No Dig gardening explained

First let's look at why we dig garden soil

We dig over our gardens to remove weeds, loosen soil to plant plants, aerate the soil, and dig in compost and manure to feed our fruit and vegetables and other plants. We also dig soil to break up the lumps to make it fine enough to sow seeds......


But is it really necessary to dig garden soil?   Apart from digging and raking to get a fine soil surface (tilth) for sowing seeds.    I don't think so, here's why;


  • As well as being hard work deep digging can be detrimental to the structure of the soil resulting in losses of moisture and organic matter.
  • Where the layer of topsoil is shallow (new builds, etc.) the subsoil can be lifted and mixed into the topsoil.
  • Deep digging can bury organic material deep in the ground out of reach of plant roots.
  • Erosion problems on sloping gardens can be made worse with digging. 



Do we need to dig our garden soil

How to change to "No dig gardening"
How to change to "No dig gardening"


No-dig gardening is an organic method of growing vegetables without manually digging over the soil between crops. Instead doing the digging, aerating and feeding the soil and plants growing in it in the same way nature works......   

  • As vegetation dies, it falls to the ground where it decomposes and is taken down into and combined with the soil by the earthworms (in the same way as digging does).
  • The earthworms burrow holes in the soil improving the drainage and soil structure leaving crumbly, aerated casts (same thing as aerating with a fork).
  • Organisms in the soil complete the breakdown of the organic matter the worms have dragged down, releasing food for growing plants (at a depth the plant roots can reach).
  • Gardens with thin sandy soil and sloping gardens where erosion is a problem, are not improved with digging and deep digging can actually make the problem worse. Digging can damage soil structure, causing compaction, displace nutrients, shifting surface organic material to deep into the ground to decompose, also putting it out of reach of most plant roots. Loose sandy soil, unless retained, just slips and shifts further down the slope. No-dig gardening does none of these things.
  • Clay soil is almost impossible to dig anyway, although clay soil can be improved by adding organic material and grit, why not let nature and the worms do it for you. 


The answer is no we don't need to dig our gardens, we just need to help nature do it.

How to change to the no dig method of gardening.


No dig gardening involves some work to start the process off. Depending on the size and state of the area, the work can vary from a day to a few weeks. I have explained the basics here, but first you will need to decide what form your no-dig beds are going to take. Separate raised beds, flat beds, a small test area, a section of your garden or maybe the whole garden will all take varying amounts of time to convert to to the No-digging method of gardening, but will be time saving and free from back breaking digging.


Whatever bed, flat or raised, big or small they should be about 3ft wide with paths each side so that you can work on the no-dig beds, be it shallow hoeing to control weeds, spreading mulches to be taken into the soil by worms, sowing seeds, transplanting and best of all reaping the harvest. All this without trampling and compacting the surface.


Raised beds are especially valuable on poorly drained soils, and great to avoid back strain and bending. For more information about raised beds

Framed beds on the flat are better on well drained soils. A 6" frame will allow for a good thick layer of mulch to improve sandy soils. 



The materials and 3 stages to change to no dig gardening.

1; Use old newspapers, cardboard or other natural fibers like old wool carpet to cover the ground. These materials will cut out the light, killing of most weeds and will eventually rot down to allow plant roots to penetrate. You won't need to wait until it has all rotted down, if you are in a hurry to get started cut slits in the material and plant through the slits, like you would with a growbag.
The earthworms will help this process taking the material down into the ground. I leave the newspapers piled outside to get wet before I lay them out. Spread three or four layers deep of newspapers, cardboard or other thin natural fiber over the area you are setting aside for no dig gardening making sure the materials overlap to smother the weeds, any weeds or grass left uncovered, will grow through the organic matter you are going to spread over the top. One layer of thicker materials like wool carpets should be enough. 
Give the ground cover a good soaking and move on to the next stage in preparing for no dig gardening.

2; Spread a layer of organic material or topsoil, in fact any available organic material will work twigs, leaves, grass cuttings, sawdust, compost from your heap, etc. Shovel the organic materials on in layers with the coarsest stuff, twigs etc at the bottom, and the compost or soil on top. 
Depending on the area you are going to turn over to the no dig method of gardening you may need more of the organic material than you have available. 
A little bit of pre planning may be necessary, ask your neighbours or the local lawn care person for grass cuttings and leaves etc.  Providing they are not into composting they will be only to pleased to off load it.
3; Build pathways.
So as not to compact the no digging areas or to access the no dig raised beds you are creating, build pathways through the no dig beds, as you are digging them out, spread the topsoil onto the beds over the organic material. Gravel makes a good lasting path, woodchip is ok, but will need topping up now and then. However, if you are using walking aids or working from a wheelchair you will need a firmer non slip surface, check out my articles linked from here gardening with a disability.

It really is that easy to change to no dig gardening.

Maintaining your no dig garden

Maintaining your no dig raised garden beds is fairly straightforward,  just carrying out the usual gardening tasks, without the back-breaking digging.
  • Weeding Once the materials in stages 1 and 2 above have killed existing weeds, weed problems decline because there is little disturbance of the soil weed seeds are not brought up to the surface to germinate.  Using the no-dig method of gardening with plenty of mulching and "close planting" (more about that later) even airborne seeds will be crowded out. Any that do get through, and there will be some, are easily controlled by shallow hoeing or a bit of hand weeding.
  • Mulching stops the soil drying out feeds the soil and the plants and as I have just explained has an added bonus of keeping weeds out. Mulching simply means spreading plant cuttings including lawn mowings, leaves, kitchen vegetable waste directly onto the soil where it is taken down and acts as a slow-release organic fertiliser, soil conditioner and food for the worms.  Mulches can also be used in earthing-up potatoes.
  • Pest control. Because of the absence of soil lumps and gaps caused by digging slugs and snails will find less hiding places and be easier to deal with. A brilliant organic way of controlling insect pests like blackfly worth trying is companion planting.  
  • Things just get better. After the first year your no-dig garden will be a thriving community of worms and beneficial insects, animals even. So just keep topping up.  The more organic materials you add, the better and deeper you soil condition becomes. Remember the mulch is the essential bit of no-dig gardening, it will keep down weeds, retain moisture, feed your soil and plants promoting healthy growth, and produce tasty produce.
If you are trying no dig gardening, try mixed planting too.
Mixed Planting
Get away from growing vegetables in rows with bare earth in between. You will have less problems with pests and disease because the signals these grouped plants send out to hungry pests and diseases are stronger than when the different plants are mixed together.  

Different plants take water and nutrients from different depths in the soil, so take into account root depths and if you mix these plants, it may look overcrowded, but its not. You are optimising the space available and your no dig garden will be more productive as a result.
When mixing plants always include companion plants to deter insect pests and attract beneficial insects, my companion planting page provides more information. 
To keep out weeds, oversow, this means sowing quick growing crops like peas, radishes, turnips, rocket, spring onions, lettuce to fill up any spaces,just before main crop is harvested.


How long does it take to change to No Dig gardening? 

A simple raised bed can be ready in less than a day, an allotment or large area will take longer.

Not convinced, then why not experiment by converting a small area of your garden or a raised bed to the no dig method of gardening . Sit back and watch nature and the worms do the digging, composting and feeding the plants for you.

  This cheap easy to assemble raised bed made from plastic heat absorbing panels is the Ideal bed to try your no dig experiment.  

The Author of this book has been practicing no-dig organic growing for over 30 years. In this full colour edition of Organic Gardening, he shares this experience.
  1. No dig gardening improves soil structure and encourages healthy growth;
  2. Organic matter is best left on the top, letting the worms take it down, aerating the soil as they do so.
  3. Using a no-dig method you can easily control weeds with just a little hand weeding or hoeing every ten days or so.

Organic Gardening shows you how to grow a delicious variety of fruit and vegetables: what to choose, when to sow, plant and harvest, and how best to avoid pests and diseases without the need to dig.