces – the first step of the construction will vary depending on the surface.
  2. Either mark out where the no-dig garden bed will be, and build it without ‘sides ‘ or edging, or construct a raised bed (see article here).

Step 2 – Gather Materials

You will need the following materials:

  • Newspapers or cardboard
  • Animal manure or organic fertilizer
  • Straw bales or lucerne (alfalfa hay) bales or both
  • Compost

Optional materials:

  • Kitchen scraps, worm castings, rock dust

If building on hard or rocky ground, you’ll also need:

  • dry small sticks and branches, old dry leaves
  • dry seaweed (optional)

You will also need the following items:

  • If using cardboard – Bucket of water for soaking cardboard
  • Watering can or hose for watering

Step 3 – Preparing the Ground

No-dig 02

  • If building over an existing garden bed or soil, no additional preparation is required.
  • If building over concrete, paving, rocky ground or other hard surfaces, first lay down a layer of small sticks and branches, twigs and old dry leaves 7-10cm (3”-4”) thick.
    This layer helps with drainage so water doesn’t pool on the hard surface and create a waterlogged soil.You can also add dried seaweed (if you can get it) to this layer.
  • If building over lawn or grass, you can mow the grass very low first, or just leave it. Next, fertilise it with plenty of nitrogen-rich fertiliser (such as blood & bone or manure) and lime, then water it in. The fertiliser will help the grass rot down once it is covered up and buried under all the layers that will go on top of it.

Step 4 – Lay down Newspaper

No-dig 03

  1. Lay down sheets of newspaper in layers approximately 0.5cm thick (approx. 1/4” thick), and overlap the edges by 10-15cm to prevent grass or weeds growing through.
  2. Using a watering can or hose, water the newspaper well.

This newspaper layer will hold moisture and act as a weed barrier. It will gradually break down over time.

If using cardboard, you will need to pre-soak it in a bucket of water first, which is not as easy. The other issue with cardboard is that it contains glue made of borax, so it’s really a second choice.

Use newspapers if they are available, and more importantly, do not use glossy printed paper or office paper, they contain toxic inks and bleaches, something you don’t want going into your food!

Step 5 – Lay down Lucerne

No-dig 04

  1. Lay down a layer of lucerne approximately 10cm (4”) thick over the newspaper.
  2. Using a watering can or hose, water in well.

You can use any other carbon containing material such as peas straw, hay, sugar cane mulch, etc, but lucerne is preferable because it has a higher nitrogen content than the other straw materials, and breaks down more easily. The carbon to nitrogen ration (C:N) for lucerne (alfalfa hay) is 18:1, while the straw is 80:1.

Step 6 – Lay down Manure & Compost

No-dig 05

  1. Sprinkle a thin layer of manure. You can also add compost to create a layer 5cm (2”) thick.
  2. Using a watering can or hose, water in well.

*** NOTE: If you want to add other ingredients such as kitchen scraps, worm castings, or rock dust into your no dig garden, this is the layer you add them to. Just use a thin layer, don’t overdo it! The worm castings and rock dust can also be used in the upcoming higher layers, but kitchen scraps need to be placed in this lower layer only to keep it well buried, this prevents vermin such as rats and mice digging it up to get to it.

Step 7 – Lay down Straw

No-dig 06

  1. Lay down a layer of straw approximately 10cm (4”) thick over the layer of manure or manure/compost.
  2. Using a watering can or hose, water in well.

You can use any carbon containing material here such as peas straw, hay, sugar cane mulch, etc.

Step 8 – Lay down Manure & Compost

No-dig 07

  1. Sprinkle a thin layer of manure. You can also add compost to create a layer 5cm (2”) thick.
  2. Using a watering can or hose, water in well.

*** NOTE: If you want to add other ingredients such as worm castings or rock dust into your no dig garden, you can also add them to this layer.

Step 9 – Lay down Straw

No-dig 08

  1. Lay down another layer of straw approximately 10cm (4”) thick over the layer of manure or manure/compost.
  2. Using a watering can or hose, water in well.

You can use any carbon containing material such as peas straw, hay, sugar cane mulch, etc here.

Step 10 – Make Pockets of Compost in Top Layer and Plant Up

No-dig 09

  1. Make holes in the top layer of straw approximately 10-15cm (4-6”) wide, and equally deep.
  2. Fill with compost.
  3. Plant seeds, seedlings or plants.
  4. Using a watering can or hose, water in well.

You can also add seaweed extract to the water when you water in the seeds/seedlings or plants. Plants really do need more than the basic NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) of chemical fertilizers. Seaweed contains just about every beneficial mineral, including all the trace elements that plants need, and it really helps your plants develop strong, healthy roots.

Now you’ve finished, just step back and admire your newly constructed no-dig garden bed! It’s that easy, and that’s how you build it, in 10 simple steps!

There Are Many Approaches to No-Dig Gardening

The steps above outline just one of the many no-dig gardening ‘formulas’. There are many ways to build no dig gardens, and there are many recipes for what to use for each layer. Some no-dig gardens can be very high and free-standing, while others can be low. They all work because they use the magic natural formula that we also use in composting, alternating layers of carbon-rich materials and nitrogen-rich materials.

So far we’ve only discussed building no-dig gardens as a means of creating new garden beds, but the beauty of this system is that you can also convert existing garden beds to a no-dig system, and it’s even easier.

How to Convert an Existing Garden to a No-Dig Garden

Building new gardens from scratch is one thing, but it doesn’t happen very often. More often we encounter a tired, run-down garden bed where the soil is depleted and compacted, where nothing much grows in it other than weeds. It’s even easier to ‘retrofit’ and existing garden, to renovate it and convert it into a no-dig garden.

You can even use this technique to transform a fully planted garden bed into a no-dig garden, as you’ll simply be laying down a two-layer mulch!

Converting an existing garden bed to a no-dig system involves three basic steps:

Step 1 – Prepare the Soil

No-dig 10

If necessary, loosen compacted soil. If the soil is not compacted, go to Step 2.

You can loosen compacted soil manually with a garden fork, which takes a few minutes, or you can plant ‘green manure’ plants with deep tap roots, which will drill into the compacted soil and break it up. This will take much longer (a few months!) as the plant grows through its growing season. Once the plants starts to flower, it is cut down and the soil level and dropped on the soil surface, with the roots left in the ground – this is “chop & drop”. The roots will then break down and create deep air and water channels, and the soil will be loosened up naturally.

  • Cool Season ‘green manure’ plants which have deep taproots that can be used to break up compacted soil – Fenugreek, Lupins, Woolly Pod vetch
  • Warm Season ‘green manure’ plants which have deep taproots that can be used to break up compacted soil – Lucerne

The most important thing to do is to give an old garden bed a head start, once the soil is loosened, it will never be compacted ever again, because you don’t step in a no-dig garden!!!

To loosen compacted soil, break it up with a garden fork, but don’t turn it over – we’re just trying to make the soil loose and friable here, we’re not trying to kill all the soil ecology, which is what turning the soil does in conventional gardening, and why it’s done!

Once we soil is loosened, and the no-dig garden layers are added, they will start to break down, adding organic matter to the soil, and the earthworms will do all the digging from there on, taking the nice organic matter from the surface and carrying it further into the soil, slowly converting the soil underneath into a rich, dark humus – real soil! remember, humans don’t dig, earthworms do, and they do a much better job than us, so leave the digging to the experts, the earthworms, and save your time and energy!

Step 2 – Lay down Manure & Compost

No-dig 11

  1. Sprinkle a thin layer of manure. You can also add compost to create a layer up 5cm (2”) thick, but a thinner layer is just fine.
    If there are existing plants in the garden bed, keep the materials away from the stems/trunks to avoid ‘collar rot’ – rotting the base of the plant.
    You can also add other ingredients such as worm castings (a rich fertilizer filled with lots of beneficial soil organisms) or rock dust (a slow release source of trace elements and minerals) into this layer.
  2. Using a watering can or hose, water in well.
    You can add seaweed extract to the water, it’s rich in potassium which helps fruiting and flowering, and is loaded with lots of minerals which help the plants develop a strong and healthy root system.

Step 3 – Lay down Straw

No-dig 12

  1. Lay down a layer of straw approximately 10cm (4”) thick over the layer of manure or manure/compost.
    If there are existing plants in the garden bed, keep the mulch away from the stems/trunks to avoid ‘collar rot’ – rotting the base of the plant.
  2. Using a watering can or hose, water in well. You can use seaweed extract with the water once again.

You can use any carbon containing material here such as peas straw, hay, sugar cane mulch, etc.

So, in 3 easy steps, you’ve just converted your existing garden to a no-dig system.

Make sure you don’t step in the garden and compact the soil once again, use paths – garden beds are for plants, paths are for humans! Remember, you and the plants have conflicting needs, they need soft, loose friable soil that they can easily sink their roots into, you want firm stable paths you can walk across that you won’t sink into!

How to Maintain a No-Dig Garden from Season to Season

It’s really easy to maintain a no-dig garden, it’s a quick twice-a-year task!

At the start of spring or autumn, after the previous season’s crops have been harvested and the layers of materials on the soil surface have rotted down, it’s time to add new material to replenish the layers of the no-dig garden.

To replenish the layers of the no-dig garden at the start of spring and autumn:

  1. Add a layer of manure as before (and compost if you wish, which is optional),
  2. Cover the manure/compost layer with a layer of straw
  3. Water it in

That’s all you need to do until the next growing season! Quite simple really!

So, in conclusion, with no-dig gardening, you can reduce your effort and time spent in the garden, save energy and water, maintain a healthy soil ecology, and let Nature do the work. It’s the way Nature does it, and it’s the most sustainable way you can garden!

321 thoughts on “No Dig Gardening, Sustainable Gardening With Less Effort

  1. Angelo, I’m amazed. I’m converting my veggie patch to rased garden beds using a chook tractor to fertilise, etc and I’m doing the no dig system. This weekend I’m planning to convert my apple ‘orchard’ which is surrounded by paths, a chook run and a garage, to a no dig bed. I had a vague idea about how to do it and now – the internet provides!
    I’m using your idea of comfrey around the base of fruit trees – my lime tree is very happy with this arrangement. Keep doing the garden tours; people like me get lots of ideas. Thanks 🙂

    1. Hi Angelo, thank you so much for such a thorough and excellent article on no dig garden. I’m hoping to get your advise on how to get on top of grass regrowing from no dig garden.
      I’m having a lot of trouble turning my front lawn into a productive garden space. Weve planted fruit trees and had converted the front lawn into no dig garden by added a layer of cardboard, followed by a layer of thick mulch. Problem is, the grass keeps growing back and after a couple months of neglect, now it is out of control (see photo)?
      What is the best way to organically manage this from here and long term Angelo?
      Appreciate your advised/tips??
      Thanks in advance!

      1. When converting lawns to garden beds, especially ones containing nasty grasses such as couch and kikuyu, it’s important to recognise that these are warm season grasses, and will only grow during spring and summer, which is the time when you have to keep them under control during the first year to eradicate them. If you neglected them, they will regain ground! If the garden isn’t planted up yet, boil up some water and pour it over where the grass emerges through the mulch. During the warmer seasons, you can also use a natural herbicide, such as Slasher Organic Weedkiller, which contains nonanoic acid (pelargonic acid), which is basically geranium oil from plants such as geraniums and pelargoniums, it will strip the waxes off the leaves and the plants will be dry the next day. It doesn’t kill the roots like boiling water does, but it depletes the energy stored in the roots every time the grass tries to regrow.

  2. I have a chickens free ranging. Is it possible to have a no dig garden with chickens, because they will be constantly walking all over the garden “compacting” the soil and “digging” it. Also, isn’t no dig garden a bit unatural? In the forest there are plenty of animals digging and walking (compacting) the soil?

    1. Yes, you can have chickens going through your no-dig garden, they’ll scratch up the mulch searching for insects though. Chickens can’t compact the soil, they’re way too light!!!

      To answer your second question, no-dig garden is completely natural, we’re simply copying the sheet composting system of leaf litter and plant debris on the forest floor, that’s how Nature makes soil!

      Small animals don’t compact soil, and large animals use tracks in forest and don’t force their way through thickets of vegetation. Most animals actually don’t dig, and the ones that do only disturb small patches. I’ll pose the question – when was the last time anyone visited a forest or any other natural ecosystem where animals had turned over every bit of the soil??? It never happens, it’s a crazy human invention! Nature has it’s own system for digging and mixing soil, that’s what earthworms do, they turn over all the soil, in a natural way that enriches the soil ecology! Check the earthworm statistics in the article, that’s Nature’s mechanism for turning soil, and it’s more efficient than anything that exists!

      1. Its ok to plant in no dig system but what about if we want to spray seeds such as cilantro. I tried but this system does not work in cilantro cos seeds only touch the top compost and not the soil as seen with other plants.

      2. All seeds should be able to grow in good compost, it may be necessary to sift the compost to get just the fines to plant into when using small seeds, as the coarse material may interfere with the cilantro seeds pushing through the compost as they shoot.

  3. I don’t want to sound argumentative, because I agree completely that worms were made for digging and humans were not, but if you observe the activities of feral hogs they can be quite destructive to large areas of both forests and pastures. Also they often inhabit very dense thickets in the forest. Albeit they’re an invasive species so to speak because man introduced them, as they escaped from captivity but on the same token… people did have to get them from nature in the first place. What do you think their effects are on soil?

    1. This is not an article about feral pig ecology, but since you asked I’ll answer from an ecological perspective.

      Pigs are omnivorous animals native to Eurasia and northern Africa, and naturally live in forests and partly wooded areas from tropical jungles to northern forests and play an important role in their ecological niche.

      Wild pigs or wild boars are one of the few animals that actually decompact soil, much like earthworms. Being omnivorous, they consume both plants and animals.

      Wild pigs are beneficial animals in their native forest habitat because they:
      – break up compacted soil which helps new plants grow.
      – scavenge dead animals and remove them from the forest floor, returning the nutrients into the soil.
      – eat insects, which keeps the insects under control to the benefit of the surrounding forest.
      – through their digging and seeds clinging to their fur, spread plant seeds and spores of beneficial fungi, including the famous mycorrhizal fungi truffles.

      I find it amusing when humans label other species ‘invasive’, kind of like the pot calling the kettle black, only worse by great orders of magnitude. When it comes to ecological damage, if wild pigs are ‘invasive’ I don’t know what that makes humans??? Considering the fact that I’ve never seen a pig clear-fell acres of forest, nor destructively turn over hectares of soil in a short time span, it makes me wonder. Out of their native areas, and in places already significantly damaged by humans, their activities do further damage, much like cattle in unnaturally high numbers which compact and erode soil in pastures that were once forests which were deliberately destroyed by humans…

      I’ve outlined their true ecological effects on the soil, what role they play ecologically in forest ecosystems, hope that helps.


      1. Angelo, I love your very useful & thoughtful information. I feel compelled to add my observations here as far as the feral pigs are concerned.

        After living 20 years in the coastal ranges of northern California, unchecked populations of feral pigs appear to dramatically impact erosion of hilly forest & simi-forested areas. It appears that they proliferate so rapidly that there is simply too much damage given high numbers of animals.

        These are forests that were logged for redwoods 110 years ago and again in areas 60-50 years ago. Now mostly occupied by mixed, mostly oak, fir , some redwood and bay tree forest. I observe areas regenerating, and then suddenly, it completely looks as if a rototiller came through, an acre at a time.

        I’ve seen huge amounts of turned up soil wash down mountain sides. I guess time will tell the impact. I can tell you from my perspective, it doesn’t look healthy for our local soils & forest health.

      2. Thanks for your comment. If the population of any species gets too large, it becomes unsustainable and causes damage to the natural environment. Animals normally walk around through nature, but when farmers run large herds of cows through an area, they compact the ground, destroy ground cover plants, and cause erosion. If feral pig populations have no natural predators their numbers will explode to levels that can’t be supported by the ecosystems they inhabit, as you’ve witnessed. No good can come when ecosystems are thrown out of balance unfortunately.

    2. Angelo. I followed your directions as precisely as I could a year ago. I installed my first Permaculture bed over lawn, using cardboard, etc just as instructed. I have an urban back yard garden, and in various places. At 80 years old, I have been gardening most of my life. The bed was about 7 x 4. I took it on faith what many said about closer placement of plants, and used the bed mainly for four varieties of chiles. Poblano, Anaheims, Bells, and long Cayennes. I did use rock dust, and sea weed extract,

      The vigor of the chiles was beyond anything I could have imagined, leaves of all but the cayennes, that have longer narrow leaves, averaged 4-5 inches long and 3+ in width. At first I thought oops, too much nitrogen. Then the blossoms came and the fruit followed in great abundance. Additionally, the plants created a full shade mulch, which cut the watering down to 4 deep watering all summer. In S.Oregon we have very hot, and quite dry summers.

      After seeing the initial week of harvesting, I could see that the crop was going to be large if it continued, so I started keeping a tally. I harvested 512 total chilies, and they were almost all over sized, compared to those advertised as large in better markets,

      So, I am as of the time I am writing this, turning my old organic garden into Permaculture, using your instructions. Additionally, the lawn is been g converted into 2 additional 7x 4 beds.

      Thank you very much for your clear directions. I am very excited about the implications for feeding the planet, in spite of the abuse she has undergone, of course, that can only happen if millions recognize we can feed our families almost exclusively from urban back yards.

      1. Thanks Jim, you’re welcome, really appreciate you sharing your wonderful story of success with no-dig gardening!

        It’s really amazing how well plants grow in a soil rich with organic matter, the technique truly has to be tried to be believed. You’ll notice huge numbers of earthworms in a no-dig garden too, the plants are literally growing in worm castings, the best fertilizer on the planet!

      2. Glad to hear from Southern Oregon! I plan to move forward again after a few years off. Nice to hear a success story.

  4. I am about to build beds for cane berries and like the idea of building no dig beds. Over time the material will break down. Will adding the layer of manure, compost and straw be enough for a bed of perennial plants?

    Also, do you use organic straw and alfalfa? I am having a difficult time finding organic sources. Or do you think the pesticides used break down adequately so that we don’t consume them?

    Thanks for your articles. I am learning lots. We recently moved from the arid interior Western Oregon Rogue Valley to the cool, wet Coquille River Valley near the Oregon Coast. So, we are rebuilding the gardens and learning a new way of gardening.

    1. Today I called the local feed store to inquire about alfalfa and straw. Turns out we are having a hay shortage. Farmers are feeding straw and alfalfa is non-existent at this time of year. The organic dairies in our area own their own alfalfa farms. I can buy organic alfalfa pellets, so that might be a good option.

      1. I use the alfalfa pellets and leaf mold. I startb each bed with true alfalfa, as it ignites the added layers. Even though expensive it is worth it to me, for a one time starter.

    2. Kathy… Yes. Just replenish the beds at the end of the growing season. The system gets easier and more productive each year in my experience so far.

  5. I live in the tropics, very close to the equator. Essentially it is very hot and humid here. I find that the no dig systems you have described in your article are not suitable for this climate, as the beds seem to generate too much heat and make it almost impossible to grow seedlings or seeds into.

    Apart from letting the bed sit for a prolonged period, is there any other solution to this problem?


    1. If you let the newly constructed no-dig bed sit for around two weeks the very first time you build it, it will heat up once, then cool down.

      The thin layers of organic matter you add to top it up at the end of each growing season won’t heat up but will break down slowly.

      Also, if your no-dig bed generates too much heat when you first build it, it’s turning into a hot composting system, so you can avoid that by adding more dry materials rich in carbon and use less nitrogenous materials such as manure or other fertilizers, and less green materials. This will then break down more slowly with less heat.

    2. I live in a condo in Singapore. Has a thriving garden in formerly hard clay ground with just grass and nasty ants. I practise no-dig. Have 40 species of plants from trees, flowers, herbs, vegs, etc. No problem growing the plants. A thick layer of mulch (leaves, fresh veggies, etc.) will help. Just avoid exposed soil…the sun will heat up the soil.

  6. I give thanks to mother nature that I found this webpage, I saw you on Geoff Lawton videos but didnt knew about the web page.
    In your no dig method we can plant whatever we want? I mean any type of vegatables? fruit tree?
    I suppose that vegetables are OK, but fruit trees they perform well with this method? I also imagine that with a rocky or concret ground will be difficult as the roots of trees are going to need space to develop, but anyways dwarf trees might come to the equation…

    1. The rules for growing plants do not change with no-dig gardening, which is a technique to create soil, whatever you are building on top of..

      You can convert an existing garden bed into a no-dig garden bed as described, and grow whatever was possible to grow in the ground, including trees.

      If your raised bed filled with garden soil can’t support a tree, then neither will a no-dig garden bed – it has nothing to do with no-dig and is all about your total soil volume.

      If you want to create a large no-dig bed which has no soil in it at the beginning, and you are creating all the soil, do not grow a tree in it as soon as you have built it, as the level of the no-dig materials will reduce and your tree will sink down. It’s best to wait until the soil has settled, grow your vegetables in it for a year, and only after the materials are well broken down and the soil level does not drop any more, then you can plant a tree.

  7. Fantastic, very well explained article. One thing that has always confused me about no-dig beds is planting potatoes. I know full well if I planted potatoes in a no-dig bed, then in order to harvest them, I would want to dig them out, my nature I guess. Is there a knack for potatoes, or are they not suitable for a no dig bed?



    1. You can still dig potatoes and other root crops out of a no-dig bed, because you’re technically just parting the soil to access the underground crop. You definitely do not turn the soil over! Try to do it with the least amount of disruption to your soil. Also consider that your potato patch will also be a small part of your garden only, and many root crops such as carrot and radish can be pulled without digging.

      There are also many excellent techniques for growing potatoes where you don’t need to dig at all. There involve placing a support of some sort around the potato plant that can be filled with straw, something like a cage of wire mesh or chicken wire that is shaped like a tube which the plant grows inside. As the potato grows, straw is added around its stem, and eventually the plant grows above the top of the structure and creates a leafy top over the straw-filled wire mesh tower. The potatoes form along the stem inside the wire cage and are easy to harvest without any digging.

      1. No matter how much you dig spuds, there are always tiny ones that get left behind and end up producing next year’s crop!

    1. Convolvulus arvensis (field bindweed) has a really strong root system, that runs deep, if you try digging it up, the cut fragments of the rhizome will just resprout. Chop it off at the soil level, and when it tries regrowing, continually chop it back again. It has to expend energy stored in the roots to put out new growth, and if it can’t photosynthesize because it doesn’t have any above-ground growth, it will starve.

      1. Thanks – also read (here?) that it likes growing in disturbed land, so another reason for no-dig. Just hard not to get obsessive about it.

      2. Good point, plants that are regarded as ‘weeds’ tend to mainly grow where human disturbance has occurred!

  8. Hi,
    I love this article thanks. Just one question – my raised beds are 60 cm high. Would you use your method and just hope that one day the soil reaches the top? Or add a 20 cm layer of sand first over the newspaper over the (very stubborn) grass? Thank you!

    1. You could easily fill it with enough no-dig materials , which will eventually become soil, or you can part fill it with soil!

      1. Thank you so much. I’ve been sitting on that issue for ages. I’ll get started this weekend!

  9. I have a garden plot that I would like to build up, if I were to dig soil out first, to prevent overflow, what could I use the old soil for? Any ideas?

    1. You can raise the edge if you didn’t want to remove soil.
      If you are going to remove old soil, the spare soil can be mixed with compost (2/3 soil, 1/3 compost) and a little manure, put into pots or containers and used to grow vegetables or herbs.

      1. I have a raised wooden garden bed under a tree full of roots that is not producing anymore. Would you suggest digging out as much as I can then laying concrete before layering as you describe. Would there be enough life in the soil created to support a vege garden – how would worms penetrate etc??

  10. HI. Thank you for all this information. I am planning to transform my backyard using your permaculture approach. The tricky part is doing it without any budget. What other options do you suggest if I don’t have straw for the no dig garden? Is it ok to alternate layers of horse manure with newspapers with grass clippings/leaves?

    1. Think of it as building a compost pile, if the materials will break down to make a nice, rich compost, then they will work as materials in a no-dig garden. Your ingredients should work. Please let us know how it goes!

  11. Can I do a cement block garden directly on the grass and fill with potting soil. I just did this just curious how it’s going to work out. The grass was very very low and wet when I started it and I did with a slight angle u can barely notice so it wouldn’t hold too much water. Any ideas

    1. Well, as you can see from my instructions that’s not how to build a no-dig bed, there are reasons why it’s done the way its done as the article explains. Hopefully the grass will be smothered and isn’t a type that will grow through.

      Potting mix is a very unusual (and expensive) material to fill a garden bed with too! Most potting mixes are mainly composted pine bark so you’ll want to add a little more into the mix or on top of it, otherwise it’s just a huge bottomless pot filled with potting mix! Be aware that if potting mixes dry too much they can become hydrophobic (water repellent).

  12. Lets say all I have is a massive pile of grass clippings at various stages of decomposition and a large container of well decomposed compost. Would piling the grass clippings followed by the well decomposed compost create a bed I can plant – say squash or corn – into? The principle is the same right?

    1. What is your compost made of?

      Are you building your no-dig garden over soil or a hard surface?

      If it was all broken down you would have a rich, dark planting medium rich in organic matter. The grass clippings alone will be too high in nitrogen and too wet and moisture retentive, mix them with a carbon-rich material and compost them properly and you’re part of the way there. My composting article explains how to do composting properly –

      1. Thank you for the reply and the very interesting link.

        Based on your article, I am experimenting with what I have available – a huge pile of partially decomposed leaves / grass clippings and a barrel of rich, well decomposed compost. I don’t have access to the other ingredients your article calls for.

        I simply made an 8’x8′ square of the partially decomposed yard waste and in the center piled on the ‘good’ compost and planted some squash. Hopefully this will work.

    1. You can source Lucerne wherever you source pea straw, sugarcane mulch, hay, etc.
      If you cant find it use whatever other straw you have and add some extra manure, as Lucerne has higher nitrogen content.

  13. This is full of wonderful information, thank you! I have fantastic soil and last time I dug out the grass (back-breaking labor) and planted a magnificent vegetable garden. It has since completely grown over back into lawn and I am wondering if it is worth creating this “new” soil (no dig) on top or digging out the grass again to plant directing into the soil (which I topped with manure and lucerne similar to described here.) Thank you for sharing this!

    1. You’re welcome! The instructions for building over grass are included in the article 🙂

  14. Thanks for the excellent article and for staying active with it. We recently moved to house on 1 acre and will be planting several raised beds to re-start our garden. I was outside trimming hedges but it started to rain, so I Googled for permaculture gardening and found this site.

    The garden beds will be going over an area that previously was a garden area but with poor, sandy soil. My daughter has two show rabbits so I get plenty of natural fertilizer weekly to amend this with. My questions are:

    1. Is it okay to use the fresh cut twigs and leaves from the hedges a stick layer?
    2. I have a section of the yard that is heavy in oak leaves that are decomposing nicely with lots of worms. Should I transplant some of these worms into the beds to give the beds a jumpstart?

    1. Thanks! Glad the rain directed you to search the web and find this site!

      Fresh cut twigs will work fine as a base as long as there isn’t too much leafy material, they are there to improve drainage.

      You can add earthworms to your no-dig beds if you like, they somehow find their own way there but a bit of help from you will boost their numbers a bit faster.

      1. Awesome, thanks! I’m not quite ready to build yet, so most of the leaves will fall off and wind up in the compost. I was going to buy wood or wood composite for the boxes, but now I am considering building them from papercrete.

  15. Great article. Absolutely love this site!! One question: is wicking a raised garden bed compatible with the no- dig system? Or is wicking even necessary with no-dig? Just thinking of our hot Aussie summers……

    1. Yes, a wicking bed can be managed as a no-dig garden. Keep in mind that wicking beds are essentially a large sub-irrigation system, essentially a giant sized self-watering pot. They are only suitable for shallow rooted plants, and are therefore great to use as vegetable garden beds, but can’t be used for trees. You really don’t want to dig too much anyway as the soil at the bottom is waterlogged and anaerobic, and you don’t want to risk puncturing the liner. They do need flushing out to prevent a build up of salts in the soil, used in the right place they’re a great idea for kitchen gardens of commonly used annual vegies and leafy greens.

  16. I have my no dig beds covered with 2-4″ of wood chips. Should I just add layers of compost/manure, leaves, and grass clippings (don’t have hay) on top of those woodchips at the end of the season?

    1. Well, it kind of messes up the whole no-dig concept when you put down a layer of something that won’t break down very easily such as a thick layer of wood chips. The no-dig system imitates nature’s soil building process, with the layers of materials breaking down to create soil.

      If you add other nitrogen-containing materials over the woodchips, the all the nitrogen will be taken up by the bacteria to break down the wood chips, it will not reach the plants, potentially causing nitrogen deficiency. The effect is called ‘nitrogen drawdown’, and this why gardeners are advise to never dig woody mulch into the soil.

      the simple solution is to pull away the woody mulch, add your materials, and then put the mulch back on top.

      1. Hi Angelo Could you explain why making hugelkultur beds is then a good idea? Wouldnt that also create nitrogen drawdown? Or could the person above just add fertilizer as you outlined in your hugelkultur article?
        I really want to make some hugelkultur beds, as I have extremely wet clay soil with lots of rain throughout the year at around sea level and no access to spare soil for regular raised beds. The soil is still very compacted even in the no-dig beds I made last year (with heavy mulching).
        Thanks for all you do! Every time I want to add another bed to my garden, this is the website I come to.

      2. Also, what type of fertilizers would be good, apart from worm castings?

  17. Thank you for your article, it is very useful. I have a very small garden with poor soil, a few berries growing (small gooseberries, currants, etc.) and a couple of young fruit trees (plum and cherry). I would like to make the flower beds for perennials going inbetween these bushes and the trees. I’ve read somewhere that I have to be careful with the trees (and the bushes) so that I do not suffocate the root system with the newly built raised bed. What is the best way to “surround” them? How far from a tree or a bush should I keep the bed? Thank you very much! Regards, Marvin

    1. That’s correct, if you leave a large pile of material over a plant or trees root zone, you can suffocate the roots. Most people don’t realise that plant roots need AIR and WATER!

      Keep the drip-line around the canopy and a bit of distance outside that clear and it should be okay.

      Unless there is a good reason for building raised beds, you can simply amend the existing sol using the no-dig techniques outlined in this article.

      You can even have the beds slightly raised, say about 30cm (12″) only), and you can use almost anything for garden edging, see my article on building raised garden beds –

  18. Thanks a lot for your reply. I actually meant not “raised beds” but no-dig beds, exactly like you said. My question is if I should leave a lot of space around the trunk (like canopy radius) or just a few inches would be enough? Beyond the circle I’ll make the no-dig bed. I am even entertaining the idea of making a small “fence” around each tree or bush, and do the no-dig bed in surrounding space. Does it make sense or do I make it too complex? Alternatively I can lightly mulch the area under the tree and then gradually increase the thickness to get to a full no-dig bed within a feet or two from canopy? What would make more sense?
    Again, thanks a lot for all the information, it is really good! Regards, Marvin

    1. As I mention in the article, you can convert existing garden beds to no-dig beds, the soil level does not get raised by much at all, and trees are fine as long as you don’t mulch against their trunks as this rots the bark, the same precaution you use with regular mulching.

  19. I’ve been using ‘no dig’ for years and have recently been asked on my blog to explain it.
    While trying to research the best ways to word it, I came across your blog which is the most succinct, pleasing to read, comprehensive and compelling explanation I’ve come across. So instead I’ve simply set up a ‘favourite websites’ link direct to your page!
    So a big ‘thank you’ for giving me more of my Saturday morning to garden, and less time in front of the computer 🙂 Although, you have so much other fascinating stuff on your site… Maybe I’ll just sit here a bit longer… Best wishes, Judy

  20. Hi! Your article has been so helpful! Thank you 🙂 I do have one question… I have moved into a new house and there is a pre-existing vegetable patch in the garden which I am planning to turn into a no dig plot. I will be able to get plenty of cardboard, newspaper and well-rotted horse manure, but I am finding it difficult to source straw or hay for a reasonable price. Could you suggest an alternative mulch for the top layer? Thanks so much 🙂

    1. For the top layer, you can probably get by with whatever natural mulch you can find if straw, hay, Lucerne, etc.
      Just keep in mind that woody mulches will take a lot longer to break down and will and have a very high C:N ratio, so add some fertiliser underneath.

  21. Hi, great article. I decided this year to make flower/shrub beds to border my lawn. I started with a small section by digging out and replacing with topsoil/compost. The thought of the larger section filled me with dread and so I stumbled across your article. I ideally want my flower bed to be reasonably level with my lawn, ie not raised. I am planning to do no-dig technique directly onto the lawn, which has a sandy layer of soil underneath, which in turn has pretty heavy clay underneath. Do you think in time the no dig layers will decompose to level(ish) with the lawn or will I be forced to remove some material? I live in Glasgow, west of Scotland. Generally cold and wet 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comments. Yes, the n-dig materials do break down and the bed does reduce in height. Also, you’ll find that the sand and clay will slowly transform into a rich, dark loam through the no-dig technique. You might need some kind of short border or edging to hold your materials in though until they break down, or you can simply have the no-dig garden bed taper down towards the edges so it meets the level of the lawn, with the centre area higher, like a pillow if you need to visualise how it will look.

      1. Thank you Angelo for your prompt response! You should charge for this service ;-). My sister is arranging a large amount of manure from her stables and I look forward to getting started at the weekend. Two more questions (I am an extremely novice gardener!!).
        1) I will be using horse manure and hay/straw. Will the by products of the decomposition result in an alkali or acidic soil? I’m just thinking about my ericaceous shrubs/heathers. Will this depend on the type of compost I use.

        2) I do not want to sound like the anti-Christ of no-dig gardening but do you ever hoe the surface layer? Up until now I would hoe the top 3 inches or so of my other flower beds. My mum always told me to do this to increase aeration of the soil, especially when it got compacted by heavy rain.

        Many thanks again

      2. Hi Craig,

        Your compost will not change the pH of your soil as it’s very close to neutral.

        No need to aerate a no-dig garden, it doesn’t get compacted because the layers of material on the soil surface act as a mulch which stops the rain compacting the soil, you NEVER walk on the garden beds, and the earthworms happily do all your digging and take care of aerating the soil. Doesn’t that sound great? 🙂

  22. Thanks again for the informed reply! I am getting quite excited about constructing the flower beds!

    One more question. I noted from the site that the use if fertilizers kills of some of the micro-organisms in the soil. I have a poorly draining lawn on the same sand/clay substructure as the prospective flower beds. I often use a store bought fertilizer to kill weeds/moss and feed the grass. After reading your site I get that thus may not be the best way to treat my lawn, more like a temporary fix. Do you have any advice on 1) improving lawn quality 2) improving drainage given what the lawn is on top of. If not, thanks anyway, you have been a great help already.

    1. Yes, chemical fertilizer is harmful to soil microbes, organic or natural fertilizers are good.

      You can buy organic lawn fertilizers, and you can sprinkle some gypsum over the lawn which acts as a ‘clay breaker’ and water it in.

      The lawn might need some help to drain better, use of slotted agricultural pipe (slotted ag-pipe) in a gravel-filled trench might help.

  23. Thanks for this well written, very informative article! If I don’t want to use manures, could I substitue a thin layer of alfalfa (= lucerne) pellets (horse feed) or soy meal and then compost for the manure/compost layers? That would mean putting alfalfa/lucerne pellets over alfalfa/lucerne hay on the lowest layers, which would seem not to have a sense, but from C:N ratio charts I’ve found, alfalfa meal is listed as having a similar C:N ratio to most manures, (C:N = 15) while soy meal is significantly more N heavy (C:N = 5) If I can use these plant meals/pellets, how thick should the “thin layer” of them below the compost be? (In your instructions, does the 5 cm guideline refer to the amount of optional compost to be added above the manure, or to the thickness of the total manure + compost layer?)

    1. Hi Lynn, it’s okay to use any high nitrogen containing material in place of the manure. I would recommend a material with the lowest C:N ratio you can find, with a C:N ration that is close to that of manure. Soy meal sounds ideal. The thin sprinkling of manure or nitrogen-rich material is all that is required. If you also wish to add compost, which is optional, you can add a 5cm thick layer if you have enough compost.

  24. Hi. Thanks for all the really useful advice. I help with a garden in Berlin, upto 40 in summer and down to -25 in winter. We want to build 30cm raised no dig beds on a fertile but weedy veg plot dormant for 2 years and remade last year and since then fertilised only with bone meal and guano (organic). Yes, we dug it. Ooops. Should we prepare the beds now, in autumn, to let things compost well before spring planting? Or, should we wait til Spring? I want to start building now! Our materials at hand are: newspaper, shredded leaves, shredded woody matter, grass cuttings collected over last six months, compost, soil. No manure or straw as yet,but we are working on it. We could also buy something advertised as ‘flower soil’. Also, what is the best surface for the inbetween paths? Small stones, wood mulch, or mown weeds.. I honestly can’t call it grass! Very grateful for your help, thank you in advance. Pip

    1. You can build your no-dig garden at any time of the year and plant it immediately.

      You have lots of carbon-rich materials and composted material on hand, but nothing with any appreciable levels of nitrogen. I’m not sure what might be sold as flower soil but if you’re going to buy anything get a bag of manure or fertiliser such as blood & bone.

  25. Hi Angelo, Thanks for answering my last question! — Hope you don’t mind another one! Can you explain why we don’t need to worry about the very unfinished compost of the no-dig garden causing damage to the plants? (no worries of phytotoxic organic acids or ammonia toxicity or nitrogen robbing?) Is it because, until the composting is completed, the roots of the seedlings we plant stay within the little containerless pot of finished compost that we plant into?

    1. With no-dig gardening you’re planting in a pocket or strip of compost in a no-dig bed, so you don’t need to wait for the whole garden bed to compost down.

      You won’t have issues with ammonia if you don’t use excessive nitrogen fertilisers – remember it’s only a thin sprinkling of manure or whatever else you choose to use, but there’s enough to prevent nitrogen draw-down as the carbon-rich materials break down.

      Don’t forget that you still have to water your plants, which washes lots of water soluble compounds away from the roots too, but plants grow fine in still composting materials – that’s what straw-bale gardening is all about, but that’s a different topic!

      1. Thanks again for your help! I’m interested in growing kale, and I’ve read that if I were to grow that in a container, I’d need to put each plant in at least a 40 cm pot. So– Does that mean that i need to make 40 cm compost pockets to plant my kale seedlings in (rather than the 10 – 15 cm ones suggested in your scheme)? And, if so, is the depth of 10 cm for the top straw layer still fine??

        Your answer to my previous question brings me to the other question I keep worrying about. Could you define a bit more precisely what you mean by thin layer or thin sprinkling of the nitrogen rich layer? For example, if it were manure, as you suggest, how big should the layer be, if we are using, as you suggest,a 7 to 10 cm layer of the carbon thick layer (straw)? I was thinking you meant that —since for composting, it is suggested to use 1 part greens to 2 parts browns—, then if the nitrogen rich layer were manure only, it would need 4 or 5 cm of manure (and then optionally, another 5 cm of compost on top of that). So, if I wanted to use alfalfa meal,, which, according to the charts I find, has a C:N ratio similar to most manures, I’d need about the same amount (4 or 5 cm). While if I wanted to use the more nitrogen-rich soy meal, with C:N ratio of about 7, I figured that the appropriate “sprinkling” or “thin layer” would be about 2 cm. (although, 2 cm sounds to me like much more than what I would consider a “sprinkling”) I realize I’m getting compulsive about this, but my real worry (perhaps silly???) is that if I layer down too much nitrogen-rich substance, I could pollute the ground water, and thus do more damage than good with my little gardening game. (Is that an off the wall worry?? I do so want this to be an ecological project!) I did see on another website a scheme that was closer to a 1: 10 ratio of the manure layer to the straw layer. (So based on that, I’d guess I should use a soy meal layer of half a centimeter of less??) Maybe that deliberate departure from composting schemes is to avoid the risk of damaging environment and plants by dumping excessive nitrogen materials into the soil?? I guess it’s clear that I’m confused!

        Another question! (If I haven’t outworn my welcome…) Alfalfa meal seems more similar to manures than is soymeal also when considering the NPK ratios. (alfalfa meal NPK seem to be around 2.5-1-2, while soymeal NPK is 7-2-1.) So— would alfalfa meal be better than using a smaller layer of soymeal from the point of view of making sure there the soil I create has enough phosphorus and potassium? I don’t want to overload the soil with phosphorus either, though. I’m so confused!
        Last question– Can I make a little donation to thank you for your patient help?

      2. Hi Lynn, dare I say you’re overthinking a very simple technology. People do this often, you’re not alone, I get this a lot with my 18 day hot composting article. In modern society we expect complexity, and when we see how simply things work in Nature, we expect that there must be more to it, that it must be a more involved process.

        Thankfully, natural systems are simple because Nature does the work, we just need to help it along, we don’t need to fuss about the details, we just need to push in the same direction that Nature wants to go and it all happens faster. That’s why Permaculture, which is predicated on working with Nature and leveraging existing natural processes, is low energy and very efficient.

        Now for the explanations…

        A no-dig garden in a garden bed, a soil building system, the compost pockets just get the plants or seeds started, the whole bed eventually becomes rich, dark soil. The plants know what to do to grow in rotting organic matter in various states of decomposition, they’ve had about 460 million years to become very efficient at it!

        With the manure layers in a no-dig garden, I just sprinkle enough so I can see a patchy darker colour over the lighter colour of the straw below, a loose scattering, enough to be significant but not a whole layer you can’t see through. You don’t need too much manure.

        Remember that we’re not making compost piles here, we’re making a garden bed that supports plants. You can add manure to your heart’s content in a compost heap, it will heat up furiously and cook everything (see my hot composting article ), and if you overdo the nitrogen it will be released into the atmosphere and you’ll lose it. Plants can’t grow in piles of manure, you’ll burn the roots, the same happens if you apply too much nitrogen-rich manures to your garden such as chicken manure!!!

        Keep in mind that you’re creating an ecosystem that supports the soil-food web, and the instructions in my article are like the recipe to baking a cake, put it all in there and it will happen, nut in this case, all by itself, and without mixing! 🙂

        You’re worrying unnecessarily, you can’t pollute groundwater by using natural fertilisers in reasonable quantities over soil.

        Similarly you cant overload the system with to much nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium by using plant sources of nutrient such as alfalfa or soy meal. These are NOT chemical fertilisers which have ridiculously unnaturally high levels of nutrients in unnaturally highly water soluble forms as simple chemical salts.

        You’re not giving Nature any credit for the very complex, interconnected and interdependent ecological systems that are hundreds of millions of years old that regulate all things and keep us petty humans alive, Nature is not some passive, incompetent phenomenon that needs humans to hold its hand.

        To help put things into perspective, humans that look like us have been on the planet for only 200,000 years, and agriculture, where humans intentionally interfere with Nature is only 10,000 years old. Nature has been growing plants for 460 million years, and trees for 370 million years, all on soil which is made of decomposing organic matter, and animals have been using the ground as their toilet as long as animals have existed. The animal manures are broken down by decomposer organisms and incorporated into the soil-food web where decomposing organic matter is converted to compounds that plants can use as food. How complex is the soil-food web? So complex as to make the human race look pitiful and insignificant a tablespoon of rich, healthy soil can contain up to 30 billion soil organisms, the current human population on the planet is only 7 billion

        In this system were just copying what Nature has always done to help plants grow the way they always have done, its all very simple. The KIS principle is very appropriate here Keep It Simple!!!

        Hope this lengthy explanation helps!

        Thanks for offering a donation, you can make donations to my PayPal account via my contact email

        Regards, Angelo

  26. Thanks for the great article. I live in south-east Thailand, on an old, overgrown orchard.
    I’d like to give this a try. Are there any special requirements for a tropical environment?
    Also, will rice straw be OK, and could you recommend a tropical replacement for lucerne?

    1. Soil building happens the same way in all climates, through the decomposition of organic matter. It just works a bit faster in the tropics. The Lucerne is not a necessity, it’s just got more nitrogen than straw or hay and gets the whole composting process going at the bottom layers, so just add a little more nitrogen-rich material to compensate. Rice straw will work perfectly well. Please let us know how your no-dig garden in the tropics goes, thanks!

  27. Thanks Angelo for all your information. I’m moving into week 3 of my no dig gardens. I’m doing them in old tank circles (no bases) and things are going well. Unfortunately, the tanks are too wide so I will have to construct some sort of path/resting spot in the middle so I can pick and maintain the plots. Firstly, I used a good quality barley hay and Lucerne etc as instructed and I now have a large crop of barley along with the vegies. Not sure whether I should pull it all the barley out or leave it and harvest it? Secondly, the garden is covered in little flying insects, not midge because they don’t bite. What would they be? Everything looks healthy and just a couple tiny capsicums and tomatoes (not doing as well as everything else) starting to swell. I think there are too many insects for fruit fly and I’ve had a fruit fly free year (Qld). What else would they be? Thanks for your wonderful help. 🙂

    1. If you can use the barley then by all means harvest it first!
      Hmmm, little flying insects in QLD, that doesn’t really give me much to work with, whitefly perhaps??? 🙂

      1. Thanks Angelo. Sorry to be so thick but what is ‘white fly’? There are lots of different types of ants hanging about too – most seem large and harmless. And there was a massive arrival (normal) of flying ants two nights ago that I think are mating white ants. That’s what I’ve been told anyway. I’m using quality compost and some Active 8 and it seems that is what the insects are interested in – only other thing is – there have been lots of native bees around. Would they be interested in the barley that is brewing? Thanks for your help. This is a wonderful site – and I must get out my Mollison books again! Garden planning and growing food is so rewarding. 🙂

      2. You’ll need to get proper insect identification, we could be guessing forever as insects are the most diverse group of organisms, with around 900,000 species, which comprise 80% of all species on the planet!

        Brewing barley? Are you making beer? I don’t believe Australian native bees have an interest in homebrew beer, but snails do! 🙂

  28. No – the barley in the garden bed is ‘brewing’ in the heat. I thought the barley ‘smell’ might attract bees. Never mind. There is a small infestation of something on one of the cucumbers. Think it is a fly of some sort. Time will tell. I’ll watch for snails too. But everything is going well so far and that is all that matters. Thanks for your time. 🙂

  29. Thank you so much for all this information! I’m very new to gardening and would like to start a no-dig garden on top an existing garden bed. When planting seedlings, should I plant them directly in the compost? I’ve read many places to never plant directly in compost. I’m assuming this is different as the plant can grow down into the soil so it’s not only growing in compost?

    1. Yes, that’s right, you plant into pockets or furrows of compost in the no-dig garden. Eventually the whole garden bed becomes wonderful rich soil!

  30. Thank you! Just one quibble. You say “chemical fertilizers.” But there are chemicals in organic fertilizers, too. Chemicals are everywhere. You mean “synthetic fertilizers.”

    1. Well, yes, and organic chemists would insist that most of the most poisonous pesticides and herbicides technically are ‘organic’ because they contain carbon chains in the molecular structure! Chemical fertilizers as opposed to natural fertilizers in organic gardening, organic meaning free of synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides as opposed to substances containing carbon. All depends on whose definition you’re using! 😉

  31. Thank you for sharing such useful information. I wondered if I can use mulch from trees (I have a tree company that provides for free) as the compost layer? Also, if applying to an existing lawn, how tall will thr layers be? How long does it take the worms and other bugs to turn the layers into rich soil? Thank you

  32. Hi Angelo – I visited your property during the last backyard festival (very impressed!) and can’t believe I’m just now starting to dive into your articles. I remember you saying you planted broad beans over your entire backyard to start off your project and to naturally pre-load the soil with nitrogen. Would you recommend this practice as a general rule when starting a new property and, if so, where would it fit into the no-dig garden bed process described in this article? Thanks!

    1. Yes, mass planting broad beans or other legumes can be the start of the no-dig process, it’s a way of getting your materials to lay down on the soil to add carbon and nitrogen to the soil – you don’t have to buy your no-dig garden materials to begin with!

      Remember, the nitrogen-fixing bacteria get the nitrogen from the air, and all the carbon in the plants is produced from the carbon dioxide in the air from photosynthesis. Literally gardening materials produced out of thin air… ain’t Mother Nature magical! 🙂

  33. Hello Angelo:
    When you plant the plants I put according to your compost instructions, but the plants soon die, I think it is to be in direct contact with the natural fertilizer, I’ll try rather than put compost in the hole that I do in the straw, topsoil, if it is too strong.
    what do you think?
    Thanks for your attention

    1. Compost is NOT fertilizer, and it cannot kill plants! What are you using for compost? Sounds like you are using manure or something similar instead of compost?

  34. No, the first thing I did in the whole process of construction to plans, after planting, I made the holes in the straw and fill those holes with compost no manure (compost was purchased in a specialty store), but as I wrote before , plants (lettuce), they die, even as the nights with temperatures between 6 C 2 (Spain- Norwest) I shield with plastic.
    I’ll tell you if you are better modifying the type of substrate cast in the hollow

    1. I am not sure what is in the compost you purchased, but something is wrong with it!

      You should be able to grow plants in compost. Anyone who has made their own compost will know that when you put the finished compost in a pile, many vegetables such as tomato and pumpkin will grow from seeds in the compost into very big strong healthy plants.

      If your compost is killing your seedlings, that is very bad compost, do not use it! Use garden soil instead if that is all you have.

  35. Ok, I will do with garden soil, I have some echo in almost compost and already you will comment as it comes.
    I agree with you, you should be too strong.
    Thanks in advance
    And congratulations for everything you do

  36. Great article and very helpful to one who once believed in deep digging! I live on the Shetland Islands and want to convert part of my ‘lawned’ back yard to a growing area, however, I have a big problem in that the soil is full of stones, some very big – do i dig all these stones out first before layering in the manner you describe? Shetland is very rocky ground but quite soil is surprisingly deep in places.
    I’d appreciate any advice here/.

    1. You can build a no-dig garden over concrete, so rocky ground should be no problem at all. Just follow the instructions, there’s no need to dig anything, not even rocks, and you’ll be fine

  37. I’m anxious to get started! As I look into purchasing straw, others have commented on straw that’s filled with seed. How can I avoid this?

    1. In no-dig garden beds you plant both seedlings and seeds in either pockets or shallow trenches of compost, which is no different to sowing seeds in a punnet (shallow pot) or directly into the ground.

  38. I love the concept of no-dig and I’m taking steps to transform my growing areas to be that way. Here’s my question: Last year, I used a couple of straw bails for “straw bail gardening”. To do that, I had to break down the straw with large amounts of fertilizer. I have that straw now and it is BEAUTIFUL and looks great to put on my garden. However…what I’m wondering now is if all of the fertilizer that was used to break down that straw is still in it and if it will harm earthworms if I put it on my present garden now.

    1. Hi Gwen, I’m assuming that you used some form of natural or organic fertilizer, and not some form of chemical fertilizer?

      The composted straw bales are an excellent addition to your soil, I would definitely use that material in the garden, and the earthworms will love it.

      If you did use a synthetic chemical fertilizer (which I strongly advise against), it would have all washed out with the rain by now, so either way it would be safe to use.

  39. Thank you so much! I’m enjoying becoming more aware of how to garden more naturally. I’ve enjoyed learning more about earthworms. I’m convinced we need to look after them because they certainly look out for us.

  40. How would you recommend breaking down a bail of straw with natural fertilizer? I did use granules because I was following instructions given to me. But I want to do it naturally now.

    1. Use blood & bone fertilizer, that would be my first preference as it’s got high nitrogen content, or you can use manure. Chicken manure will work faster than cow manure, which will work faster than sheep manure.

  41. I’m reading that tomatoes and broccoli should not be grown as companions as they are both heavy feeders. But I don’t find anywhere a recommended distance that they should be from each other. Can tomatoes be on one end of a garden and broccoli on the other? My garden is about 20 x 20. Also, I’ve already planted broccoli plants so they will be finished before tomatoes are producing, most likely.

  42. Do you suggest filling a self-watering pot with the above “no-dig” layers that you’ve listed here?

    I bought a self-watering pot as i live in an apartment with only a small deck available.

    I’d assume i’d need to put the twigs as the bottom layer as the bottom layer is pretty much concrete? Or would this ruin the self-watering system?

    (I also live on the sunshine coast where we have a LOT of sun! haha!)

    1. A self watering pot is a container, and if you’re container gardening it’s best to use a good quality potting mix, just remember not to fill it all the way to the top, leave enough space to put a layer of mulch on top of the potting mix about 5cm thick to reduce water loss due to evaporation.

      1. Thank you so much for replying! I just wanted to say your blog is absolutely amazing and is literally a one-stop shop for interesting articles and advice on growing food! You’re a legend for taking the time to publish all this!

        Can i ask why potting mix is better than the “no-dig combo”?

        I bought some potting mix from the hardware store and have topped up the final third of it with manure mix (leaving enough room for the mulch… as you suggested)

      2. You’re welcome! Thanks for the great feedback!

        Potting mix is designed to drain quite well so it doesn’t get waterlogged.

        If you use soil in a container it will hold too much moisture and won’t drain very freely and in a self watering pot you will create a layer of mud in the bottom. It will also make the pot extremely heavy.

  43. I don’t have compost and can’t buy any. All of my kitchen scraps go to my chickens. Can I use my chicken manure if it has aged a year? I use wood shavings in their coop, so yes, the manure will have wood mixed with it.

    1. You can use your chicken manure without aging it, when its is fresh it will have the highest nitrogen content if you want to make compost with it. If you want to use it in your garden, then age it a little so it doesn’t burn the roots of the plants, a few months would be more than adequate.

  44. My back yard is pretty solid limey rock, with sandy and clay soil. Its nearly impossible to dig. Would your system work as a raised bed on top of rocky ground? Thank you for an interesting and creative post!

    1. In the article I describe the technique for building a no-dig garden over concrete or bitumen, just use those directions for your backyard and it will work fine.

  45. Very good post. I have 2 questions
    1. Once the bed is done on an existing garden, should the bed rest and be kept moist for a few day before planting? How long should it rest?
    2. How to sow smaller seeds like carrot into the beds? I use paddy straw for the carbon layer.

    1. No need to rest a no-dig garden bed once it is built, it can be planted into immediately, in fact, that’s what is always done.

      To sow any seeds or plant any plants, create rows or pockets of compost and plant into those as I’ve described in the instructions, it’s just like planting straight into the soil, because that’s exactly what you’re doing.

  46. Hi Angelo,
    I’ve made my way from your hot composting thread to this one! Thanks again for all the q & a, it’s the best part.

    My question is about planting fruit trees & shrubs in hard, poorly draining, clay-y soil. I see in your answer above that no-dig works well for fruit trees. What about in crappy soil? In your answer to Valentin you say that after a year a no-dig bed built on concrete could sustain a tree?? How deep would the soil be? I just can’t picture it!

    My plan based on everything I’ve been reading is to:
    A) dig my fork in to loosen the earth (without turning)
    B) put down all the nicely balanced sheet mulch layers right over top of the grass & weeds that are there. I’ll do that this fall & not plant until spring.
    C) plant some deep-rooted cover crops to help break up the soil & deliver nutrients deeper (should I do a fall/winter crop? I’m in the Pacific Northwest)
    D) plant the trees & shrubs!

    Any feedback would be appreciated!
    Thank you.

    1. It depends on the tree! If it’s on concrete, the no-dig garden is like a large planter. On bad soil, the no-dig process will gradually transform the bad soil below into something much more supportive of plant life. Picture this, soil builds naturally through this process, that’s exactly the process that created all the soil that every forest is growing in. You can learn more about the process of ecological succession in my article on the Permaculture Design principle is Accelerating Succession and Evolution.

  47. Thank you for this great article and all the follow-up answers! I’ve just finishing my summer harvest and want to start preparing for my fall crop. I’m not sure – do I cut my tomatoes and corn at the soil line and leave the roots or pull the roots up? I know the beans I leave the roots in the soil and chop up the plant and will lay that back over the soil. I would assume that the tomatoes and corn plants should be chopped up and thrown into my compost pile and not on the soil – correct?

    1. If you’re practising the ‘chop & drop’ technique, cut the tomatoes and corn at the soil level, leave the roots in the soil, chop up the plants that were cut and use them as mulch on the soil.

  48. Hello Angelo
    I am developing my garden of heavy clay soil in an area with a high water table. I have planted lupins, vetch and fenugreek over the whole area. I want to dig out the paths to build up raised beds for drainage. The dug out paths will also act like drains. I understand this will damage the soil somewhat. Is this still a reasonable idea?
    Thanks Max

    1. Yes, it is a reasonable idea as the soil is only going to be disturbed once, it’s just like bringing new soil onto the site when starting a new garden, it will re-establish itself in time.

  49. Hi Angelo, with regard to the chop and drop will the roots left in the ground cause any poisonous reaction if left in the soil? I recall reading this in the past and was concerned if it will poison the new plants.

    1. No, it’s natural for plants to die down with their roots in the ground, I chop and drop all plants except for brassicas. When brassicas rot down they release compounds which inhibit the growth of other plants (they’re allelopathic) as a survival mechanism to ensure their own seeds grow in preference to those of other plants.

      1. Thank you for sharing your expertise and educating us.
        I chop/drop in place, mulch with wood chips, and have tunnels for my kitchen waste.
        What would you suggest we do with the brassicas? Pull them up with the roots and add them to the tunnel, or chop/drop them? I planted daikon (which bolted immediately) and cabbage last winter in Southern California.
        Many thanks

      2. You’re welcome! ?
        I pull up my brassicas and put them in the compost bins, edible leaves go into the worm farms.
        The tunnels you use I assume are in-ground worm farms in the garden beds, that would be a good solution.

      3. I bought a 2nd hand food processor which stays in the shed. I give my foodlies a quick “spin” before adding to the composter! 😉

      4. Thanks Tracy, that’s a great tip and an excellent way to get more useful life out of old kitchen appliances! When food scraps are broken up finely, they break down much faster in the compost because it increases the surface area for the bacteria to act on. ?

      5. Can’t see this on the site to reply.

        On Tue, 14 Apr 2020 at 20:19, Deep Green Permaculture wrote:

        > Angelo (admin) commented: “Thanks Tracy, that’s a great tip and an > excellent way to get more useful life out of old kitchen appliances! When > food scraps are broken up finely, they break down much faster in the > compost because it increases the surface area for the bacteria to act on” >

      6. You just replied lol! ? You can just do a search on your web browser for your first name and you’ll find your comments, use Ctrl F key combination on Windows PCs or Command F key combination on an Apple computer, hope this helps!

      7. Very grateful for your immediate response. I was about to chop/drop the leaves, and let the roots decompose in the ground.
        For the kitchen tunnel, I place a 15 gallon plant pot with a lid between my vegetables, and layer the scraps with cardboard and dirt. When it fills, I bury/tunnel it there, and move the pot to another location. Sometimes I top it with 3″ of dirt and plant in it. All your suggestions have worked marvelously.
        Thank you again

  50. Hi Angelo,

    I’m located in Western AU & am trying to help a neglected lawn area (all native trees & shrubs)
    which is sitting basically in sand, near the coast. I’m only leasing, so don’t want to invest gobs of cash, but would like to improve the looks of it. I’ve also bought & assembled a single raised bed approx 3ft x 4ft. for a try at veggies. Lastly, I have four, young grape plants, cuttings I took from my last home which are in buckets & I’d like to plant them in the ground.

    My problem is I can’t find any hay or straw to purchase which isn’t a huge bale. About the only thing I can locate is called “coir”, this stuff you buy compacted & add water to it to expand it to 90 liters, supposedly. Is this a good substitute for hay/straw, or is it too much like mulch?

    Around the corner, a fellow sells bags of sheep poo– is that a good additive, & if so, in which layer would it go? I do have a compost tumbler about 1/2 full– maybe enough to put into the garden bed/grapes area when planted. Could you maybe give lists of viable substitutes for the materials you list? This happens a lot here- AU has far less choice & Western AU, by far, has the least choices of all.

    Thank you! 🙂

    1. Hi Tracy,
      You can use coir instead straw, though it would be a more expensive way to do it.
      Add your sheep manure in the layers where “manure (thin layer) and compost (optional) is specified in the no dig garden construction diagrams.
      PS – There must be other places to buy gardening materials, Bunnings is evil! 🙂
      I’m surprised they don’t sell smaller plastic wrapped straw bales down there in WA, they do here in Melbourne, they usually have the same products Australia wide.

  51. “…Bunnings is evil!”

    I agree! I prefer Mitre 10, but a new & unnecessary Bunnings came in (when there’s another one only 10 mins away!) & closed them down! However, sometimes I’m forced to the evil-B due to quantity/price ratio. I’m going to have a look around & see if any of the gardening places have it. The trouble is always that I don’t have a ute nor towball on my Camry.

  52. Love this Q & A section! I have a very large garden and want to try this method but I have to walk in my garden (50ftx40ft). What should I do about this? I was wondering about putting down rows of 30-50cm plywood boards that I would walk on and make no-dig rows between them. If I do this should I leave the boards in the same place year after year?

    1. Create paths in your garden, so you don’t have to step in your garden beds as this will ruin the soil structure by compacting it. Create permanent paths however you choose to minimise soil disturbance.

  53. Great article. It is detailed and I like it so much.

    In this no dig garden, do we need to water our vegetable daily just like normal digging garden?

    1. Daily watering is very frequent, you must live in a hot climate or have very sandy soil.
      The no-dig garden with its high soil organic matter content will retain moisture better, and the heavy mulch will reduce evaporation, so I’m expecting that you won’t need to water as often.

      1. I’m living in Cambodia. Here, farmers grow veg on small plots of land and they dig and turn the soil every time after each harvest and they water their veg twice daily, morning ang evening, from planting till harvest.

        But, what i see in youtube about no dig garden (not in Cambodia) I rarely see irrigation system or water hose in the garden bed, for example that of Mr. Charles Dowding. If he is to water daily without irrigation system set up like that it would be so time consuming.

        So how often does he water his garden or he just waters once at planting or he waters once every week? can you let me know?

        In my case in Cambodia, I think after I have a mature no dig garden it will require me to water at least once every three days. I’m looking for how often is the right practice wether once daily is too often or once every three days is too seldom. Can you please guide me with some hints?

        that’s why I wonder if he grows his veg

      2. The frequency of watering will depend on your climate, season, temperature, humidity, wind, density of planting and varieties of plants used. It’s an impossible question to answer but one which every gardener who has been looking after a particular garden for longer than a year can easily answer.

        Twice daily watering is extreme, but I don’t know your climate, location or the water needs of the plants you are growing.

        Yes, many people use irrigation systems, I use dripline irrigation below the mulch so the water is not lost to evaporation and goes straight to the plants roots.

  54. I have completely compacted clay in my walled garden. It is so bad I am wondering should I treat this as starting on concrete or soil!? I do not have much height in my beds to put large layers of other material because of the walls being rendered. I have about 2 inches to play with. I am hoping to grow fruits bushes and canes and fruit trees which it looks as though are fine to plant through the layers of top material and into the clay underneath? My plan was to add farmyard manure 2″ and then straw on top. Does that sound OK?

    1. Use some of gypsum (clay-breaker) and lots of compost just above the clay. The gypsum will break the clay apart and the compost will fill the spaces between the clay and work the organic matter down into the clay soil to improve the soil quality.

  55. So pleased I found this. What is the minimum time that one can start planting in the newly created no dig bed. Also what types of plants are best to start with?

    1. The great thing about no-dig gardens is that you can plant into them immediately. I’ve run no-dig workshops where a group of ten people built and planted up a very large no-dig bed in around half an hour!

  56. Hi. Thanks so much for this. I’m building 4 beds based on your advice. I keep running into some push back from my gardening friends though. I’m hoping you might have a response for me.

    My yes-dig gardener friends are saying that planting the seeds directly in compost will be too acidic/burn a lot of the veggies. They keep mentioning carrots. In your experience are there any seeds that can’t be planted directly in compost pockets. I’m planning on using horse/saw dust compost FYI. Any advice? Thank you, Mischa from Vancouver Island

    1. Hi Mischa, properly made compost that has composted completely and aged properly can’t burn seedlings and won’t be acidic, composting is how Nature makes soil, compost is basically the organic part of soil without all the crushed rocks and grit. If anything, compost is more moisture retentive than soil, so unless too much moisture is a problem for your seeds, then it should work perfectly fine. If there’s something not ideal with your compost, you can add some smaller soil pockets in the compost pockets!

  57. Hi Angelo. The problem I have in my area is that we do not have straw. Is there anything that can substitute straw?

    1. Straw is just dried grass, so if you don’t have access to straw you can use any other materials that are high in carbon, there’s a long list of them in my article Hot Compost Composting in 18 Days. Most dried plant material will do the job if its cut up fine enough.

  58. Greetings from Mongolia!!! Woooow…. this article is posted 4years ago and Q/A section is still alive. Respect for your effort and warm heart sir!!!

    We have very harsh and dry climate here. +35 in summer,-35 in winter. We only have 2-3 months of planting time. I have 2 questions.

    1. I make bone broth. It is common culture in here. Can i use grinded bone from broth as fertilezer in between or bottom of no dig bed?

    2. We also use urine as fertilizer and we believe it is natural fertilizer full of npk. It is diliuted 1:5 to 1:12 ratio of urine:water. Would it be ok to add to no dig bed?

    Your answer would highly appreciated.

    Best regards,

    1. Thanks for your comments all the way from Mongolia! All articles on this website are active as this site is an ongoing information resource that is constantly updated! 🙂

      Using ground bones in your garden is an excellent way to add calcium and phosphorus that will be slowly released into the soil and made available to plants. This is what happens in Nature if you think about it, definitely a great way or recycling nutrients.

      Urine is a very good fertilizer that is very high in nitrogen, it is usually diluted 10:1 (with ten parts water to one part urine) for use in gardens.

      If you have wood ashes, they’re very high in potassium (potash), and you can use some in the garden, but use only a very small amount as wood ash is highly alkaline and will make the pH of your soil very high.

    1. Can you grow grass in a no-dig garden? Sure, you can grow any plants! Can you keep a no-dig garden bed perfectly level like a lawn that has been levelled to perfection with a screed? Probably not. The soil in a no-dig bed will be nice, loose and friable, perfect for growing plants in, not ideal for humans walking over it.

      Remember that lawns are man-made aberration to what exists in Nature! In terms of ecology, lawns don’t make sense – compacted soil, monoculture with no biodiversity, the need for large inputs of energy and resources such as water and fertilizers. Also, consider that once the lawn is established, then it’s technically no longer a garden bed, it’s a lawn, so you can’t continue to use the no-dig technique of soil building, but then again, lawns aren’t ever dug once established anyway!

      Even though permaculture is often against the idea of lawns, I wrote an article for Permaculture Research Institute on how to grow lawns using permaculture principles, you can see the article here –

  59. This seems to be a great method, but is it possible to plant an entire acre of vegetable rows using no~dig/without tilling? Please excuse my ignorance, I am new to gardening in general and am being rushed to plant my entire field. At this point my soil is very clay like and compacted, but has a ton of yummy earth worms and organic material. Also a lot of moisture as I am on the coast…the grass is very tall. How can I get the ball rolling without tilling or digging the soil? Thanks for all your help~

    1. In your garden this technique is called no-dig gardening, when used on large scale agriculture, the technique is called no-till farming. There is growing movement towards sustainable and regenerative farming, so you’ll be able to find a lot of information out there if you look up the technique of no-till farming.

  60. I enjoyed the article but it does not address fruit bearing shrubs such as blueberries and I also have a fig and kiwi vines to plant. With large plants like these do you just do more layers of each step?

    1. If you’re going to plant large shrubs and trees, which are both perennial and long lived, then you don’t want the no-dig garden to sink in height! When planting annuals such as most vegetables it doesn’t matter, and the soil level is built up over time.

      For trees and shrubs, if you’re gardening in the ground, plant them in your existing soil, then convert the garden to no-dig, as per the instructions under that section:

      “Converting Existing Gardens to No-Dig Gardens – Building new gardens from scratch is one thing, but it doesnt happen very often. More often we encounter a tired, run-down garden bed where the soil is depleted and compacted, where nothing much grows in it other than weeds. Its even easier to retrofit and existing garden, to renovate it and convert it into a no-dig garden. You can even use this technique to transform a fully planted garden bed into a no-dig garden…”

      You wouldn’t be waiting to build soil in raised beds sitting on concrete if you were planning on planting blueberries or dwarf fruit trees, it would be faster to get premium soil in the first place to fill the garden bed with, then convert to no-dig.

      Hope this helps

      1. So for shrubs and trees I would dig a hole and fill it with good soil and compost?

      2. Yes, that’s correct, then start the no-dig process over the existing soil to improve it.

  61. I’m new to this so I hope I don’t sound too stupid. When you talk about the manure levels is that green manure, actual animal manure or either?

    1. The manure layer is animal manure, or a natural fertilizer of some sort such as blood & bone.

      1. Hi,

        I am newish to gardening so a few questions if you can help regarding no dig beds 🙂

        What do you mean by well rotted manure? I live in the suburbs so what manure is ideal that I can buy from a gardening shop?

        My existing garden bed (not raised) has silverbeat and weeds in it currently. Do I chop this in or dig them out before adding my manure and straw layers?

        Lastly, how do I get worms in my raised garden beds? Do I use the same method to set up the soil and add the worms myself? They currently have soil and manure in them only.

        Thank you.

      2. Hi, happy to answer a few questions!

        The manure you buy in bags is ‘well rotted’ or composted, as opposed to fresh manure! What would I recommend? Cow or chicken manure or both, these are readily available and have good nitrogen content.

        Remove the weeds from you garden bed before constructing your no-dig garden, you don’t want seeds or roots bringing up new weeds again.

        If your raised garden beds are on the ground, earthworms will find their way there on their own. If the raised garden beds are filled with soil and manure, the worms will come!

  62. Hi, I have left you another comment today asking for your thoughts of sustaining a small scale farm based of a permaculture model and firstly, I am very thankful for your all your provided knowledge. I have a more specific and pressing question that is related to no till farming and this article! I am a complete newbie to gardening and I’m leasing 2.5 acres of potential farm land to grow veggies.The ground is currently mowed grass, sloped, very compact going higher up gradient, slightly rocky in places and imbalanced nutrient content. Before reading about this we have explored rotavating and subsoiling it to deeply open the soil, but the ground was too compact last month. Now we are looking into modifying a plow to fit a tractor to turn a half acre. We can’t loosen the soil with a fork, if a deep tilling machine can’t do it, and we can’t grow anything if the soil isn’t loosened. I am not sure if we should wait for summer to pass and loosen the soil with a rotavator or plow it now. Is plowing compact “virgin/non farmed” soil much more damaging than waiting for the soil to be moist and then rotavating+subsoiling it? Plow flips the soil+grass, the latter flips the top soil and drags deep lines through it. They both seem a bit invasive to me. There are little worms or microbial activity it appears but the soil is compact and we need to kill the grass too.. Is there a different way you can reccomend opening up a plot/loosening the soil? It isn’t possible to just plant something deep rooted to open it up in this described state- is it?

    Also, after we loosen the soil should we start the no dig layers and cover crop in that or should we plant a cover/green manure crop straight in the soil in September with deep tap roots to grow over this winter and then chop+drop start adding no dig layers next spring?

    Thank you for your time and thoughts! I am delighted with this website and will be reading all of it in time 🙂

    Best regards,
    Jackie, B.C- Canada

    1. Hi Jackie, I’m an urban permaculturist, on a larger farm scale, techniques need to be modified to be appropriate to the scale you’re working on. Converting a farm to no-till is different from converting a garden bed to no-dig. You really need to look into no-till farming, regenerative farming ( , and consider using less invasive plowing methods that don’t destroy the soil ecosystem, such as chisel plows/yeomans plow/keyline plow Most vegetables need only shallow soil so you only need to restore the soil to a shallow depth initially.

  63. Dear Angelo,

    Now that I have created my no dig garden bed, how often do I need to water it and when can I start planting?

    Thank you,

    1. You can plant your no-dig garden immediately, no need to wait. How often you will need to water will depend on your climate, location, season, exposure to sunlight and wind, as well as the type, number and size of plants in your garden bed!

  64. Hello, I have a question regards to planting carrots. Since carrots don’t do well with transplanting I would have to plant the seeds into the last layer of hay? Would they grow that way?

    1. Hi, In no-dig gardening, seeds, seedlings and plants are always planted in pockets of compost as shown in the diagrams in the article. I often hear that carrots don’t transplant well but from my own personal experience they do just fine.

  65. I am from Punjab (INDIA).
    I have a problem of termites . Some times they eat my plant roots.yesterday I saw a branch of pemogranate eaten by those crazy termites.
    Firstly I accept that I have very few carbon or woody material in soil.i usually use buffaloes well rotted manure.
    I fear that if I use straw or another things like wood chips etc as mulch I will ended up with all dead and eaten plants.
    Please explain this insect behaviour and clarify how to deal with this problem.
    Someone told me that if I use mulch then termites would eat those things and my plants will be saved.
    Please help
    Thanks in advance

    1. Hi Ramandeep, most termites will only eat dead wood, but there are a few species that will feed on living plants and trees.
      You will need to cut away any tree branches with termites in them and then burn them to stop the termites spreading. If you can, you will need to find the termite colony and get rid of it. You can make a bait using boric acid to kill the termites – mix a equal parts boric acid and sugar in a shallow container such as a jar lid, and put it near the nest, and place some sort of cover over it so the bait is in a dark, protected shelter won’t get wet from rain. The termites will take the bait back to the nest and kill the whole colony.

      Straw is fine to use around the garden, so is manure, it won’t attract termites. Woody mulch, tree stumps and wood piles will definitely attract termites!

      1. Using wood mulch when you have a termite problem will definitely cause trouble, wood is termite food!

  66. I have a question about the “chop and drop”. I planted roughly 500 m2 with lucerne this spring (5 months ago) that I would like to use as my garden for next year. How would I go about it? A sharp spade and just cut the plants a couple of cm down in the ground and then add the new layers on top? will they not grow through if I don’t put cardboard or newspaper on top of the newly cut lucerne?

    1. Just scratch a hole in the lucerne. Fill with a few handfuls of compost into the hole and plant starts. Or if seeding pull,nback the mulch and plant seeds in the they energe pullnthe mulch back up around, but not touching the seedlings

  67. Angelo so great to find this.Ive been gardening for 40 years and tilled every year except the past two after seeing Back to Eden which inspired me to try the same no dig method you propose.It makes total sense and have been delighted to come across your site.Thank you for getting this info out there.
    I made a new 4×8 raised bed(10 in high) about 5 years ago and filled it useing the Square foot gardening formula.My property sits on Sandy soil with extremely good drainage.I have not been happy with the results of any crops grown in this bed.I mulch with eel grass.After the first season I added horse manure and compost , another season I added crabmeat and rock phosphate, this season I watered, watered, watered and was happy with the arugula , oak leaf lettuce production.I am wondering about introducing some clay soil to the box to help hold the moisture.Your thoughts are welcome.

  68. I tried this method this season and found it fantastic in terms of the time I spent establishing my new gardens. The greatest amount of time was spent installing the border – brick castellated (having battlements) style… So easy!

  69. Thank you for this superb information. I had hoped to convert my 3’x6′ garden beds that I had originally dug into the backyard lawn to a no dig garden, but last spring realized that the beds were totally full of tree roots from my neighbors and my own large trees. So I ended up digging the beds again to remove the roots. Is there a way to have a no dig garden with large trees close by? I’ve seen recommendations of digging in a physical break between the trees and the garden, but wonder if you might have any other suggestions?

  70. In a super moist, temperate rain forest like in the mountains of western nc is the extra straw for mulch completely necessary?

  71. I’m hoping you haven’t given up responding to comments on here! It is a great article and I have learned a lot. I do have at least one question though: Do you suggest using composted manure as the “manure” layer? Or even could it be used as both the manure and compost layers?

    1. Best to use composted manure as this eliminates the possibilities of weed seeds and pathogens, and it also lets you start planting straight away, as the heat from fresh manure composting may burn seedling and plant roots!

  72. Hi Angelo
    This information is great.
    I want to build raised beds on grass using this method for growing vegetables. We’re in Southwest Scotland on very heavy clay soil. To fill the beds I want to use the compost heap that was at the house when we moved in a year ago. A lot of it’s rotted down but I’m not sure what the mixture has been – general garden waste probably. On the top where its less rotted I can still see some reeds sticking out of it, some leaves, some grass clippings. etc. Is it safe to assume that, as it’s over a year old, it’s got a reasonable balance of nutrients or should I add something to it? If I do fill raised beds with it then obviously the least rotted stuff will then be at the bottom of the bed and the most rotted at the surface. If you think that would be okay should I still top it all with straw or similar?


  73. HI Angelo,
    I was really very happy to find your article. It was very comprehensive and easy to follow. I have access to an abundance of Sargasso seaweed. Can I dry this and use it?

    1. If it’s permitted to gather seaweed in your area, gather it, wash off any salt, and apply it to your garden as a mulch or as a layer in your no-dig garden. When fresh it breaks down quite quickly, so better to use it in your garden soon after collecting it rather than drying it, as drying will lose lots of the nitrogen content.

  74. I live in the UK. Loved this article and seems to give far more information than others I’ve read plus it simplifys it all. When I’ve read others I’ve almost given up because of the complexity. It really doesn’t appear to be that difficult. I’ve laid beds out with newspaper and then just covered them with soil and used a fair bit of dried chicken pellets. Again, weeds are far easier to get out and my crops have been great. Of course I’ll put manure on each year as a bit of a feed but I’m not using it as part of the main bed. Can I offer a little something as well please. I love using Horse Tail (sometimes referred to as Mares Tail). I gather as much as possible and put it into large water butts so soak down. It smells foul but the results I get from it are fantastic. A great, cheap, soil food with the added bonus of built in plant protector. Only problem is where I keep harvesting it it’s dying off but the other allotment holders bring me there’s as they are too set in their ways to try it.

    1. Hi thank you for your article, it makes it really simple! This may seem like a silly question but where i live is really windy, how do i hold down the final layer of straw while I’m waiting for it to breakdown?

      1. The straw mats down and also breaks down underneath, so it holds in place just fine in windy locations. Little birds will dig into it though looking for worms, so they may toss some of it onto your paths, but they’ll do that with any mulch for that matter!

    1. Hi Matt, you could use alfalfa meal instead of manure as a nitrogen source, the bacteria don’t discriminate between nitrogen sources given that the amount of nitrogen is the same. It’s just that most people find it easier to source some kind of manure, alfalfa meal is not that common or available.

      1. Hi, thank you for your response. I came up with another question. Is the natural fertilizer at the end of the season the only fertilizer in this system? Or would you add side/top dressings throughout the growing season? Thanks.

      2. That would be the minimal fertilizer added to the system, if you wanted to you can add additional small amounts of fertilizer every 8 weeks (2 months)from the start of spring to the start of autumn, that would be six applications in total.

  75. Hello! Thanks for a great article. I also learnt a lot reading through the comments. We have some bare rooted fruit trees we want to plant on our lawn..I understand we have to dig for that…(and can do no dig gardening around them to improve soil) ..problem is there are so many rocks! Any tips there? Digging holes is going to be a struggle. Also is the newspaper layer really necessary in no dig gardening on a lawn? Lastly, would drip irrigation be the way to go for our fruit trees? Thanks again!

    1. Yes, you definitely need to dig holes to plant your fruit trees, the soil disturbance is localised and restricted to the size of the hole being dug to fit the tree.

      If your soil is full of rocks and you wish to dig a hole, it’s easier too loosen the soil with a garden fork, which will also lift out some of the larger rocks. Then you’ll be able to use a shovel (which has a triangular shape and a pointed tip) rather than a spade (which has a square shape and a flat edge) to get into the soil past the smaller rocks. Mix compost into the soil from the hole to improve soil structure (maximum 1/3 compost) when refilling the hole for planting, and pick out the bigger rocks if you can.

  76. I have two raised beds. They are about 4 years old now. Originally I followed some advice of putting potting soil and garden soil w/composted manure. The results were fair. I then tried a mix or soil, worm castings, coconut coir, Azomite and mycorrhizae. Results only fair. The soil is reasonably loose on top, but about 6 or so inches down it’s hard and dry. None of the soil holds water. What can I do? I know tilling is a no no, but should I turn all this soil to loosen it? Can I amend it over the top?

    1. Replenish your soil in raised beds by adding compost and manure after the warm and cool growing seasons, mix it in well to create a wonderful friable soil structure. The compost improves the soil structure, the manure replenishes the nutrients. Once that’s done, follow the no-dig method described in the article here and let the worms do the work for you. With the mulch layers, the soil will be protected and will not be compacted by rainfall or watering.

  77. Hi
    what about salts in the compost.
    Won’t it damage the plants root system if there is a lot of compost on the soil, not mixed with the soil i mean?
    Thank you

    1. Compost won’t have high salt levels, uncomposted manure does but not compost. You can grow plants in straight compost without any problems.

  78. Angelo, i so appreciate your work and sharing… i have a question and can think of no one better to ask. Cheat Sheet Compost meets Mini Hugel?

    Moved to a rental, urban property with old unused veggie beds and very neglected perrenial beds. While getting to know the yard and sun patterns,,,, and getting to know the landlords and what they would allow, lol,,,i cleared and started trench composting in the old veggie bed with cardboard, newspaper, green waste from my kitchen and a veggie grower friend, letting pine needledle and cherry/ maple leaves fall where they may. I thnk i have the begginings of better dirt cuz all that i added s broken down, it smells and feels good… and the worms have moved in, yay!!!

    Thing is these beds wont be good veggie beds, except for the most shade tolerant veggies which could occupy the very front.

    Meanwhile we have been clearing and weeding other overgrown areas and have a collection of branches, leaves, grass ( from dry to fresh mown), dried weeds that now look like straw, etc. Landlords have approved a couple new beds in sunny sposts for veggies, but they dont want unsighlty compost piles or hugl style beds in the open, grrr.

    Its not completely no-dig, cuz i will be moving dirt, but what do you think,,, I mark out the new veggie beds on existing dirt/ grass with cardboard and some of my smaller branches, then build the new beds primarily with the stuff from the old beds i composted in….then use the old/empty boxed beds to layer old top soil, branches, leaves, kitchen and garden waste ( with planting in front so it is not unsightly to the owner). Ridiculous?


    1. Hi Kara, it’s okay to do any digging that’s necessary to establish the beds, then maintain them using no-dig techniques from then on if that means the difference between being allowed to have garden beds by a landlord or not being able to.

      The second option is to use metal raised beds, either galvanised steel or ‘colorbond’ coated steel, you only need a low bed around 40cm tall, these look super tidy, clean and modern looking, and they can be moved easily as they have no bottom.

  79. Hi Angelo, your article and all your extra advice in the comments below are fantastic!!! I put in several no dig veggie patches using your method and planted seeds into the little compost pockets a few days ago. Ive found that the little pockets have quite a hard dry outer crust, but are still loose enough and moist under the straw and a few cm beneath the top layer of the pocket. Is this hardening normal and will my seedlings be able to break though? Thanks in advance for your time and advice!!

  80. Hi Angelo, Thanks for a great article! I’m glad that I found it.
    We bought a house and it has quite a large front yard (7mts long x 5mts wide) which just has weeds growing. We were told that there was never a garden there but the soil has been repeatedly sprayed for weeds over the past 30 years. The soil is a very heavy clay and we haven’t been able to dig or plant anything. How do I go about creating a no dig garden for such a space? Will I need taller raised beds? Do I need to section out the front yard and create smaller beds? Select only plants that grow in clay soil? Thanks in advance for your time 🙂

  81. Hi Angelo,
    I have built a no dig garden, I used pea straw and also normal straw on the top. As the garden has been watered it has started growing some peas, not a problem, lots of “wheat” or other such grass and tons of toadstools. I am pulling out the wheat and laying it on top and leaving the fungus which seems to rot as the sun shines on it. Is this normal to have all these things growing or did I get a bad batch of straw? Is it OK to just leave the fungus to rot back, I assume it is breaking up the compost. Many thanks. Ruth

    1. When using straw, grass will grow, when using peastraw, peas will grow, which is why I prefer using lucerne, as nothing self sows, and it has higher nitrogen content too.

      Fungi are a normal part of natural ecology, their job is to break down carbon rich materials to return the nutrients back into the soil, they play an important role in the process of soil building, the creation of new soil. Let the fungi do their work to create soil for you!

  82. Hi,
    I have made my no dig garden in quite a deep raised garden bed. I was wondering if the layers need to reach the very top or not?
    Thank you for your wonderful information!

    1. You’re welcome! If you have around 40cm (16″) of soil once it has settled, you can grow most vegetables. The deeper soil, the more nutrients and water it can hold.
      Never go all the way to the top of any raised ped, planter, or pot, always leave around 10-15cm (4-6″) free at the top so you have space to put in mulch in summer, the extra height will stop the mulch blowing out or being tossed out by small birds digging for worms!

      1. Hi Angelo,
        I seem to have a mold on my mulch and leaves of my veggies… It strated as white spots that looked almost like spiders eggs and then after rain it turned black and thick. What would you suggest I do?
        Thank you again for your wonderful information!

      2. It’s not sooty mold that is caused by aphids and scale feeding on your plants or trees above them and excreting sticky honeydew?

  83. Hi Angelo, this is probably obvious but when or how often do you add further manure/straw layers to maintain the system over the years? I have a raised garden bed established 12 months ago; have added more compost, manure and straw once and the whole bed is still shrinking.


    1. At the start of spring and at the start of autumn put down a new layer to refresh the soil, that’s it!

  84. Hi, I am a newbie to allotments, and I want to start the way that I mean to go on. I love this simple ‘no dig’ blog.


    The allotment that I have adopted is on Devon clay soil. it has been neglected for a for a few years and has very deep set clump grass embedded. I don’t want to upset the ecology of the soil that is rich in worms. How do I progress with a no dig ethic?

    Any advice would be gratefully received.

    Kind regards.


    1. Hi Claire, thanks for your question, the technique outlined here should smother any clumping grass. A popular technique used by community gardeners to reclaim grass areas filled with weedy persistent aggressive running grasses such as couch and kikuyu is to lay don flattened cardboard boxes overlapped 25% at the edges, and then heavily mulch over the top with around 7-10cm (3-4″) of mulch. Starved of light, the grass will eventually deplete the stores of energy in the roots and then break down.

  85. I live in the southern most tip of Indian subcontinent. I d like some advice on how to convert a 35 cents coconut farm into a no dig farm. There are some 17 coconut trees in area. One jackfruit and one nutmeg. Can you give a practical advice to convert this into a no dig farm

    1. You can use the techniques explained in the article to create no-dig garden beds. Use any organic matter you have available that falls from the trees or wherever else you can get it to build fertile soil. Also, have a look at the hot composting article – as this is a very fast way to improve fertility if you can access the materials.

      For a no-dig farm, any organic matter that is produced is simply chopped up into smaller pieces and put back under the trees, that is how matural soil building works. Since your climate is tropical, organic matter breaks down very quickly.

  86. I have no experience in gardening at all and I would like to do it for the first time and I am a bit confused whether it will really work.
    How much time after making a raised bed should I wait before planting seeds? Days, weeks, months? Any work during that time to maintain the bed?
    Will such raised bed keep water – no need for any bark, small wooden elements or so?
    Is there any information available about watering (later), practical gardening in raised beds?
    Can granulated manure be used – regular manure with soil can contain seeds of weeds.
    Can blood and bone be replaced by anything else as it is not an easy task to find some fresh blood – the goal is to kill weeds in the ground – they are very strong. They could maybe even break through cardboard from below.

    1. Hi Thomas, thanks for your questions! To answer each one in turn:

      Yes, no dig gardening really works, my garden is over a decade old and has been running the no-dig system for that long!

      You can plant straight away, planting is done into pockets or rows of compost as I’ve explained in the article. Just keep it watered after and it will be fine till the end of the growing season, then replenish fertiliser and mulch.

      The organic material used in a no-dig garden bed retains moisture like a sponge, but still drains well, don’t add wood chips into it, the excess carbon will draw nitrogen away from the soil and plants to break them down in a phenomenon known as ‘nitrogen draw-down’.

      Water your raised no dig beds as you would any other garden beds, when you start gardening, the concern is knowing when to water, it becomes intuitive enough by looking at the plants and observing the weather.

      You can use granulated manure instead of regular manure, and it’s mainly sheep manure that contains weed seeds in my experience. You can use any manure in place of blood and bone, it’s just a source of nitrogen and phosphorus. ‘Blood and bone’ is a fertilizer powder made from meat processing waste and you can buy it from your gardening supply store – we’re gardeners, not vampires, so thankfully no fresh blood is required!!!

      Goats are great for controlling unwanted plant growth, they’re a valuable addition to any reasonably large property.

      Welcome to gardening and I hope you find the information on this site helpful.

  87. Really really interesting.

    Would this be suitable for converting an existing fruit orchard with mown lawn into a garden with fruit trees in it? Do I need to keep the layers away from the trunks?

    1. Yes, you can convert an orchard into a no-dig orchard quite easily, just use the method I describe for converting existing gardens. Definitely keep the layers of organic material away from the tree trunks, in the same way that you should always keep mulch away from tree trunks to prevent collar rot, which causes the bark to rot away at the soil line, ring-barking the tree.

  88. thank you for this article! im a complete newbie trying to build my first ever vegie garden. Can i use dry leaves or mulch instead of straw? im on a budget and bales of lucerne or hay are quite expensive to use over 80m2 i want to convert. thank you for sharing your knowledge!

    1. Hi, you can use dry leaves or mulch in place of a straw mulch as a carbon source, with some qualifiers.

      1. If you’re converting an existing garden to no-dig, then add layers of manure (and compost if you have it), then add the mulch or leaves over it.

      2. If making a deep no-dig bed where there is no clean soil underneath (over lawn or concrete), then it gets a lot more complicated. Just make sure you use thin layers so they don’t pack down and prevent roots passing through. Certain leaves don’t break down easily, so running them through a mulcher or mowing over them helps. It’s important that these materials can hold moisture like a sponge, straw mulches do that well. If your ingredients don’t, add plenty of compost to make sure that moisture is retained well. Furthermore, woody mulches don’t break down easily, so you’ll need to add more manure to help them break down otherwise you’ll get nitrogen draw down, where nitrogen will be taken away from the plants roots in the soil to break down the mulch, and it will take longer to break mulch in soil, and some wood mulches release substances that arent good for plants when they first start breaking down. Eucalyptus and pine tree mulches release oils which affect plant growth!

      1. Thank you for the details. I think I will use a first layer of leaves and 2 layers of sugar cane mulch with horse manure in between. How go about knowing how many bales are needed to apply 2 layers of 10cm? I have a 80m2. I am scared to order too many.

      2. Not sure how far the bales go in your part of the world, the sugar cane mulch bags here cover 8 square metres as a surface mulch. Just start with a small area of a few square metres, measure it, note down how much materials you use to get it the way you want, then you can calculate how much materials you’ll need for the whole area, and go from there. Don’t try to amend all 80 square metres of garden bed all at once, that’s too hard to manage.

  89. I am about to start working with uncultivated land full of grass and weeds. The surfice is also hard and needs to be “digged”. But i dont want to dig it. I think there would be more natural way to start my healthy relationship with thos land to get good soil. Can you give any advices?
    Thank you

    1. Remove the weeds, break up the hard surface and mix compost into the soil where you want to plant to improve soil structure, then build the no-dig beds over the area. Mulch the paths so weeds don’t grow through.Is that what you’re asking?

  90. I live in South Africa. I have been doing no dig vegetables in rotation with various summer and winter cover crops. The cover crops provide mulch, put down diversified root systems to build soil structure, and help to store moisture plus all the other biological advantages and earthworms. I recently came across your instructions for the no dig bed. Today I have started building the bed to compare this system with the cover crop system..I can certainly see the merits with your system. Here we have warm/hot summers with about 840mm per year mainly in summer with dry winters.
    Winters can get cold with frost sometimes.

  91. Hi. I have today finished building your ” on the lawn” layered bed. Really enjoyed constructing it.. Is it necessary over time to add more compost/manure and in my case hay layers?

    1. That’s great news! To maintain your no-dig garden, just follow the steps under the heading ‘No-Dig Garden Maintenance’. These are the steps (cut and pasted from article):

      After the plants are harvested and the growing season has ended, the layers will have rotted down into the soil, enriching and improving it. Its then time to replenish the no-dig layers. Youll replenish them at the end of each major season (when all the winter crops are finished, and then again when all the summer crops are finished).

      To replenish the layers of the no-dig garden:

      – Add a layer of manure as before (and compost if you wish, which is optional),
      – Cover the manure/compost layer with a layer of straw
      – Water it in

      Thats all you need to do until the next growing season! Quite simple really!

      1. Hi Angelo. Thank you for your quick and positive reply. This site is most informative and interesting. Well done.

  92. Hi Angelo. My 5 layered bed has hay and compost mixed with manure. Since planting it with veg I have noticed that it retains moisture very well.More so than with soil.

  93. Hi Angelo,
    I have a question regarding last season’s veggie plants that are still in the raised beds. My husband thinks if I pull them up it will disturb the microbes in the soil. I have chard and bolted lettuce, etc. Do I pull those up then top with compost etc or just cut them off at the soil and leave the roots? Thanks in advance.

    1. I never rip up any vegies, I just cut them off at the soil level, and drop the above-ground plant material on the soil surface after I mulch it up into small pieces, chop & drop is the technique I use. The only exception is brassicas as they inhibit plant growth when they rot down.

      1. Thank you very much for your response. In the case of weeds, do you pull or just keep cutting them back?

      2. Oh, weeds I do pull them up, on the rare occasion that I find them. With thick layers of mulch in a no-dig garden and lots of groundcover plants, even the plants I want to self seed find difficulty doing so!

      3. Great! Thank you so much for responding. Looking forward to a good crop this season.

  94. With my 5 layer hay and compost bed although the moisture retention is very good on a hot day the cabbage cauliflower do wilt and then recover once the sun is off them. Is this common.

    1. They shouldn’t be wilting if they’re planted in a pocket of compost as it should hold enough moisture to keep them happy.

      1. Hi Angelo. I purchased a moisture meter and this 5 layered mulch bed showed moist to wet. The cauliflower that I have harvested weighed 1.2kg.Perfectly formed. Your system really works well. Good moisture retention. No snails, slugs, weeds. I have built more beds for lettuce, spinach, peas, cabbages and more cauliflower. Thank you for this ingenious but simple to build beds. Thanks Martin.

  95. Hi Angelo,
    Thanks for all the time and work you put in to all your posts and the replies too. It’s great to read what others are doing and what their questions are.

    My question is about building a no-dig over concrete and growing food crops.
    Is concrete ‘food safe’ for growing edibles?
    Does it depend a bit on the age of the concrete?
    Would I need to know exactly what was in the concrete mix?

    Of course plenty of us grow things in plastic or polystyrene containers. There are so many materials out there! I don’t want to drive myself crazy trying to research all of these issues but I have quite a large concreted space and would love to divide it up and include some ‘no dig’ growing.


  96. Hi Angelo,
    Thanks a lot for all these info, it is really so useful !
    I am just starting my permaculture project here in Spain (Girona region), but the earth is very compact and dry (because of machine work and no rain). In addition it is a quite heavy soil (clay) with rocks, but I would think fertile since I can see wild fennel and asparagus growing, and some regular clover. I want to follow your advice of converting an existing garden to a no-dig one but I am not sure how to procede for starting with the green manure (I chose to put Vetch for now), since the soil is so compact. Can I just sow the Vetch seeds like that, and then maybe cover with a little bit of earth ? or do I need to decompact it manually (with a broadfork ?) before sowing the vetch ? or could I rototile just this time ? I have about 200m2 to do…Any advice on sowing in super compact and dry earth will be very much appreciated !! Thanks a lot

    1. Thanks for your question! You can just build the no-dig bed on top of the compacted ground and plant the green manures into that.

      If you’re looking to improve the soil first by using a green manure before starting a no-dig, which I don’t understand the reasoning, then you’ll need a green manure with a deep tap root that will break up the compacted soil, and also add nitrogen, fenugreek is the ideal plant for this purpose, and being a warm-season green manure, is sown in spring.

  97. I have solid hard dirt and love the idea of the no dig, however, I moved here with large potted plants and want to put them into the ground. I can’t see a 24″ tall pot being put into this mulch. Am I destined to hiring a hulk to dig into this rock infested soil for these potted plants? Some are medium sized pots – up to 8 inches.

  98. Hi I Have a large area I need to plant Soil is very hard impossible to dig .I have dogs also Do I need to create edging to keep the dogs out All I can think of is sugar cane bakes which in the area I need to cover will get very expensive as I am retired and on a pension Any suggestions?I live in South East Qld Australia

  99. Wouldn’t the garden keep growing in height if I keep adding material on top, and therefore grow out of the raised bed?

    1. You’d be surprised how quickly the living ecosystem know as the soil-food web can consume organic matter! I’ve piled mulched pruning scraps and green garden waste into heaps around half a metre high in my no-dig garden and in a few months it completely disappears, absorbed into the soil!

      1. Greetings Angelo.

        If I may ask for your help please…
        I recently put down some soil with leaves and coffee grounds ( thin layer of soil).
        Approximately 18 by 3 feet in area.
        Then put down cardboard ( dry)…then have 6 inches covering with pine mulch. I didn’t use “bloodnbone or water anything”
        After reading your very helpful article (oh my have I done this wrong?).

        So much mulch…my reason is I was watching a program, and this fellow uses the term “forest floor”…I was trying to replicate this.
        Please Angelo stop laughing!

        Anyway mate…if possible, any advice?
        Thank you kindly.

      2. Hi Normal, what you’ve done will definitely stop any weeds growing and kill off any grass or weeds underneath! A no-dig garden works exactly like a forest floor to generate rich dark soil from fallen organic matter.
        It’s only a problem if you’re in a hurry to plant it up, if you give it a year it will start breaking down nicely. If you wish to plant sooner, you’ll need to just dig holes around 15cm or 6″ wide that reach through to the soil, and fill them with either compost or soil for planting.

      3. Greetings.

        I apologize as I couldn’t reply on my thread, maybe because I’m a newbie.
        If I may please…
        Thanks Angelo for replying, I do appreciate your Kindness and knowledge.
        The next day after writing to you, and reading your information
        I’ve done as you suggested…
        I only went 3 layer’s.
        I ran out out of Cane mulch?
        But I thoroughly soaked/wet each layer, including the paper/cardboard, also not putting any glue type substance from cardboard.
        So I left the roughly 2 inches of soil, then blood bone with lime and watered.
        Layer of Sugar Cane mulch…watered.
        Composed/greens/coffee grounds…watered.
        Mulch again soaked in a wheel barrow.
        Then chook droppings ( not much).
        Then only used 30 % of initial pine mulch (used on front of house trees and plant beds)…watered.
        I hope will be okay.

        Also I’ve started a compost this morning…the 18 day method…yeah.

        Sincerely Angelo…thank you brother.

  100. Thank you for the response, Angelo! That is interesting. I see how out can work now.

    Would it in theory be possible to plant the entire area and not waste any space on paths? To get access to the beds, I could for example have these garden boxes movable, on wheels or something similar.

  101. Hi Angelo
    i have a clay bed that is not only compacted but dry and cracked – looks like a desert. I don’t think a fork (and i’m not strong enough) is going to break it up. Do you have any suggestions of what i can do before adding any compost? Maybe water it excessively over a few days? – Also is this something i can do now in April and start planting soon or do i need to wait until the Autumn now.
    thank you.

    1. If your clay soil is dry and cracked that would likely indicate that it’s a sodic clay which will respond to the addition of gypsum as a clay breaker. Sprinkle a thin layer of gypsum first to break up the clay into small clumps, then add the layers of organic matter. The clay will get watered when you add the layers of organic matter and wet them down. You can plant annual vegetable seedlings and herbs into a no-dig bed immediately if your combined layers are high enough, at least 15-20cm (6-8″). Hope this helps.

      1. Hi Angelo
        My vegetable garden soil is full of weeds. Do you think it is a good idea to layer newspapers first before the manure & compos

      2. When building a no-dig garden over soil, if there are weeds present, it’s best to put a layer of newspapers down first to stop any weeds growing through.

  102. Hi, thanks much for the information. Question, assuming in a year or so the newspaper is decomposed, wouldn’t the weeds reappear easily? Sorry I am not very knowledgeable.


    1. You’re welcome! The weeds won’t survive a year without light and would just rot away.

  103. Hello Angelo,
    I did what you advised in the chapter “How to Convert an Existing Garden to a No-Dig Garden”. I used fresh cow manure and I covered it up with straw last week.
    How long should I wait to begin to plant ?
    Should I plant like the “Step 10 Make Pockets of Compost in Top Layer and Plant Up” ?
    Thanks a lot for your answers.

    1. Cow manure should always be composted first, but since you’ve used fresh cow manure, you won’t be able to plants straight away, as the garden bed might heat up a fair bit from the composting process that will occur. You would be best to wait for at least a week or two until things cool down a bit, then make pockets of compost and plant up. Don’t be surprised if you see the beds steaming on cold mornings, especially if you put a garden trowel into the layers! 🙂

  104. Hullo Angelo.
    I have had great success with your 5 layered mulch veggie beds.
    Is there a reason for alternating 3 straw layers and 2 compost layers. Would alternating 2 straw layers and 1 compost layer work. Would alternating 4 straw layers and 3 compost layers work.
    Just wondering.

    1. The system of no-dig gardening is a soil building technique, and to build soil you need a mix of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials. By alternating thinner layers the bacteria can source both carbon and nitrogen more easily break down the materials. Having a thick layer of straw will make it harder to break down, it will take longer to do do, and either turn into a thick dry layer which won’t support plants in summer, or a thick waterlogged layer in winter with no aeration.

  105. Thank you
    I have learnt a great deal from reading this article . I will certainly be putting all this into practice.

      1. I have a patch I’m going to try again with. It’s covered in weeds at the moment. Do i need to start with the newspaper or just go straight to the manure / straw? Should I chop and drop the weeds first?

      2. Chop and drop the weeds, cover with newspaper, and then add layers to build the no-dig bed 🙂

  106. Hi all, thanks for the detail post but just needed some help. We have an existing garden but would like to turn it to no dig. Based on the above (last section), we will not need to layer on newspaper? Wouldn’t that create potential weed problem? Sorry but what exactly is compost, could that be brought from places like Home Depot? Also when you plant, do you have to dig into the previous garden soil area level? Thanks much in advance!!!!

    1. When converting existing garden beds to no-dig garden beds, there’s no need to put down a layer on newspaper because garden beds aren’t meant to have weeds in them! 🙂

      If your garden beds have weeds in them, remove as much as possible, or at least slash the weeds to weaken them, throw down some fertiliser to help break down the cut weeds and cover with newspaper, overlapping each newspaper by 25%, in other words, each newspaper should overlap one-quarter of the previous newspaper laid down. Compost is garden waste (with no weed seeds in it) that has rotted down, and it’s sold in garden centres to improve the soil, many people make their own.

      I would level the soil in the garden beds first before converting them to no-dig if you’re on level ground, and the soil is normally level in garden beds but is all over the place for some reason, as it make it easier to garden. If you’re on a slope, and that’s how the garden bed is, then leave it, we’re not aiming to alter the landscaping.

  107. Wow wow wow I love this concept. Just confirming I do put newspaper over the branches leaves and seaweed as my bed will sit on concrete? Also do you need to use crop rotation with the no dig garden?

  108. Dear Angelo, we have in northern Australia been using no dig garden for a long time (my old Dad used the same method from Esther Deans book in the 80s) it is the very best method of gardening. So easy! Sure there is a little more preparation initially but after that its like clock work.
    Thank you for your informative and easy to follow instructions.
    Cheers Jane Oborn

  109. Thank you so very much . I have just reclaimed some concreted yard space and was looking for the best and cheapest way to start a garden. I will immediately start the method described above . Once again big thank , regards.

  110. Just read this article as I am researching new methods (to me) of gardening. I have a question. I live in a small city, small yard. Is it worth trying to plant organically in the yard soil, or better to create enclosed beds (ie old water trough) with fresh organic soil and compost year to year from there? I worry about what’s already in the soil…
    I really enjoyed reading your article and the comments.
    Thanks in advance, Beth

    1. If you have soil in the ground that you can grow in, and it’s not contaminated with lead or hydrocarbons, then it’s much better to improve that soil and grow in it. You can get a soil test done if soil contamination is a concern, at that would be more likely if the garden beds are against house walls that were painted, or if previous owners were keen on dismantling car engines and pouring the motor oil and other harmful automotive liquids into the ground.

      The best of both worlds would be to use the garden beds and place a raised bed or two on concreted areas if you have the space.

  111. Hi Angelo

    Your article is really helpful as I am planning to set up two raised garden beds on my balcony. But I do have one question. I saw some articles that recommended to dig and sterile your soil after each harvest in order to kill insect eggs and fungi. Is this a problem for no dig garden?

    1. Hi Emma, the worst thing anyone can do to the soil is dig and sterilize it! If people want to do that they should just use hydroponic systems! Soils are very complex ecosystems that keep plants alive, they are filled with many living organisms that control pest insect eggs, and fungi are an important part of the soil ecology. The bad fungi only become a problem when there are no good fungi to balance them out. The less alive the soil is, the more work it needs to keep pests and diseases under control. It’s best to let nature do what nature does best, and that’s creating ecosystems in balance. With no-dig gardening, we replicate the same natural process as nature uses to build healthy soil, and help nature along. It works because it’s worked for the last 460 million years, well before any human started digging soil! 🙂 Digging up the soil and sterilizing it is fighting nature, which is futile, as it just encourages whatever tough, fast-growing plant seeds blowing in the wind to grow and repair the soil disturbance damage. We call these nature’s band-aids, others call them ‘weeds’!

      1. Thanks for your reply! But what about the roots? like tomatoes. Their roots can be massive and deep. Should I leave it in the soil or dig it out entirely?

      2. Hi Emma, would you believe that most vegetables have 80% of their roots in the first 30cm of soil, they don’t go very deep, but they still help the soil, because when they rot away they create an intricate network of channels for air and water to penetrate into the soil. In nature, plants aren’t uprooted, so we use a practice known as Chop and Drop Gardening (Sheet Composting), where the plants are chopped at the soil level and laid down as a mulch over the soil. We do this with all vegies except for the brassicas, as they stop plants growing when they decay.

  112. I want to convert to no dig beds, but we just recently tilled the area. Should I just go ahead anyway, or is there a better way to accomplish this?

    1. Hi Kira, it makes no difference if the soil has been tilled already, just follow the instructions provided to convert an existing garden bed into a no-dig garden bed and you won’t ever need to till ever again! 🙂

  113. Hello – I have an existing garden bed I would like to prep this way for spring planting season. Is it ok for me to skip the straw on top? They don’t sell them nearby and I would prefer to also cut costs. Can I just add compost and manure on top? Also, how long would I have to wait before I can plant my veggie starts? Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Caroline, you need some form of mulch over the compost and manure, it needs to be covered to create a dark moist environment that will enable the soil organisms to operate and incorporate these materials into the soil. If the fertilizer sits on the surface, the nitrogen is lost to the atmosphere, and when compost sits of the surface, the beneficial organisms are killed off then it dries and is exposed the the sun’s UV rays.

      Whatever you do, the manure has to go down first, and if you have compost to waste to use as mulch, put that on top of it.

      With no-dig gardening, any natural mulch will work to create a protective layer over your manure and compost layers. You can use shredded leaves, lawn clippings without seeds, wood chips, etc. Just look at the forest floor, it’s definitely not straw, but the soil underneath the plant matter is like black gold! 🙂

  114. This is caroline again – just posted at 8:27p on 3/21 above…I forgot to mention I plan to chop and drop existing winter veggies in my plot. So, I’m wondering how long before I can plant new veggie starts..I’m in CA this spot gets sun all day. Thank you

    1. Chop and drop the vegies, sprinkle manure over them, add compost if you have any, worm casting too, then cover the loot with mulch. Part the mulch to plant, if mulch is too high, fill pockets in mulch with compost and plant into that as shown in the instructions.

      You can plant all no-dig gardens immediately, there is no need to wait!

      1. Thanks so much for the quick and thorough responses! Really appreciate it! I’m glad to hear I can use any natural mulch (I’m obviously new to all this LOL). I have a ton of mulch made of wood/bark pieces so I plan to use those =) Thanks again

  115. Hi, thanks a lot for your detailed instructions. So great! I made a vegetable bed following them and it was lots of fun. I did it early February in Northern hemisphere (Netherlands) and started using fleece to cover the seedlings. But very soon the top layer of straw/compost started to develop mould and fungus. Do you have any recommendation on how to prevent that. Its too cold for seedlings to grow without fleece, but with it really doesn’t go well. Thanks in advance for any advice on how to del with it! Greetings from a complete garden beginner!

  116. Hello, very interesting to read your no-dig gardening article – Thanks! Do you have any experience with keeping vigorous Coast Redwoods out of either no dig raised beds or 3×3 wooden compost bins? In our garden, despite rubber and weed-mat under the raised beds, the redwood roots make their way in and if we let them go a couple of years the roots can be almost as big as your wrist. For the compost bins we have the same issue and right now considering putting concrete blocks and rubber/upcycled plastic truck liner under compost bins and even for the 10 raised beds as tree roots are such an issue here in a redwood clearing. But I do not like cutting off access for worms and soil microbes and it goes against the grain to do this. I have been researching digging a trench through all perimeter tree roots and inserting a vertical barrier, but this will be very substantial task. Any ideas or pointers greatly appreciated ?
    Thank you!

  117. Thank you very much for this information filled article!!! I feel like I just took a remarkable course that gave me all the factors and steps I need to fully understand garden soil and how to build it!! This is exactly what I have been wanting to learn. I had bits and pieces from many online posts, but this article had it all in one place!!!

  118. Extremely useful information which you have shared here. This is a great way to enhance knowledge for us, and also helpful for us. Thankful to you for sharing an article like this.

  119. Hi what would you suggest as an alternative to cardboard as the base layer in an area prone to termite attacks? I am hesitant to put anything down that might draw them close to the house (my planned garden sits 0.5 m from footings). Thanks

  120. I have created new raised no-dig beds per your directions and even stocked them with earthworms to jump-start the process between now and spring planting season. I’ve read that having a relatively thick top layer of straw over moist compost creates a nice habitat for slugs. It this is likely an issue,, what is the optimal way to control the slugs without harming earthwoms? I’ve always had slug issues with my old conventional gardening, and now would like to avoid using the chemical slug baits that had been my go-to before you went and convinced me to try your no-dig approach (which does make a world of sense to me).

    1. The easiest way to protect seedlings and young plants from snails and slugs is to cut off the bottom of a clear plastic soft drink bottle, remove the lid, and place it over the plant as a protective cloche. Don’t do this when plants are exposed to harsh, direct sun, as it gets too hot though. To trap snails, invert a terracotta pot, and prop up one edge, leave it overnight, then check for snails and slugs in the morning.

  121. Interesting! But dont the plants need some garden soil to get more nutrients? This seems to be essentially just compost, is that enough for plants to grow in and thrive?

    My garden bed was completely dug out so Im left with a nearly one metre deep trench in the ground. Should I still apply this same layering method, or should I add some soil to the mix as well? Im not sure whether to plant directly in the clay soil and build up slowly with really thick mulch, or whether to fill the whole trench now with browns and greens and plant into it.

    1. Technically, plants need the organic part of the soil, which makes up 5% of healthy soils and is comprised of decomposed plant matter and the microorganisms that form a major part of the soil-food web.

      The minerals account for 45% of soil, the blend of sand, silt and clay particles determine porosity, drainage and to some extent nutrient retention. Some minerals are also broken down very slowly to release minerals, including trace elements, which is why we add rock dust to no-dig gardens that aren’t built over soil.

      You can find more information in my article on understanding soil types.

      Hope this helps! 🙂

      1. Thanks.

        I ended up filling the deep trench with whatever organic waste I could find (fallen palm leaves, leaves off the road, fallen seeds from street trees, horse manure from the race track etc.). I topped it with a few inches of some clay soil and more organic matter, and for the first time since I moved in five years ago, that part of the garden is thriving!

        Interestingly, the other part of the garden which used to be doing pretty okay is now doing poorly. I planted directly into the clay soil and mulched it the same way I mulched the other area, but it’s not working well.

        I used to think I was cursed, but it seems it’s all about the soil.

  122. I had clay soil that didn’t drain well. I built 6″ raised beds (alfalfa, compost, straw, manure, topped with straw for the winter). It’s occured to me that when I plant in compost next spring/summer, the new roots won’t be near any mineral components. Should I add some rock dust, and if so, how much per square foot?

    1. Hi Richard, if you’ve built over soil, there’s no need to add rock dust, most vegetables have 80% of their roots in the first 30cm (12″) of soil, and will get down far enough on their own to reach the minerals in the clay.

Leave a Reply to Angelo (admin)Cancel reply