No Dig Gardening: Guide For Beginners

No-dig gardening is a simple approach that is now gaining popularity in sustainable gardening around the world.

It is the basics of growing vegetables, a practice of non-cultivation that gradually builds back the soil structure through natural processes. This technique allows microorganisms to establish an ideal habitat under the soil.

The system makes the plant share the energy they produce into the soil. The microorganisms, in return, will convert the available nutrients of the soil to the mineral components your vegetables require to thrive.

The Beginner’s Guide to Building a No-Dig Garden

No-dig gardening advocate Charles Dowding concluded that leaving the soil untouched through tilling, plowing and digging will improve its overall conditions.

The practice of leaving the soil in your garden plot helps develop the ideal environment for microorganisms and successfully grow crops without digging.

Here is the simple guide on getting started with the no-dig gardening techniques in your vegetable beds.

#1) Locate Your Bed in a Sunny Spot

Like other types of vegetable beds, locate your no-dig bed in a spot that gets at least 6 hours of full sun every day. You can create specific beds for annual rotating crops like brassicas, tomatoes, peppers, and lettuces. Root crops and perennials like asparagus, strawberries and rhubarb can all benefit from the no-dig method too.

#2) Build an Organic Bottom Layer Weed Barrier

Make sure to use cardboard or newspaper as the first layer of your no-dig garden. These organic materials will act as weed barriers and will break down, as microorganisms do their work improving the health of your soil.

#3) Add a Layer of Nitrogen

Adding a layer of lucerne or pea straw to your garden will provide the nitrogen needed for microorganisms to live healthily and function well. Avoid using hay as it contains seeds that can germinate in a no-dig garden.

#4) Prepare Your Ideal Soil Mixture

Prepare a soil mixture made out of soil from an old bed or compost incorporated with well-rotted manure, fish blood, or bone powder.

Try adding some lime or wood ashes if you are growing crops that need alkaline soil. Spread about an inch layer of the soil mixture on top of the straw.

#5) Top the Last Layer with Mulch

Cover your soil mixture with a generous layer of mulch for weed control. This will aid in keeping the soil moisture, helping the roots to establish and the earthworms to thrive under the soil.

#6) Start Planting

Five vegetable garden beds with straw mulch in all garden paths.
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Use a trowel and create holes with the right spacing, enough to accommodate a few cups of soil for new seedlings.

The method of placing the soil only on the place you will plant the seedlings will allow you to garden with a minimal budget.

This method will help you save a lot, especially in acquiring your growing media. In addition to that, it will eliminate the necessity for weeding. Transplant your seedlings and water thoroughly.

#7) Keep Your Bed Properly Maintained

As the layer of soil and straw gradually breaks down over time, try adding soil and nitrogen-rich amendments such as compost and well-rotted manure to replenish the garden bed.

Overall, utilizing a no-dig garden is meant to cut down intensive effort to maintain your bed and produce a successful low-cost and no back-breaking vegetable garden.

Pros and Cons of No-Dig Gardening

Gardener holding a garden fork, tendering several no-dig garden beds.
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The no-dig gardening method refers to growing vegetables without turning the soil over manually. This system allows nature to do its work through natural decomposition.

As the vegetation in the garden dies, the microorganisms under the soil will gradually disintegrate them.

And in the process of decomposition, the microbes will help improve the soil structure and provide adequate aeration through their burrowing activities.

While busy with their activities on breaking down organic matter, the microbes will slowly release food for your growing plants.

Advantages of No-Dig Gardening

  • The no-dig gardening method provides undisturbed habitat for microorganisms. These microbes are the most beneficial to help you improve the soil structure of your garden.
  • The microorganisms in the no-dig gardening make it easy to maintain the soil conditions and balance the nutrients your plant requires.
  • They also help lessen the loss of soil moisture and organic matter.
  • The no-dig gardening practice provides soil that can only accommodate the plants’ needs resulting in weed-free beds.
  • The balanced environment of the soil also produces quality crop returns.
  • The low temperature provided by the mulch is beneficial for microorganisms under the soil, especially when the soil temperatures are a lot warmer in summer.
  • It does not require intensive digging, particularly in the vegetable growing season.

Disadvantages of No-Dig Gardening

  • Soil with poor conditions takes time to improve.
  • Soil can become compacted and excessively drained if not well-managed.
  • The low soil temperature due to mulching can also slow down crop development resulting in a delay of the harvest.

The No-Dig Gardening Approach: What To Know

Several varieties of colorful kale grown in a no-dig garden.

Many gardeners switch to the no-till method to take advantage of the soil-building benefits of microorganisms. These beneficial microorganisms in the soil can do extraordinary work to keep the soil aerated and healthy.

Some gardeners think the no-till gardening means less work to do. While this is true in the long run, it still requires a few habits to start the garden right.

In some cases, even with the no-dig gardening method, some soil disturbance is inevitable, particularly when sowing, planting, and harvesting.

However, this system requires very minimal and shallow soil disruption compared to conventional gardening that involves a lot of digging.

Conventional digging is harmful to the soil structure resulting in a continuous loss of soil moisture and organic components.

The no-dig approach still involves initial digging. Doing so will promote soil drainage and remove any existing debris in the soil to avoid possible compaction. This process provides a well-structured soil before you start transplanting your seedlings.

Also, success does not happen overnight. It may take several years before you start to see the full benefits.

Combining the beneficial features of both no-digging and digging methods in gardening is often the best approach, particularly in small scale gardening.

Initial cultivation is necessary to incorporate soil with compost and green manures – the elements that help improve soil moisture and generate the ideal texture.

The No-Dig Approach is Very Ideal for Bed Gardening

Weed-free vegetable raised bed filled with straw mulch.

The no-dig technique is ideal with bed gardening where you can work without having to walk on your garden bed, thus reducing the possibilities of soil compaction. The use of a raised bed is the most efficient and effective solution if your soil is in poor condition.

Compaction is another way to destroy beneficial organisms in the soil. This damages their tunnels which disallows the air and water to penetrate the soil.

Consider that this technique will allow you to establish a garden with good quality soil instead of tilling conventional soil that requires lots of effort to amend.

Eliminate The Need to Weed

Adding mulch to your garden will help you destroy most perennial weeds and also weaken those remaining that grow persistently.

Yes, eradicating weeds in your garden is very challenging, but the use of mulch will help you eliminate unwanted growths, particularly creeping buttercups, dandelions, ground elder, and many others.

Weed control is one of the benefits of no-dig gardening practice.  With this practice, you can enjoy gardening with fewer weeds and focus on protecting those beneficial microorganisms in the soil.

If you find weeds are still a problem among your garden beds, consider getting the best weeding tools available so you don’t run into this problem again.

Most of the garden soil contains weed seeds that lay dormant under the surface if left undisturbed, particularly in winter. And these seeds will remain in dormancy unless you disturb and expose them to light.

Establish a Symbiotic Relationship

Digging your garden can interfere with the symbiotic relationship between the soil and micro-organisms, whose activity contributes to the natural and ideal soil structure.

Aside from getting bisected with garden tools as you cultivate the soil, this agricultural research study published in the scientific journal Global Change Biology has shown that frequent overturning of the soil can cause a rapid decline of earthworm populations. The deeper the soil is disturbed, the more damaging it is for the earthworms.

Earthworms are most beneficial to the maintenance of soil functions and our ecosystem. These microorganisms are also called the nature Plough for continually boosting soil fertility.

Prepare The Soil to Plant

Before planting vegetables, spread an organic mulch supply liberally at the top of your soil which will allow microorganisms to start feeding and improve the soil conditions while disintegrating down the mulch.

When you start planting, use a garden fork to slightly loosen the soil and remove the weeds gently, without turning the soil. This is much less work than weeding with hand tools.

As much as you want to leave the soil intact, the top few inches will be disturbed slightly for planting, weeding and harvesting. This activity will not destroy the habitat of the earthworms but rather will help provide soil aeration.

Plan a Crop Rotation to Combat Pests and Diseases

The thriving soil environment in the no-till garden lessens the chance of harmful organisms. But because the soil is not disturbed regularly, a few diseases and pests might show up that may persist.

Taking garden notes and the practice of crop rotation can alleviate this problem. Your soil is healthy enough with the help of increasing numbers of beneficial soil organisms, but this is another way to set your garden up for success.

Mulch Generously

A garden bed of onions filled with straw mulch.

The primary purpose of adding mulch into your no-till garden is to provide an ideal habitat for microorganisms, which is beneficial for restoring the health of your soil.

Mulching between rows of vegetables reduces weed germination. You can opt to use dried leaf mulches, but make sure to avoid tossing them on the stem of your veggies.

Adding a thick layer of organic mulches is also efficient in suppressing the growth of the weeds. The generous covering can block the light and help provide nutrients for the roots to grow.

The use of wood chips is excellent as soil topping and can make your garden aesthetically appealing. Just make sure to keep them on top of the soil and do not mix them as an amendment. Doing so isn’t beneficial to your garden’s health.

Final Thoughts on How To Build A No-Dig Garden

Most soil has natural structure and nutrients to feed plants while also being full of helpful microorganisms.

Nutrients can become readily available to your plants if you allow nature to work its magic.

Your plants can have plenty of food and moisture by providing an undisturbed habitat of microorganisms, and in return, they will provide ideal soil conditions for your garden beds.

No-dig systems help plants find food while composts and mulches are the excellent food source for soil microbes. In wet climates, compost is best to use as mulching since slugs do not prefer such conditions.

Every system has its advantages and disadvantages. But a slight change of tactic and allowing mother nature to do its work can outwit less desirable issues in your garden.

Have you tried creating a no-dig garden? Don’t hesitate to share your experience in the comment section below.

About Benita Abucejo

Hi there! My name is Benita Abucejo. What can I say? I truly love spending my days in the outdoors, specifically in the garden. Gardening has always been a strong passion of mine since I was a little girl. It has brought me so much joy and happiness that it is definitely safe to say that I will be a gardener for life. For a period of time, I was able to work with people who are into home gardening and I found it to be quite beneficial to my physical health, as well as my mental well-being. Here at Seasonal Preferences, I am going to share with you my experience and ideas so that you can fulfill yourself with the same satisfaction and happiness. Of course, if you have ideas, I would love to hear those as well! Being creative in the garden can really be quite fascinating so let's share our experiences and be the best gardeners we can be. With that being said, thank you for dropping by and please leave me a comment on one of my posts if you would like to get in touch!

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