Turning No-Dig Gardening On Its Head

Low maintenance, low water needs, abundant, resilient: we all want to describe our vegetable gardens like this. I have been preparing no-dig gardens in many different environments for two decades and my no-dig method saves time, replenishes soil and is very productive.

It is slightly differently from most, in that rather than laying newspaper on the ground under the compost layer, I place it as the last layer before the mulch. This simple change does many things:

  • the compost layer – integrates more rapidly with the soil – soil flora and fauna get to work quickly without the barrier – stays moist and at a more stable temperature
  • the newspaper prevents weeds, including from unwanted seeds in the compost
  • fewer nutrients are lost from the compost
  • plant roots penetrate the soil, and are more resilient and stable.

This no-dig method works so well because it builds soil ecology and structure while adding abundant organic matter, the base of the soil food web. Healthy soil is alive with microorganisms, and each has a role: opening up the soil for water and air to penetrate; transforming organic matter into accessible plant food; taking nutrients to the roots.

Materials

Here are the steps to make a no-dig garden like mine. Try this method, and adapt it to your conditions and resources. Share it with others.

no-dig-gardening

Step 1: Locate your garden and prepare the site

  • Select the site carefully, for example close to the kitchen, or where it will get six to eight hours of sun each day.
  • Start small – add later as you gather more resources.
  • Mark out garden edges and pathways.
  • Cut grasses and weeds, and leave them on top to add organic matter. When the roots die channels will open up for air and water.
  • Construct after good rain, or water the area well.
no-dig-gardening

Step 2: Open and feed the soil

  • Open the soil with a garden fork, but do not turn. Push the fork into the ground as far as it will go, and pull back gently to open and raise the soil. The fork will go much deeper into the improved soil next year.
  • Sprinkle on high nitrogen materials such as chicken manure and fresh non-meat kitchen scraps.
  • Water in with diluted liquid manure.

Step 3: Make a new topsoil layer

no-dig-gardening
  • Add ten to fifteen centimetres of compost and water it in – this becomes the new topsoil.
  • Use what you can find locally; preferably recycle waste materials from your site, such as compost mixed with worm castings. Aged manure and mushroom compost are also good.
  • Bulk the compost layer by adding ripped leaves of any abundant greens (e.g. comfrey), but don’t use pine, eucalypt or other oily leaves. If using lots of fresh leaves or manure, wait a couple of weeks before planting; the heat generated may burn seedlings.

Step 4: Add a weed barrier

no-dig-gardening
  • Add a biodegradable weed barrier to prevent weeds.
    • Use moist newspaper, about ten to fifteen sheets thick. Cardboard is too thick.
    • Soak paper thoroughly in a wheelbarrow or tub of water before laying. Dry paper is hard to lay well and absorbs moisture from the soil.
    • Overlap the paper ten centimetres in each direction.
  • Check for gaps and cover them up before mulching – weeds search for light.
  • Remember to paper your paths and edges.
no-dig-gardening

Step 5: Mulch, mulch, mulch!

  • Add a thick layer – about fifteen centimetres – of seed-free mulch over the weed barrier. Place material containing seeds under the weed barrier.
  • The mulch will eventually become part of your new topsoil, but in the process will protect the soil and help to conserve water.
no-dig-gardening

Step 6: Plant and water

  • Add a thick layer – about fifteen centimetres – of seed-free mulch over the weed barrier. Place material containing seeds under the weed barrier.
  • The mulch will eventually become part of your new topsoil, but in the process will protect the soil and help to conserve water.
  • Select a diversity of seasonal and perennial vegetables, herbs and flowers; mix them to assist with pest management.
  • Consider the size and growth form of each plant when planning where to place seedlings and seeds.
  • To plant:
    • make a nest in the mulch to reveal the paper
    • poke a hole through the paper and check that the soil is loose below
    • put a handful of compost in the hole, to the level of the paper
    • plant the seedling or large seed into the compost, and press gently to make sure it is firmly placed
    • bring the mulch back around seedlings, but not touching
    • water into the individual holes, and check that seedlings are firmly in place.
  • To plant small seeds (such as carrot), open the mulch along a line, slice the paper and lift it back a little. Add compost and sprinkle the seeds.

Step 7: Maintain your garden

  • Water only when necessary – feel under the mulch first.
  • Pull out weeds before they seed or spread.
  • When a plant is removed, add a handful of compost into its hole and replace it.
  • Next growing season, observe and use your judgment: top up compost and mulch; fork the soil a little more; add another layer of newspaper if needed. Just mulch around perennials.
no-dig-gardening
Image by Morag Gamble

HEALTHY SOIL = HEALTHY PLANTS = HEALTHY FOOD AND PEOPLE

Morag Gamble, of SEED International, is a passionate permaculture educator, designer and community gardener, and a Director of Permaculture Australia. She lives at Crystal Waters Ecovillage and is CEO of the Ethos Foundation – morag@ethosfoundation.org For further information see www.seedinternational.com.au and www.ethosfoundation.org

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