Part one of a series of articles, explaining the joys of this wonderful, planet-friendly way of growing abundant food year round.
(The rest of the articles will be published here soon)
What is no dig gardening?
No Dig gardening is a wonderful way to grow abundant crops all year in a way that saves time and money, with fewer weeds and healthier soil. I have grown using no dig methods for over 14 years in my own garden, at the allotment, on market gardens and in the kitchen gardens I create for clients.
In a nutshell, no dig gardening means not digging the soil over annually as part of routine gardening and instead applying a mulch of compost (or other organic materials) on the surface of the soil, which feeds the soil life, and the soil life feeds the plants.
No dig gardening has increased in popularity over recent years, especially now that we understand more about the importance of soil and the crucial role soil life plays in the future health of all life on the planet. When I first learned about no dig, working for two and a half years on a no dig market garden in Somerset, it was still considered quite a quirky and unusual thing to do, but every year scientists are discovering more about the importance of soil, and how beneficial not digging is for soil health, and the health of the planet too.
Over the years I have grown using organic no dig methods in allotments, home gardens, market gardens, private estates, community gardens and also show gardens. It works brilliantly, producing abundant healthy crops with fewer weeds, saving time and water, and protects the soil too.
(Find out different ways to set up a no dig garden here. ** link will work shortly, just updating photos!)
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No dig gardening is not a new idea
No dig gardening has increased in popularity in recent years, but is not new. The method has been used by indigenous people across the globe for millennia. How one grows “no dig” very much depends on location, climate and crops – there is no one “right way” to do it.
In hot dry climates deep mulches of often uncomposted materials help to protect the soil from loss of moisture. There are many amazing no dig gardeners across the world, sharing their knowledge of how to grow abundant harvests using different mulching methods, according to their local climate and growing conditions.
Books explaining how to grow without disturbing the soil have been published for many decades. For example, in the UK W. E. Shelwell-Cooper wrote and published organic no dig gardening books from the 1930s and in 1966 founded the Good Gardeners Association (a no dig organisation). Shelwell-Cooper’s no dig gardens at Arkely Manor were open to the public for many years, and his son Ramsay had a no dig plot at Capel Manor College (I met Ramsay at a Good Gardeners event around 10 years ago, and saw his plot there.)
Ruth Stout wrote about no dig gardening using deep mulches of plant materials in books including her No Work Garden Book, and you can see her work in videos on You Tube. She started growing in this way in Connecticut USA in the 1940s. Masanobu Fukuoka started exploring ways of growing using no till farming in Japan in 1938, publishing The One Straw Revolution in 1978.
Of course the roots of no dig gardening are much deeper than twentieth century gardeners.
How no dig works
I am focusing here mostly on no dig methods suited to mild, damp environments such as the UK, where deep mulches can create habitat for slugs, snails and rodents, and so composted mulches are often used. However deep mulches do have their place even in the UK (slug capital of the universe!) especially during hot, dry weather.
No dig gardening means growing with as little soil disturbance as possible, ensuring that the soil structure remains intact and the soil life can thrive. Rather than digging the plot over every year, you spread a mulch of compost or other organic materials over the beds. This feeds the soil life, which in turn feeds the plants, and also helps to lock moisture in and reduce the spread of weeds. Digging the soil over brings weed seeds to the surface where they germinate – the soil is literally re-covering from being dug over by covering itself with weeds.
Fungi, worms and other soil life create tiny tunnels in the soil: oxygenating, creating a good structure and increasing drainage even on heavy clay. Essential mycorrhizae networks and their beneficial relationship with plant roots, remain intact, creating an environment in which beneficial microbes thrive. Digging, including broad forking, breaks this delicate balance.
The mulches also creates a habitat for many creatures including spiders and black beetles, and a foraging area for birds and other wildlife. No dig methods are kinder to the soil, planet and the multitude of life which inhabits our gardens and allotments with us.
You don’t need wooden sides or raised beds – but you can if you like!
Most of my no dig beds are made on the ground without any sides. This saves money (because you don’t need to buy any timber etc to make the beds), saves time, uses fewer resources, uses less compost and reduces habitat for slugs and other creatures that like to munch our veggies. Raised beds can create a habitat for slugs, snails, woodlice and some rodents.
However some people really like to use wooden sided beds, and that is absolutely fine. They look attractive, and raising the level of the soil can enable more people to be able to grow. Raised beds are especially good for increasing accessibility for people.
In my previous front garden in Somerset, I used wooden sided raised beds because the garden here was almost entirely builder’s rubble, with very shallow soil. This enabled me to be able to grow a wide range of vegetables and herbs year round. The kitchen gardens I ran at Stavordale Priory and Roth Bar and Grill both used large wooden raised beds.
Raise beds are superb for creating growing spaces where there is no soil. For example in my previous back garden, I used Woodblox to make a large no dig bed on top of concrete.
Many gardeners make their raised beds using free materials such as pallets. There are many possibilities.
No dig protects soil
Our soil is the most biodiverse ecosystem we have on Earth. There are more living things in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet – it’s just that we can’t see most of them without powerful microscopes. Not digging the soil helps to protect the soil flora, fauna and fungi.
No dig sequesters carbon
Soil sequesters carbon, and leaving the soil undisturbed keeps that carbon in the ground. Digging soil, exposing it to the air, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. One of the simplest, affordable and most effective ways we can all help keep carbon in the ground is by growing no dig.
Our soil is one of the biggest carbon sinks on the planet.
No dig saves water
The surface mulch of compost and other natural mulches used in no dig gardening helps to reduce evaporation and conserve water in the soil.
Not digging the soil helps too, enabling tiny soil organisms – fungi, flora and fauna – to create and maintain good soil structure. This creates conditions which both reduce flooding and also helps protect the soil from drying out in dry weather. Water can move through the well aerated soil without it becoming boggy (works even for heavy clay). At the same time, the mycorrhizal fungi networks and soil aggregates (particles of soil that stick together) enable some water to be conserved in the soil.
No dig means fewer weeds
Digging the soil brings up annual weed seeds which then germinate, whereas leaving soil structure intact means that these seeds do not get the opportunity to grow.
Of course no dig doesn’t mean “no work” or “no weed”.
Weed seeds will still blow onto the plot, and perennials such as couch and bindweed will try to sneak into the beds, so regular maintenance with a hoe and trowel or hori hori is needed to ensure the beds are kept weed free. Keeping annual veg beds weed free is a good idea because is reduces habitat for slugs and makes it a lot easier to sow, plant and pick your harvests.
It is helpful to have plenty of plants growing in a space, but instead of allowing weeds to grow between my plants I intersow and plant with other edibles: quick growing salads, herbs, edible flowers, etc. This increases the biodiversity of the plot and increases the variety of food we grow.
Green manures are another way of helping to reduce weeds on beds. These are especially good for perennial beds and fruit trees.
Five ways no dig saves you time
- Mulching annually is far quicker than digging a plot over.
- No dig means fewer weeds because weed seeds in the ground are not brought to the surface by digging.
- Keeping the soil structure healthy and intact, and using mulches, means less watering.
- Healthy soil grows healthy plants, with more resistance to disease and pests.
- Feeding the soil life with the mulch means you don’t need to use other fertilisers or amendments.
No dig does not need a lot of compost
Often it is thought that no dig requires a lot of compost every year, but thankfully that’s a misconception. It simply wouldn’t be possible, sustainable or affordable for most gardeners. I (mostly) spread a centimetre of compost annually on the beds, and this feeds the soil for a year including for ‘hungry feeders” such as aubergines and tomatoes in the polytunnel. As the soil structure is intact and thriving, the nutrients are more readily available, meaning that you can grow more plants in a bed. Using inter-planting and multi-sowing techniques, I often grow at least 4 or 5 different kinds of edibles per bed each year – using less compost to grow more food.
Some years I don’t spread a mulch of compost and use green manures, other mulches (such as shredded plant materials) or compost teas and other preparations instead. They key is growing good food with healthy soil, affordably.
There are some misunderstandings, that you need to add 5cm (2″) or more compost to the beds each year, or that you *must* start with 15cm (6″) compost. Fortunately that’s not the case.
There are many different ways to start a new no dig garden requiring differing amounts of compost or other mulches. Find out more about how to set up a no dig garden here. (** this link will work soon)
Discover some alternatives to compost mulches in no dig gardens here (** link will work soon).
No dig is wildlife friendly – naturally
Creating a balance between predators and prey is key to a healthy, thriving plot. Slugs, snails and woodlice are a nuisance when they are eating your plants but these creatures are not just as “pests”. Whichever mulch you use benefits wildlife.
Here in my new-ish no dig garden (started March 2021), whilst reducing habitat for slugs etc on the veg beds, I am also creating diverse habitats for these creatures to thrive, including piles of logs and other garden debris. Piles of stones make a pleasant home for snails, which in turn attract thrushes to the garden. When I find slugs or snails showing too keen an interest in my young transplants, I just gather them up and move to these areas, or one of the compost heaps.
A simple way to increase biodiversity and encourage a healthy predator/prey balance is to allow some brassicas to go to flower and to try to have some flowering as much of the year as possible: cabbages, mustards, kales, any kind of brassica is fine. This flowers provide forage for bees, and also attract parasitic wasps, hoverflies and ladybirds. Tolly (Iain Tollhurst) explained to me some years ago how he used this on his farm to keep caterpillars from his brassica crops, so I tried it on a smaller scale in my home garden and allotment (then in Somerset) and it works. I still net my main brassica beds (the pigeons are not deterred by parasitic wasps!) but this method helps to keep aphids and caterpillars at a sustainable level. Without aphids there would be no food for the larvae of ladybirds or the hungry newly hatched off spring of blue tits.
Leaving areas of the garden wild year round creates habitat for creatures to overwinter. Likewise, compost heaps can easily become mini-nature reserves, home to hedgehogs, slow worms and toads as well as slugs, snails and composting worms. Piles of twigs stuck into the sides of pallet composters create homes for many insects including solitary bees. Always be careful removing compost to use, starting things gently so that anything that has made a home in there can relocate without harm.
Recognising the importance of water for the creatures who share our planet, making different kinds of mini ponds will increase the biodiversity of your plot. Always have a means of escape for creatures, such as a log placed so that anything that falls in can climb out.
Protection against some creatures is important to maintain a healthy balance in the garden. We now have an extra fence to protect our veg from the woolly neighbours!