No Dig Gardening

No Dig

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 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!

 

Nature’s Way

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.

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!!!

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, Human Don’t!

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

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(Source: Earthworms by Petr Kratochvil)

 

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

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.

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 Gardening 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 blood and bone and lime, and 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!

 

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.

 

Converting Existing Gardens to No-Dig Gardens

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!

 

No-Dig Garden Maintenance

To maintain any  type of no-dig garden,  you only need to repeat the above three steps detailed in “Converting Existing Gardens to No-Dig Gardens”.

After the plants are harvested and the growing season has ended, the layers will have rotted down into the soil, enriching and improving it. It’s then time to replenish the no-dig layers. You’ll 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:

  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!

128 Responses to No Dig Gardening

  1. Frogdancer says:

    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🙂

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  2. ngieen says:

    yet another great and detailed post ! thank you for sharing !

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  3. sunnalive says:

    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?

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    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. permachicken says:

    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?

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    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Regards

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Kathy Schlaefli says:

    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.

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    • Kathy Schlaefli says:

      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.

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  6. Alfie Sims says:

    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?

    Thanks.

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    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

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  7. Valentin says:

    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…

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    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

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  8. 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?

    Thanks,

    Fiona

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    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

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  9. Where I want to make my raised beds is infested with bindweed. Should I attempt to dig out this perennial weed first. Thank you. Nic in UK

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    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Bluey says:

    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!

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

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

      Like

  11. Suggestions for other no dig materials – old moth-eaten woollen jumpers or cotton t-shirts and old feather pillows. ok?

    Like

  12. Genevieve says:

    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?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  13. Phoenix says:

    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?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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!

      Like

  14. sarahdo says:

    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

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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).

      Like

  15. Beaty says:

    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?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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 – https://deepgreenpermaculture.com/diy-instructions/hot-compost-composting-in-18-days/

      Like

      • Beaty says:

        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.

        Like

  16. Elizabeth Tippins says:

    Where to obtain alfalfa? Alternatives;?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  17. Martha says:

    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!

    Like

  18. fatbuddhaboo says:

    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?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fatbuddhaboo says:

        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.

        Like

  19. Jenny says:

    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……

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  20. Jenny says:

    Thanks Angelo. Appreciate your response.

    Like

  21. Blake says:

    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?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

      • Simone says:

        Hi Angelo – Could you explain why making hugelkultur beds is then a good idea? Wouldn’t 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.

        Like

      • Simone says:

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

        Like

  22. Marvin says:

    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

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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 – https://deepgreenpermaculture.com/diy-instructions/raised-garden-beds/

      Like

  23. Marvin says:

    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

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  24. Girlontor says:

    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

    Like

  25. Safira says:

    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🙂

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  26. Craig says:

    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🙂

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

      • Craig says:

        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

        Like

      • Angelo (admin) says:

        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?🙂

        Like

  27. Craig says:

    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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  28. Lynn says:

    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?)
    Thanks!

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  29. Pip Hill says:

    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

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  30. Lynn says:

    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?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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!

      Like

      • Lynn says:

        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?

        Like

      • Angelo (admin) says:

        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 https://deepgreenpermaculture.com/diy-instructions/hot-compost-composting-in-18-days/ ), 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 can’t 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 we’re just copying what Nature has always done to help plants grow the way they always have done, it’s 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 deep_green@optusnet.com.au

        Regards, Angelo

        Like

  31. Ian says:

    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?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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!

      Like

  32. Dawn Oliver says:

    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.🙂

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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???🙂

      Like

      • Dawn Oliver says:

        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.🙂

        Like

      • Angelo (admin) says:

        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!🙂

        Like

  33. Dawn Oliver says:

    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.🙂

    Like

  34. Sarah says:

    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?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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!

      Like

  35. Marie says:

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

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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!😉

      Like

  36. Marie says:

    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

    Liked by 1 person

  37. aamckp says:

    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!

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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!🙂

      Like

  38. Carlos says:

    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

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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?

      Like

  39. Carlos says:

    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

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  40. Carlos says:

    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

    Like

  41. 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/.

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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

      Like

  42. Emily says:

    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?

    Like

  43. Hello! I am wondering how do I plant seeds, such as carrots in a no-dig garden? Wont the seeds get shaded out?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  44. Gwen Simmons says:

    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.

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  45. Gwen Simmons says:

    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.

    Like

  46. Gwen Simmons says:

    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.

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  47. Gwen Simmons says:

    Thanks! I appreciate the education.

    Like

  48. Gwen Simmons says:

    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.

    Like

  49. Laz says:

    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!)

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

      • Laz says:

        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)

        Like

      • Angelo (admin) says:

        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.

        Like

  50. Wish I knew that before I’d done all the digging.😦

    Like

  51. Great article!!! Thanks for sharing your views.

    Like

  52. Betty Pearson says:

    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.

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  53. aman says:

    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!

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  54. Satish Chandra says:

    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.

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  55. Briony says:

    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.
    Briony

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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’.

      Like

  56. Michelle De Grassi says:

    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?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  57. Max says:

    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

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  58. Ron says:

    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.

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  59. Tracy says:

    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?

    https://www.bunnings.com.au/brunnings-90l-feed-and-mulch-coir-mulch-block_p3010083

    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! 🙂

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

  60. Tracy says:

    “…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.

    Like

  61. Kyle says:

    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?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      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.

      Like

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