Fewer weeds, less backbreaking work and better long-term yields are all reasons to apply no-dig techniques to your backyard garden
Along with the many personal benefits of no-dig gardening, including saving time and boosting productivity, the overall goal is to leave the soil as undisturbed as possible to improve soil structure and to work with nature rather than against it.
To understand the benefits of no-dig gardening for you and the planet, you first have to understand soil and its contribution to our gardens.
Soil structure and gardening
Gardeners have long watched the ways in which farmers tend to their fields and have mimicked that on a smaller scale. So, when farmers till or plough to help loosen soil, gardeners have followed suit. However, what helps to loosen soil in the short-term, actually creates more compact and lifeless soil year after year.
Healthy soil is filled with an entire ecosystem of living creatures like bacteria, fungi and larger organisms like earthworms, which play a crucial role in the “soil web.” Digging into our gardens or farmlands actually disrupts and destroys these ecosystems. Digging has been attractive to gardeners and farmers because it does improve fertility, but only in the short-term.
Tilling works temporarily because all of those living organisms die and decay when we dig, and it creates broken up matter that feeds the soil. However, digging multiple times a year or even once a year, makes the recovery time longer and the soil doesn’t have adequate time or energy to repair itself and replenish those beneficial organisms. Long-term, fertility will drop because those organisms aren’t there to do their jobs, which results in needing to use herbicides and pesticides, which further kills soil life. Over time, the soil is less able to withstand the elements, is prone to erosion and is depleted of nutrients.
Working with nature
If we look at the forest floor, we’ll find fallen leaves, twigs, branches and annual plants decomposing and turning into rich organic matter that helps to feed future plants and encourage growth. So, why wouldn’t we mimic that behaviour in our own growing methods?
Practicing no-till or no-dig gardening takes away the backbreaking work of digging and passes the torch to the more efficient diggers: the organisms. They know how to break down materials slowly and create channels for plants to feed and thrive.
By leaving the soil as undisturbed as possible, and adding organic matter to it year after year, we’re protecting the soil web and harnessing its power to help us grow food and other plants.
This healthy soil ecosystem not only improves soil structure and fertility, but it also uses less resources like water, less soil is lost due to run-off, and it helps capture and keep carbon in the soil.Photo by Sandie Clarke on Unsplash
How to start your no-dig garden
- Create the edging of your garden: map it out, make sure the spot receives at least six to eight hours of sunlight, and level the surface.
- Don’t dig up your lawn: leave the grass in place and smother it in layers of cardboard. Make sure to cover any holes and prevent light from getting in; this will smother the grass and weeds and prevent it from peeking through. Avoid white cardboard that is “shiny” and remove any tape or staples before placing it down on the ground.
- Wet the cardboard: this encourages the cardboard to break down and begins the decomposition process, which invites earthworms to come up from the grass into your garden.
- The “lasagna” method: begin to add rotting branches, twigs, logs and wood chips (the brown material) on top of the cardboard. This creates good drainage and ensures that your garden bed doesn’t get waterlogged. Then, you add your “green material,” which is nitrogen-rich, like grass clippings, green leaves, or fruit and vegetable kitchen waste. Then you’ll want to sandwich it with another layer of twigs, dry leaves, straw, wood chips, shredded paper or other brown materials. Once again, this step will encourage organisms to move up from the ground, eat the decaying materials, and begin to build that soil structure for your bed.
- Add your compost/soil and top with straw or mulch: this avoids leaving the soil bare, as bare soil is more prone to erosion from the natural elements.
- Water well and plant!
If you have an established garden bed
If you already have a garden bed but haven’t been practicing no-dig, no worries. Switching to a no-dig garden will look very similar to the above method. You’ll just lay your mulch over your current growing space and build up the lasagna layers as described. The soil web will begin to repair itself and overtime organisms will take over the work that you were previously doing.
If your soil looks compact and completely depleted of nutrients, it may be a good idea to use a garden fork to gently aerate the soil (but be sure not to dig it up)! You can also plant well-rotted green manure with deep roots, which will help penetrate and break up compacted soil.
Maintaining your no-dig bed
- Don’t walk on it: this will compact the soil!
- Don’t leave bare areas: organic matter or compost will protect the soil surface, as bare soil is prone to nutrient loss and erosion.
- Understand that your first year’s harvest may be lower than before: but your yield will improve over time, and weed seeds will be less likely to germinate as you no longer bring soil to the surface and dig up weed seeds.
Overall, no-dig gardening is less initial work and less maintenance over time, which means more time spent sowing your seeds and reaping the benefits of your garden.