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What Is the No-Dig Gardening Method, and Why You Should Try it This Spring

Bob Vila logo Bob Vila 1/28/2021 Mark Wolfe

a close up of a flower: Swiss chard seedlings Swiss chard seedlings istockphoto.com

Of all the reasons that gardeners give for pursuing their hobby, digging rarely makes the list. Spending time in nature, the joy of nurturing living things, and peace and quiet, surely come up. Even the seemingly mundane task of pulling weeds affords the simple pleasure of looking back on the progress that’s been made. Digging, on the other hand, leads to back pain and blisters. Fortunately, no-dig gardening is an organic method, developed and promoted by Charles Dowding, that gardeners can use to grow beautiful and productive gardens without turning the soil. Read on to learn how it works.

What is the no-dig method of gardening?

Soil has a natural, layered structure in which plants have evolved to thrive. Think of the forest floor, or even a lawn, on which leaves or grass clippings fall regularly. Initially, the dead plant matter is colonized by bacteria and fungi as it lays on the surface. These beneficial microbes begin to convert the organic matter into humus, or natural compost. Eventually, the creatures that live in the soil, such as earthworms and beetles, carry the decomposed material deeper where plant roots can absorb nutrients the soil releases.

The action of the living soil organisms helps to maintain a well-aerated environment that facilitates deep absorption of rainwater and promotes healthy plant growth. The consistent replenishment of nutrient-rich organic material is a naturally occurring equivalent of slow-release fertilizer, and it sustains the entire ecosystem. This is the system that gardeners work with when they use the no-dig gardening method. Rather than aerating the soil with a rototiller or shovel, they simply apply compost on the soil surface at regular intervals and let the soil-dwelling organisms do the rest.

The only soil disturbance within this system is the shallow cultivation necessary to remove an occasional weed or to plant seeds and seedlings. Disturbing soil less leads to fewer weed seeds rising to the surface, while the layers of compost smother many other weed seedlings before they have a chance to grow. Avid no-dig gardeners find that they can plant their gardens earlier in the season than conventional gardeners because the soil does not need to become dry enough to till.

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a close up of a garden: no-dig gardening method © Provided by Bob Vila no-dig gardening method Photo: istockphoto.com

Why we shouldn’t dig the garden

Gardeners and farmers have turned the soil for thousands of years. Tilling loosens and aerates soil, eliminates weeds and prior crop residues, and stimulates temporary soil microbial activity. Tilling the garden has a habitual and aesthetic appeal that is hard to break. For lots of folks, it just seems right to kick off the garden each spring with a blank, clean slate, so to speak. But digging the soil has negative side effects that work against plant health, weed control, and overall productivity

Tilling the soil disrupts its natural structure and reduces the populations of beneficial organisms that are key to unlocking natural soil fertility. The mechanical action of tilling can kill larger organisms like worms and beetles, plus it stimulates microbes to consume excessive amounts of organic matter. Tilling also brings to the surface weed seeds that lay dormant in the soil. The weeds then sprout and become problematic. Whether it’s a new garden, or a garden that has been tilled regularly for many years, adopting the no-till method can lead to fewer weeds and pests, and boost overall plant health and productivity.

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Why is no-dig gardening beneficial?

A no-till garden offers numerous benefits, notably increased productivity, fewer weeds, and less time spent on chores. Regular applications of compost smother most weed seeds and young seedlings, and provide a rich source of nutrients. The few weeds that grow are easy to remove by hand, or with a shallow, fast-moving hoe. No-dig gardening eliminates the need for owning and maintaining a rototiller, and it eliminates much of the time it takes to prepare a bed for planting. The bed always is ready to plant.

No-till gardens use less fertilizer, too. Annual applications of high-grade compost provide the nutrient requirements needed for two or more garden crops each year. Millions of beneficial microbes within the compost break organic matter down into natural plant food at a rate that the garden plants can use, eliminating nutrient runoff. These same organisms also contribute to long-term soil improvement as they build humus, the basic organic soil component that promotes good air and water movement through the soil, and is linked to reductions in plant diseases.

a close up of a plant: raddish © Provided by Bob Vila raddish istockphoto.com

No-dig technique explained

To start a no-dig garden bed, you’ll need to choose a sunny space in the yard. Begin by removing any coarse, woody weeds like briars, vines, and shrubs. Then mow or otherwise cut the remaining vegetation down to the soil level, and leave the clippings in place. Apply a ¼-inch layer of high-quality compost to speed up decomposition of the grass and weed debris. Next, cover the area with a double layer of cardboard to suppress weed germination, soaking each layer with water. Finally, cover the wet cardboard with a 6-inch layer of compost. Let the bed rest four to six weeks before sowing seeds or transplanting seedlings.

Planting and weed removal are the only types of soil disturbance no-dig gardening presents. Unlike conventional gardening practices, growers do not incorporate compost or other soil amendments at planting time. Simply dig a hole the same size as the root ball of the seedling to be planted, insert the seedling, and firm the soil around it. When planting large seeds that are easy to handle individually, like beans, corn, or squash, just press them into the soil without digging. To plant tiny seeds like lettuce, radishes, or carrots, scratch a shallow trough into the soil at the recommended depth, scatter the seeds in the trough, and lightly cover them. Remove weeds by pulling or hoeing at a shallow depth while they are young, before they have a chance to produce flowers or seeds. Cut remnants of old crops, such as tomato vines and bean plants, at ground level and remove them. In some cases, gardeners should remove the roots of old crop plants to make way for the following crop, but this is often unnecessary.

a close up of a green field: winter field peas © Provided by Bob Vila winter field peas istockphoto.com

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How to maintain a no-dig garden

To maintain the garden in a productive, weed-free condition, apply a 1-inch layer of compost annually. The easiest time to apply it is whenever the garden is mostly empty, either late winter or fall for most gardeners. Pull or hoe any weeds that sprout as soon as they appear, before flowering.

A well-planned crop rotation benefits plant growth and health by ensuring that the garden uses nutrients as efficiently as possible. Never grow the same crop in the same space twice in a row. Plant nitrogen-fixing crops like beans, peas, peanuts, or other legumes following heavy feeders like tomatoes, peppers, or potatoes. After nitrogen fixers have been harvested, plant leafy greens like cabbage, lettuce, or spinach that benefit from added nitrogen. In small garden spaces where different plant families mix together, it can become difficult to plan a well-defined rotation. Just be sure to mix a variety of plants within the garden space.

Maintain a high level of fertility through winter, and ensure the bed is ready for spring planting by planting an annual cover crop such as winter field peas, oats, or cereal rye in fall. Cover crops maintain soil structure, scavenge available nutrients, prevent surface erosion, remove excess soil moisture, and provide a source of usable organic matter to benefit the garden. The cover crop will grow until killing cold weather sets in. Cut it at ground level in spring, before it goes to seed, and either leave the debris on the garden to act as mulch or compost it.

No-dig gardening offers a way to unlock natural soil fertility by unleashing the full power of beneficial soil microbes. Bacteria and fungi break down organic debris, releasing plant nutrients as garden crops need them. Earthworm and beetle populations remain high and healthy, allowing them to effectively aerate the soil and transport organic matter through the root zone. The lack of soil disruption in a no-dig system reduces weed pressure because dormant weed seeds remain buried. If you’re looking for a simpler way to garden that promises excellent results, the no-dig method might be right for you.

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