No-Dig Gardening | No-Till Gardening

No-Till Vegetable Gardening

June 8, 2020

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Tired of the garden shovel? Sore from pulling weeds every day? Discover how no-dig gardening can help save your back while boosting your soil’s health. It allows the beneficial organisms in your soil to thrive undisturbed, making it a better place for your plants to grow. Mother Nature does not use a spade, and she does pretty well! So why not follow her example?

What Is No-Dig Gardening?

No-dig gardening—also called no-till gardening, layer gardening, and lasagna gardening—is a technique that requires no turning over of soil. You simply spread a new layer of compost on top.

Why Use This No-Dig Method?

If you grew up on a farm, as I did, you probably grew up plowing and tilling every year.

However, thi isn’t the best approach for a home garden. Turning the soil brings up weed seeds, and disrupts the natural soil structure. In nature, air and water spaces in the soil are critical to growing healthy plants, and ensures that there is less erosion from winds and rain.

The no-dig method saves time and energy while preserving the overall soil structure. The soil is then able to better retain water and is resistant to erosion. Since there is no cultivation involved, there are fewer weeds because new seeds are not brought to the surface to germinate, and any that grow are easy to remove in the soft soil.

By simply adding organic materials (compost), you build on the fertility of your soil to keep it rich in nutrients that make your vegetables strong and healthy, requiring no extra fertilizer. You’ll find your garden is much more productive. 

If you have raised beds, you are essentially following a no-dig garden technique. Fill the bed with a 50:50 mix of topsoil and compost and you can plant right into the bed!

If you want to create a new no-dig vegetable garden, here are instructions.

Before You Begin

Choose the area that you want to use for your new garden bed. It can be an existing bed, open soil, or even a patch of lawn. You’ll need to avoid stepping in the soil, so design your bed(s) with plenty of walking and kneeling space for easy access to your crops. You can begin at any time, but it takes several months to a year for the new bed to be usable. The best time to start is in the fall so that the soil has an entire winter to prepare.

Tools and Supplies

Shovel
Wheelbarrow
Gloves
Kneeler
Cardboard boxes (regular flat brown boxes without a gloss or sheen, not corrugated or pizza boxes; no tape) 
Compost (a mix of brown/green materials)

How to Create a No-Till Vegetable Garden

Creating a new no-till vegetable garden is simple:

  1. First, mark out you growing areas. Make beds no more than four feet wide to avoid the need to step on the growing areas. (This helps to minimize soil compaction, which makes tilling even less necessary.)
  2. Clear the soil surface of any debris and rocks.
  3. Mow grass short or cut weeds to the ground.
  4. Add a layer at least 4 inches thick of well-rotted organic matter such as compost, or manure from a trusted supplier who can guarantee no herbicides have been used.
  5. Flatten and lay out cardboard boxes over the entire planned (or existing) bed area.  Lay down with generous overlaps as the base for paths. Cover with shredded bark or similar for a non-slip surface.

The cardboard will kill all grass and weeds underneath.  Spread 1 to to 2-inch layers of compost material over the cardboard until the pile is about 8 to 10 inches high. Optionally, you can continue adding layers to a height of 2 to 3 feet as the pile will shrink over time due to the slowly composting organic material. Leave the new bed for several months to a year, or until bed has compacted and composted into dark, rich soil.

If the organic matter is still lumpy when it’s time to plant, start vegetable seedlings off in plug trays or pots to transplant when they’ve developed a sturdy root system.

An optional extra stage is to top the compost with wood chips (or other organic matter such as hay), as popularized by organic gardener Paul Gautschi in his ‘Back to Eden’ method. Add the wood chips about two inches deep, making sure not to mix it into the compost beneath. Then simply push aside the wood chips to plant directly into the compost. This top layer helps slow down evaporation and gradually feeds the soil below, reducing the need for additional fertilizers.

Future Labor

At the beginning of each growing season, spread a 1- to 2-inch layer of mulch or dead leaves over the top of the bed. The mulch helps to prevent any remaining weeds from growing and keeps the soil cool and moist. After the harvest in the fall, pull out all of the plants from the season and spread them over the soil. They will add to the existing nutrients and help the next year’s vegetables to grow.

Mulch to Build Soil

In no-till gardening, mulching replaces digging. The mulches protect the soil surface from erosion, help maintain soil moisture, smother weeds, add fertility and improve soil structure—all without the need to till!

It’s important to keep replacing mulch as it breaks down into the soil. Suitable mulches include compost, leaf mold, wood chips, hay, grass clippings, straw and sawdust. No-till beds can be free-standing or built with sides as raised beds to contain all that extra organic matter.

Regular mulching weakens weeds by smothering them and by never bringing weed seeds to the surface to germinate.

A Word on Composting

If you’re creating your own compost, remember to layer a mix of “green” and “brown” compost materials as you spread the material on the cardboard boxes. Examples are below.

“Green” Compost Materials

Grass clippings
Fresh manure
Coffee grounds
Plant trimmings
Vegetable excess

 “Brown” Compost Materials

Black-and-white newspapers (color ink is toxic to plants)
Dead leaves
Straw
Woodstove ash

See more about the perfect compost recipe.

Ready to plan out your vegetable garden? Check out the free trial of the Almanac Garden Planner!

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Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

no dig, no till

Love this method of gardening but unfortunately so do the slugs up here in northern Maine. They eat all the tender young seedlings by night and hide under the mulch during the day. Any solutions?

How to Deter Slugs

The Editors's picture

Hi Nadia,
Fortunately, there are a few easy and organic ways to deter slugs in the garden. You can use beer traps, which involves burying a saucer or shallow container to it’s top edge in soil near your seedlings, then pouring an inch or so of beer into the saucer. Slugs will be attracted by the beer and fall into the saucer, drowning themselves. Empty it daily. Another option is to sprinkle crushed eggshells around the base of your plants. The eggshells can cut and harm the slugs’ soft bodies, detering them from coming any closer to your seedlings. We hope this helps!

No Dig Gardening & earthworms

If I were to use cardboard to cover the weeds & grasses that currently cover my former garden, how harmful is that to the earthworms, below?

No dig gardening

This is my first year at trying no dig gardening in my small veggie patch. A lesson I've learned . . . I should have used more mulch!!! Well, I will next year. Thank you.

Jacquie

Tree Roots

I love the idea of not turning, or tilling the soil. Unfortunately, I have 2 live trees, maybe 20 feet or so from my garden area. With that, I get live roots invading my garden plots. Some get to be rather large in size, so I feel compelled to yank out as many of them as I can, which means turning the soil. I'm always amazed at all the gardening videos I see, your included that don't seem to have any tree roots to deal with. Short of cutting down the trees (one of which is in my neighbor's yard) do you have any advice on an easier way to deal with tree roots?

tree roots

The Editors's picture

We sympathize. We had a large sycamore which invaded the vegetable beds with its roots. While we avoid tilling in most cases, once a year we do fork over the areas that the roots get into, and pull out what we can. You could sink something into the soil—wood, stone slabs, sheet metal, something like that—around the vegetable beds where the tree roots try to come it to divert them. Failing that, pay special attention to feeding and watering vegetables growing on top of the roots to try to minimize problems with competition for resources. A good thick layer of compost or well-rotted manure on top of the soil every year helps, too. This does raise the question of whether you’re feeding and watering your vegetables, or the tree, but with good soil there should hopefully be enough to go round. 

First No-Dig No-Till Garden

This is my first year trying no-dig gardening using the same method you've shown in the video by cutting back grass and weeds, placing cardboard, compost and finally straw. Through horticulture schooling this year I've learned all about how important it is to keep the soil ecosystems thriving for plant health. I can't believe these methods aren't widespread by now since they are MUCH less work and better for the environment. I've just planted some peas and other cold hardy varieties to start off the growing season. I can't wait to see the results.

No-Till Garden

The Editors's picture

Sounds like you’re off to a good start. Best of luck with your garden!

No-till gardening

We used to dig the weeds around all the shrubs and trees in our yard almost every year until we saw a video about layering newspaper or cardboard around the areas, soaking with ample water, and then covering with a good composting material. What a difference that has made!! No more back-breaking work. The newspaper kills the weeds and grass and the lawn looks well-kept with no more weeds around the trees. Whatever may creep into the areas is easily pulled out. This same technique can be used for gardens and flower beds -- very similar to the video. Really a great labor-saving idea.

no till gardening

I have been doing the back to Eden gardening in lower central Michigan for five years it was done over clay soil I started with wood chips that had been composting for five or six years this wood chip method works great I keep adding wood chips to the top of the composted chips when needed.I have added some compost to the new wood chips to help them break down better. I have tested the soil for nutrients and the only thing I have had to add is a little nitrogen. I get a great producing garden that is organic and easy to maintain.

No-dig gardening

We have clay and rocky soil as we live on "glacial garbage" here on the north shore of Long Island. Even our beaches are rocky! Add in the shallow roots of the ancient Norway maples that ring our yard and you've got concrete, not soil.The best answer I've found in living here for over 40 years are raised bed, well mulched. I use hay when I can get it, bought compost when I cannot, or simply bought mulch. We use newspaper under all of that and it works pretty well. I also make seed-starter pots of newspaper - a little origami goes a long way to helping a garden and recycles our NY Times, getting the proverbial "two birds with one stone". I find after a spring such as we are having now with nor'easters galore, the soil does get a bit compacted with all the snow and sleet, but it's easy to rake it out - still doesn't need digging.

cardboard/newpaper

If I make a new bed using cardboard or newspaper, how do the root crops like carrots grow? Do they go through the cardboard?
Do I leave the cardboard in place after harvest and just add more compost on top next spring? Thank you

Garden;

The page says: "you leave the cardboard and mulch on the garden for about a year; the next year garden composted ready to plant";

Cardboard/Newspaper/Hay

I have been using cardboard and/or newspaper covered with thick layers of hay in my garden for the last few years. For me, it keeps the soil moist, even during the hot Georgia summers, while killing weeds and feeding the soil. Areas that were more red clay than anything now have a nice layer of good soil that is actually plantable and have plenty of worms!

No dig garden plots

I have been using this method for more than 10 years, my soil was originally pure sand with no organic matter at all. I compost all garden waste plus lawn clippings adding a little organic animal fertiliser I have 6 compost bins that are at various stages of composting. My beds are raised by using wooden sleepers to a height of 16 inches 400mm. As I am 76 years old this means less bending and also keeps the material in the beds. 5 beds all 2.4mt x 1.2mt means that I never have to purchase vegetables my wife and I enjoy fresh healthy veggies all year round, with excess going to family and neighbours.

No dig gardening

Our son plants his garden using hay bales. You need to check this out. Also not having to bend down while attending to the plants.

Hay bale garded

I would love to see & learn more about your sons gardening with hay bales. I have horses and always have hay. A bad back so this should be my answer!

Hay Bales for gardening

I tried a few hay bales but I didn't like that method for the simple fat that the bales will turn in to compost and then you have to start all over again with new bales.

No Mulch Garden

I've seen several bloggers recommend using cardboard or paper as a weed barrier when building gardens or beds. From experience, this is not a good thing to do. Termites love it and if you pull it up after a few months you will see thousands of the little destructive buggers. I have also found them under bags of garden mixes with wood in the mix. So, unless you live in an area that is free of termites, cardboard is inviting them into your living area....then on the the house

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