How to Create a No Dig Garden – Beginner’s Guide to No Dig Gardening

One of the biggest mistakes made by novice gardeners is underestimating the importance of the soil. The soil in your garden is essential to your success. No dig gardening is all about taking care of the soil, maintaining it, and even improving it over time. Why should we adopt this no dig garden approach? And what exactly does this gardening methodology involve? Read on to find out more.

What is No Dig Gardening?

No dig gardening is a practical approach to organic gardening. It involves leaving the soil in your garden as undisturbed as possible. It is, of course, almost certain that you will still dig in your garden at some point or another – to make planting holes, for example, or to unearth potato tubers. But this differs from more ‘traditional’ gardening in that it does not involve digging in order to aerate the soil, or to incorporate organic matter into it to improve fertility or soil texture.

Some gardeners undertake back-breaking work – digging or even double digging to create or maintain their growing areas. With this new gardening style, there will be none of this. It is an easy and low maintenance way to operate in your garden, and this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many benefits of this sort of gardening.

Why Adopt a No Dig Approach?

Don’t dig in your garden, let the earthworms and other organisms do the work! 

There are many reasons why adopting a no dig approach is a good idea. The benefits to the gardener might be reason enough. No more sore muscles and aching back – more time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of your labors. But there are numerous benefits for your garden too. For example, such no digging techniques will:

  • Allow for a healthy soil ecosystem that teems with life.
  • Improve soil texture, fertility and moisture retentiveness over time.
  • Improve your yield, and the quality of the yield that your garden can provide.

Understanding Soil

Soil is far, far more than just ‘dirt’!

Understanding why the no dig method is such a good idea begins with an understanding of what soil actually is. Many people think of soil simply as ‘dirt’. But a healthy topsoil is far more than just that. Soil is not just organic matter and the particles of clay, silt, sand etc. that make up its structure. It is a whole ecosystem that teems with living creatures. Bacteria, fungi, and larger soil dwelling organisms like earthworms all play their roles in a complex living system known as the ‘soil web’.

Digging in your garden (and tilling on farmland) disrupts and destroys this fragile ecosystem below our feet. When soil is tilled, the fertility of the land improves short term. But in large part, this improvement in fertility is caused due to the decaying organisms that have been killed by the disruption. Longer term, fertility drops, because those beneficial organisms are no longer there to do their jobs. The fragile fretwork of fungi – the soil’s communication network, is disrupted, and water and nutrients can not be moved around as effectively. The land’s capacity to maintain nature’s cycles is reduced, and this is why harmful and polluting pesticides are required. Soil is less able to withstand the elements and more prone to erosion and nutrient depletion.

Around the world, we are losing our precious topsoil at a rate far faster than it can be replaced. It is very important that we begin to develop more sustainable practices. If we don’t, the world could run out of the fertile soil it needs to grow food in as few as 60 years! In our gardens (as on our farms) it makes far more sense to work with nature, protecting the soil web and harnessing its help in growing our food and other plants.

In your garden, you can do your part to tackle this terrifying problem by making sure that you understand the soil, value it, and use no dig methods to ensure that you are protecting it.

Building New Growing Areas in a No Dig Garden

A new lasagna bed edged with logs from the garden. 

So, what exactly does no dig gardening involve? Well, the first thing that it is useful to consider is how new growing areas are made. Traditionally, someone looking to make a new vegetable plot, border, or other growing space would dig away the turf, or dig over the area of soil, digging organic matter into the soil of the area in order to improve its characteristics and fertility.

In a no dig garden, this important organic matter is not dug into the soil, but rather placed on top of it. Since the soil ecosystem is largely left undisturbed, it is able to do its job as nature intended. You do not need to dig-in the material because, over time, the organisms living in the soil will do the job for you. This process will happen in much the same way as it does on a forest floor. No one digs dead leaves into the soil in a natural forest ecosystem. Rather, the soil biota takes care of it – nature’s very own recycling system. Sometimes, in an organic garden, it is less about intervening in nature’s cycles, and more about sitting back and letting nature take its course.

There are several methods that might be used to create new growing areas. For example:

  • Lasagna Gardens (Layered, raised beds where organic materials are composted in place.)
  • Hugelkultur Beds (Mounds of wood and other organic materials)
  • Straw Bale Gardens (Plants are grown on straw bales, rather than directly in the soil.)

In each of these cases, the new growing area is colonised, from beneath, by soil organisms, and slowly breaks down over time. It’s nutrients are gradually combined into the soil ecosystem below, and new growing areas are created which will continue to thrive and flourish for years to come.

Building a Layered Raised Bed (Lasagna Garden)

Making a ‘lasagna bed’ is the process of building up a fertile growing space in the same way that you would build up the layers in a compost bin or heap.

  • Begin by creating the edging for your new bed or beds. (There are plenty of natural or reclaimed materials that you could choose to use for this purpose.)
  • Lay cardboard on the grass or soil within that boundary. This will help to suppress grass or weeds until the bed is established, but as it breaks down, will allow organisms to pass into your new growing space from the soil below.
  • Next, place a layer of twigs, dry leaves, straw, wood chip or other ‘brown’ materials,
  • Then a layer of ‘green’ nitrogen rich materials like grass clippings, green leaves and fruit and vegetable kitchen waste.
  • Add another layer of brown and green and continue until you have a bed of the required height.
  • Finally, add a top layer of compost/ soil.
  • You can then water well and plant up your new growing areas.
  • Once you have planted up your beds, the space should then be mulched with straw or other organic materials in order to avoid leaving the surface bare.

Hugelkultur mounds follow a similar formula. It is just that the new growing space is not flat, but rather in a mounded shape. It has, at its core, not just the organic materials described above but also larger pieces of part-rotted wood, which retain moisture and enrich the ecosystem slowly over time.

This half-built, curving  hugelkultur shows how the different layers are built up around the core of woody material. 

Check out the article on creating a herb spiral for more information about creating a hugelkultur growing area. You can also find out more about straw bale gardening in our article on the subject.

Converting an Existing Growing Area to a No Dig Garden

Not all of us have space to create new growing areas. This gardening style also offers solutions for those who want to improve existing growing areas. Now you proceed with your switch to the no dig system will depend on how well the current growing segment is doing.

If you have a well-maintained growing segment that you have been digging, you can simply begin to switch to a no dig system by laying mulches over the growing space and building up layers as described above. The soil web should begin to repair itself, and over time, earthworms and other organisms will take over the work that you were previously doing.

If, however, you are dealing with a part of the garden that has become compacted and depleted of nutrients, then it can be a good idea to carry out a couple of steps prior to moving through the steps of creating a no dig garden described above.

First, loosen and break up the soil. There are several different ways to accomplish this. The quickest method is to use a garden fork to gently aerate (though not dig up or turn over) the soil. A slower way to do it is to plant a well rotted green manure with deep roots, which will penetrate and break up the compacted soil over a number of months. Green manures can be used to break up the soil, and can also help by adding fertility. They are a good option when you are trying to improve a problematic existing part of your garden.

Bed planted with a green manure of mustard.

Green manures are left to grow for a period of time, then chopped and dropped where they are. Earthworms and other soil organisms will break that matter down and it will be incorporated into the soil below, improving its structure, water-retention capacity and nutrient content.

Adding compost and mulches of organic matter and compost in layers is called ‘sheet mulching’. In areas with existing plants, take care not to allow the mulch materials to touch their trunks/ stems – leave a small gap around each one. If mulch and compost are piled around the base of a tree, shrub or other plant, it can be prone to rotting.

Over time, the materials of your sheet mulches and compost will break down and nature’s systems will begin to repair themselves.

Maintaining a No Dig Garden

To maintain such a garden, there are certain important things to remember.

  • Firstly, when trying to protect the soil ecosystem, it is important not to walk on your growing areas. Keep off the soil so that it does not become compacted, and so that the fragile ecosystem can flourish undisturbed.
  • Try not to leave any areas of bare soil. While different mulches will suit different areas, it is a good idea to make sure that there is always a layer of compost/ organic matter protecting the soil surface – like the leaf litter in a forest. Bare soil is more prone to nutrient loss and erosion caused by wind and water. Simply continue to add layers of organic matter each year.
  • Your first year harvest may be slightly lower than before, but your yield will improve over time
  • Weed seeds are less likely to germinate with this gardening approach, as you no longer bring soil to the surface.

It is clear than no dig gardening is essential for sustainable, eco-friendly gardening. It is better for the planet, better for you, and better for the plants and wildlife in your garden. So stop digging right away, and let the earthworms and other soil organisms do the work for you.