Top 16 Steps to Create a Successful No Dig Garden
There are many variations and techniques for using the No Dig Garden method. This is just one suggested approach based on our experience and research and Toby’s recommendations.
Ideally, this new garden bed should be prepared in the autumn and left to decompose over the winter. If you use this technique in the spring or summer and plant immediately, it works better if you have more carbon layers and more compost/soil mix, and fewer nitrogen layers (see # 11 below).
If you plant soon after making the new bed, or the material hasn’t decomposed much, make furrows or pockets in the top layer of mulch and fill them with compost and soil mix, and plant directly into this. This will enable the seeds or plants to grow while the sheet mulch is decomposing below it. It is generally easier to grow established seedlings in a new no-dig garden rather than direct sowing of seeds. Root crops like carrots and beetroot don’t do well in new beds.
If you do plant immediately, don’t expect high yields in the first season because the material hasn’t broken down enough to provide many nutrients for the new plants or seeds. Organic substances decompose when microorganisms consume this material. It is only when these micro-organisms die that plant nutrients are released back into the soil in a form that the plants can use.
Building high-quality, healthy soil is probably the most important thing we can do for our garden and is essential for growing healthy plants that produce vegetables with high nutritional value. But it does take time to practice patience and slowing down to the speed of nature. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different materials. All organic material breaks down and produces soil. Your new garden needs air, water, nitrogen, and carbon. For No Dig Garden Try the Following Steps:
1. Mark out the Area for the Garden
Mark out the area for the garden string or boards which is preferably level and running east to west for best sun access and allows the use of trellises on the south edge for vertical gardening which won’t shade the garden. Put the garden as close to the kitchen as possible. Make sure the area gets 6-8 hours of sun.
We suggest you start small at first- perhaps even one square meter. Don’t make it any wider than you can reach halfway across from the sides. Some prefer beds no more than 75cm wide for ease of straddling or stepping across. Garden paths should be ~30cm wide for walking or ~100 cm wide if you want to use wheelbarrows.
2. Prepare your Soil and Remove Invasive Plant Species
If the new garden area is heavily compacted soil (old parking area, etc) push a spading fork into the ground and rock it back and forth and do this over the entire area before laying down the new bed to encourage root penetration and drainage.
It is also important to try to remove invasive plant species because they can travel laterally, emerge from under the sides of the bed and then reinvade your bed. Cut down any grass or non-invasive weeds and lay them on the ground or stomp them down.
3. Edging Material
Some prefer to put in edging material like boards which will contain the soil when it is built up. If so, we suggest using untreated lumber, perhaps stacking two 2x6s on the edge, and only using painted wood if lead paint was not used. Use short sections of used pipe, rebar, or stout wooden stakes on the outside to hold them up.
Read More: Getting a Landscape Makeover?
4. Bedding Materials
Gather all the bedding materials together for the layering process before you start if possible.
Here are some common materials used for gardening beds:
• Wood – Wood creates raised beds that last for many years. Treated wood resists rot and decay better. Cedar and redwood are naturally rot-resistant. Untreated wood will need to be replaced more frequently.
• Concrete – Concrete beds are very durable but can be expensive to install. Concrete holds heat well, so it works well for growing warm season crops. It can also be molded into creative shapes.
• Stone – Stone materials like flagstone, slate, and fieldstone create aesthetically pleasing beds that will last indefinitely. Larger stones are filled in with soil and smaller stones. They tend to be more expensive.
• Brick – Brick sides create neat, ordered beds. Brick will last for many years with minimal maintenance. Brick does absorb heat, so it can warm the soil somewhat.
• Rebar – Beds made with rebar and wire mesh allow for a more natural look. The rebar frames are filled in with soil and organic matter. They are affordable but may need to be repaired or replaced eventually.
• Plastic liners – Plastic liners create inexpensive raised beds that contain the soil well. They last for many years but can degrade from exposure to UV light over time.
• Building blocks – Concrete blocks are affordable, stable options that create beds with neat lines. They last for decades with little upkeep. Blocks do absorb and retain heat well.
• Fabric – Suppliers sell heavy-duty fabric specifically for creating garden beds. The fabric is anchored and filled in with soil. It can last for years and be easily moved.
5. Wet Down the Soil Thoroughly
It is very important to wet down the soil thoroughly before building the new bed, if it is dry, to prevent the ground from sucking moisture out of the bed of new materials.
Here are the benefits of thoroughly wetting down soil after adding amendments:
- Helps incorporate amendments evenly. Water acts as a drench to help work organic and inorganic amendments fully into the soil particles. This ensures an even distribution of nutrients and benefits.
- Activates organic matter. Adding water activates microorganisms in organic amendments like compost that break down the material and release nutrients into the soil in a process called mineralization. This makes nutrients available to plants.
- Leaches excess salts. Water leaching through the soil after adding amendments like lime or fertilizer helps wash away any excess salts or nutrients that could damage plant roots if concentrated. This improves soil conditions.
- Prevents clumping. Water breaks up clumps of organic amendments like compost that have not been fully incorporated into the soil. This distributes the material more evenly to maximize its benefits.
- Improves soil structure. Thoroughly wetting soil after adding amendments improves the proportion of air to water in the soil profile. This creates larger soil pores that promote better drainage, aeration, and root growth.
- Prepares soil for planting. Wet soil after amending creates ideal conditions for seeds to properly germinate and seedlings to become established. Roots need moisture and activated nutrients to take up during the growth process.
- Encourages microbial growth. Adding water boosts microbial activity in the soil as bacteria and fungi break down organic matter and make nutrients available to plants. This nourishes roots from the start.
So in summary, thoroughly wetting down soil after adding amendments helps incorporate nutrients evenly, activates microbes to break down organic matter, leaches out excess salts, prevents clumping, improves soil structure, prepares the soil for planting, and encourages microbial growth to nourish roots. All of this sets the stage for healthy plant growth.
6. Add soil amendments
Add soil amendments if desired to help with plant growth. See the section on soil amendments at the end.
Here are some tips for adding soil amendments:
- Test your soil first. Get a soil test to determine what nutrients your soil is lacking and at what pH level. This will give you a baseline and help you choose the right amendments.
- Add organic matter. The best universal amendment is organic matter like compost, grass clippings, or shredded leaves. This improves soil structure, aeration, water, and nutrient-holding capacity.
- Consider specific nutrients. Based on your soil test results, you may need to add amendments like lime to raise the pH, sulfur to lower it, and phosphorus, or magnesium supplements. Choose organic options when possible.
- Time your additions. In most cases, adding soil amendments in fall or winter allows them to break down slowly over time. This is better than adding right before planting.
- Mix amendments thoroughly. Use a shovel, tiller, or rototiller to fully incorporate amendments into the top 6 to 12 inches of soil. This ensures an even distribution of benefits.
- Use the right ratio. A good rule of thumb is to add 1 to 2 inches of organic matter per foot of depth and adjust inorganic amendments according to label directions.
- Water thoroughly after adding. Water the soil to help wash any chemicals or particles down into the soil profile and moisten organic matter for microbes to break it down.
- Wait 1-2 weeks before planting. This allows organic amendments like compost time to activate and inorganic amendments to react with the soil. Both help balance nutrients.
Consider mulching afterward. Applying a 2 to 4-inch layer of organic mulch after amending and planting can help retain soil moisture, regulate temperatures, and gradually feed the soil over time.
7. Put Down a Thin Green Layer of Fresh Grass Clippings
If no grass or weeds are on the soil, put down a thin green layer of fresh grass clippings, manure, or vegetable scraps on the existing soil surface. This will help to rot any turf underneath. Fresh manure works best but aged manure should be used if you intend to plant in the garden soon. Watergrass or manure if dry.
8. Add worms Compost
Add worms if you have any. They will do much of the work to break down the organic material.
Here are some steps to add worms to your compost:
- Obtain red wigglers or European nightcrawlers. These are the best composting worms. You can buy them from garden centers or online.
- Start with 1 pound of worms for every 5 square feet of bin surface area. This provides a good population to break down the material.
- Add shredded paper, leaf litter, and food scraps to the bin as the initial “bedding” for the worms. This gives them something to burrow into.
- Release the worms into the bin and gently mix them into the bedding material. The worms will work their way into the material on their own over time.
- Keep the bin moist but not soggy. The ideal moisture level for composting worms is like a squeezed-out sponge. Add water as needed.
- Continue to feed the worms kitchen scraps and other organic material as they run out. The worms can eat half their weight in food each day.
- Cover the top of the bin with a lid to maintain moisture and keep animals out. Make sure there are holes for airflow.
- Harvest finished compost from the bottom of the bin when the material is dark, crumbly, and earthy smell. This will likely take at least 3 months.
- Separate finished compost from remaining worms and bedding material to reuse. The worms can then be added to a fresh batch of compost material.
- Check on the bin weekly and add or remove the material as needed to keep the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio at around 30:1 for best results. This provides a balanced diet for the worms.
By following these steps, you can successfully introduce composting worms into your bin to break down organic material into high-quality fertilizer and soil amendment.
9. Cover the Garden Area
Cover the garden area with thick layers of wet newspaper (not shiny or colored) or preferably use 2-3 layers of wet cardboard, with plastic and staples removed, to smother any weeds. Overlap the paper or cardboard so there are no gaps for weeds to grow through.
Water both sides of the cardboard just before laying it down, so it will decompose quickly or you can leave the cardboard out in the rain beforehand a 3-5 minute dunk into a big plastic trash bucket of water works best to get water inside the cardboard. Cutting the cardboard into pieces ~ 60 cm squares is a good size for dunking.
10. The Green Layers
Alternate thin layers of green (nitrogen-rich) and thicker layers of brown (carbon-rich) and water in each layer. The green layers should be grass clippings that haven’t gone to seed (preferably cut in the previous 24 hours to avoid getting slimy) and are not sprayed, or fresh weeds preferably without seeds, manure, food scraps, or seaweed.
The brown layers are shredded newspaper, junk mail (not shiny or plastic), dry leaves, dry grass, unsprayed straw, or spoiled hay. Strive for maximum diversity of materials. The total depth of these layers should be 30-60 cm to build soil fertility. It will settle down to one-quarter of the depth as the material breaks down. Try to create a plateau, not a mound, which could shed rainwater.
11. Compost and Soil Mix
Here are some tips for creating a compost and soil mix for your garden beds:
- Obtain quality ingredients. You’ll need good compost, either homemade or purchased, and potting or garden soil. Avoid soils with weed seeds or chemicals.
- Assess proportions. A 50/50 mix of compost to soil is a good place to start. You can adjust the ratio to suit your needs, with more compost for nutrient-hungry plants and more soil for less demanding plants.
- Screen or sift ingredients. Use a screen or sieve to remove any large particles or materials from the compost and soil. This will ensure an evenly textured mix.
- Mix thoroughly. Use a shovel, hoe, or tiller to combine compost and soil evenly. You can also mix by layering soil and compost in the garden bed.
- Add any specific amendments. Based on a soil test, you may want to supplement the mix with lime, sulfur, bone meal, or other nutrients. Incorporate these thoroughly.
- Consider structural additions. You can improve soil porosity and drainage by adding perlite, vermiculite, sand, or coir to the mix. Start with around 10-20% by volume and adjust to your needs.
- Moisten the mix. Water the combined compost and soil to about the moisture level of a squeezed-out sponge. This helps activate microbes and nutrients.
- Test the mix. Scoop up a handful and squeeze it. It should hold together easily but crumble when fluffed apart. If it’s muddy, add more soil. If dry, add more compost.
- Adjust the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio if needed. Compost usually has a good C: N ratio (30:1) but soil can be imbalanced. You may need to add nitrogen (green materials) or carbon (browns) for optimum microbial activity.
- Plant right away or store the mix. If not using immediately, cover the pile to keep weeds seeds from germinating and store for up to 2 weeks. Re-moisten before use if needed.
With these steps, you’ll be able to create a custom compost and soil mix suited to your specific plant needs and preferred soil structure.
12. Area of Bed Garden
Cover the area with at least a 5-10 cm layer of loose straw which shouldn’t contain seeds. This allows oxygen into the soil, prevents compaction, and keeps under layers shaded and moist. Make sure the straw hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides. Water the straw lightly.
- Avoid using hay that contains seeds and packs down and can become anaerobic and acidic.
If grass does grow from hay or straw, it can be easily pulled out in the spring or chopped into the soil. Leaves can also be used as a top layer. If you have high winds in your area, you may not want to use a final layer of straw or leaves or you can cover it all with netting.
As this new soil structure is immature, the bed will need regular watering during dry periods.
14. Avoid Stepping on Your Garden Bed
Avoid stepping onto your new garden beds whenever possible because this compacts the soil and makes it more difficult for roots and oxygen to penetrate. Provide paths, boards or stepping stones to walk on.
15. Drip Irrigation and a Water Timer
16. Add New Layers of Organic Material
After each season, it helps to add new layers of organic material to provide fresh nutrients to the soil.
No Dig Gardening – What’s in your backyard?
Good quality mulch is the best way to go and Green Mulch is just that. Moisture content is essential for a healthy stable Environment. Moisture and Aeration are the initiators of a vibrant garden.
MulchingHopefully in your area, you have access to an adequate water supply and watering at cooler times is important so as to eliminate evaporation and burning of leaves etc.
In our area, the supply of organic matter available to us from our own backyard would be tree, shrub, and plant clippings using the sticks, leaves, bark, seed pods, etc, and lawn clippings.
Also, if you are permitted to have fires or wood barbeques at your home you will end up with a handy supply of charcoal and ash which is a great source of mulch.
From the kitchen comes things like egg shells, banana and potato peel, lettuce Food Scrapsleaves, used tea leaves, etc….nothing goes to waste when we are talking Green, so just thinking a little outside the box and we have a good percentage of what would usually go to the tip that is now creating a fantastic little eco-system in our own backyard.
No Dig Gardening – Mulch
What is Mulch?? We need to say that mulch is any sort of Organic matter from a spec of dust to a stick, a log, a rock, or a dead elephant (not that we see too many dead elephants laying around the USA, let’s say Mulch is anything that will break down to a spec of dust given time. Generally, where we live, Mulch ranges from leaves to sticks and barks around 50mm to 100mm in size.
As I mentioned, to create a healthy environment/garden we use Mulch to limit the Earth from depending on Depth, Density, and Moisture content to thrive. The ever-present Eco System in Mulch will do this itself.
The patch of earth where there is a healthy section of Mulch will feel like we do when we walk under a shady tree on a hot summers day – relieved
So, in summary, mulch is essential for a healthy garden.
No Dig Gardening is just that – No Digging
By following some simple, clearly explained guidelines you will never need to dig again. With the already present Eco System working in your garden you allow nature to do the digging, mixing, and aerating for you. All YOU need to do is supply the basic ingredients and let nature do what it does best.
No-Dig Garden Benefits
- Easy to learn and do- you can set up a small garden in the afternoon yourself.
- Low cost- most materials are free and readily available
- Minimum of effort with no digging involved unless present soil is heavily compacted
- Doesn’t disturb worms, microorganisms, or fungi in the underlying soil
- Doesn’t bring up buried weed seeds to the surface where they can germinate and grow
- A thick mulch of organic material:
- Provides low maintenance because it smothers most weeds
- Retains moisture and shades the soil, therefore, saving water
- Provides food and protection for worms and microorganisms which help develop soil
- Ideal for doing together in neighborhood groups that build community and are fun.
- More Healthy and Stable Environment
- Healthy and Eco-Friendly garden
- Positive impact on Physical, Mental, and Spiritual wellbeing
- Saving money on non-needed chemicals etc
- Water conservation
- Making gardening more of an enjoyment rather than a chore
- Friendly weed control
- Fewer chemicals etc for Carbon
- Offset And the list goes on.
We are doing our bit to help the environment and if we can create a “Butterfly Effect” then we are all doing our bit for a healthier sustainable place to live.