If you have heard about the no-dig gardening method, you might wonder what it’s all about. That’s why, in this complete guide, we tell you how to make a no-dig vegetable garden.
I’m always on the lookout for new ways of gardening, especially methods that are better for the environment. For example, we don’t use pesticides in our garden any more because we have adopted the gardening method of companion planting.
And the no-dig method attracted me, because like companion planting, it’s a way of gardening mostly used by organic gardeners.
So in this article, I will explain more about this way of gardening and tell you how to make a no-dig vegetable garden.
What Is The No-Dig Method?
Before we look at how to make a no-dig vegetable garden, let’s find out what this organic gardening method actually is.
Traditional vegetable gardening involves digging over your beds to remove weeds. And it’s what most gardeners are doing.
With the no-dig method, you don’t do this. Instead, you cover your beds with a layer of organic matter. This is a natural way of suppressing weeds because it imitates what happens in nature.
In autumn when plants die back and leaves fall from the trees, these will then decompose with the help of fungi and organisms in the soil. These will work in the organic matter into the soil and thereby replenish it with nutrients.
And when you use the no-dig method, you mimic this process by letting nature do her thing.
But what’s the point, if digging in the organic matter works as well, you might ask. Well, there are quite a lot of benefits to using the no-dig method:
- less work/save time – not having to dig in organic material means you save yourself from this hard work, and you save time
- no more back-breaking digging – while gardening is good physical activity for your health, digging can be a strain on your back, especially if you are not very fit, so a no-dig garden gets rid of this pain for you
- improved soil structure – because you don’t disturb the soil structure by digging, you maintain the soil ecosystem intact, which will give you healthy soil in which your vegetable plants will thrive
- larger yields – according to some experiments, you get a bigger harvest with the no-dig method
- reduction in weeds – the seeds of many weeds hide deep down in the soil; by digging up your garden you bring them to the top where they germinate, but with the no-dig method they stay where they are and won’t cause any trouble
- better moister retention – because no-digging imporves the soil structure, it will be able to retain moisture better than soil that has been dug (or cultivated)
- improved drainage – cultivating your beds can lead to the soil getting compacted in places, which means water doesn’t get through as easily; with the no-dig method you will avoid that and improve the drainage of the soil, which will be great for your plants
- reduction of carbon emissions – when you dig over your beds the carbon dioxide in the soil is released into the atmosphere where it contributes to climate change, so by adopting the no-dig method you keep this carbon locked up
- harvest earlier – research has shown that no-dig soil warms up quicker than soil that has been dug, which means that you can plant and sow your crops earlier which of course means you will also be able to harvest the crops earlier
- healthier plants – because you leave the soil ecosystem intact, all the organisms and fungi in the soil will combine with the roots of your vegetable plants and provide them with moisture and nutrients, which will ensure that your plants are healthier and stronger
Now that you know what no-dig gardening is and why it is beneficial, let’s get down to it and look at how to make a no-dig vegetable garden.
How To Make A No-Dig Vegetable Garden Step-By-Step
The good news is, using the no-dig method is easy and can quickly be applied to any garden or allotment.
The best time to start a no-dig vegetable garden is in autumn, when you have finished harvesting. This is the time that I have chosen to turn our traditional cultivated vegetable beds into a no-dig vegetable garden.
Step 1 – Preparation
Like with so many things, preparation is key. Once you have removed all of your vegetable plants after the last harvest, clear your beds or patches of weeds.
If your beds only contain small weeds, use a garden hoe or remove the weeds by hand. Some weeds such as brambles or docks will have to be dug out, as otherwise they will just come back.
If you have neglected weeding a bit and now have well established weeds in your bed, cut them down at the base and throw them on the compost.
Then get some cardboard (for example from cardboard boxes but without the tape) and lay it over your bed, covering the soil completely.
This layer of cardboard will starve any weeds of light and kill them.
Step 2 – Add Organic Matter
Now we come to the main step in our guide about how to make a no-dig vegetable garden.
If your bed has a lot of weeds, and you put down a layer of cardboard, add a 15cm (6in) compost layer.
However, if your garden beds are weed free, a 5cm (2in) layer of organic material directly on the soil will suffice.
Organic matter that can be used as mulch for this includes commercial peat-free compost, homemade compost, leave mulch or well-rotted manure.
We used peat-free compost, but we are hoping that we will have homemade compost in future years.
Don’t use anything that isn’t composted such as straw or wood chips, as this is an ideal habitat for slugs and snails, and you don’t want them munching on your seedlings in spring.
Now you just leave nature to do her thing. Over winter, fungi and micro organisms will feast on the mulch you put on and transfer the nutrients into the soil.
The cardboard layer will decompose over winter, so no need to worry about it.
Step 3 – Sowing And Planting
In spring, sow and plant out seedlings like you normally would straight into the layer of compost or mulch. Your seedlings will love it because it will provide them with all the nutrients they need to grow strong and healthy.
As we have mentioned before, soil that has not been dug over will warm up quicker in spring, so you can start sowing and planting earlier.
To know when the soil is warm enough, just use a soil thermometer to check the soil temperature.
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Step 4 – Maintenance
Because the layer of compost or mulch shuts out the light to the weed seeds below, you should have fewer weeds coming up than with the traditional method.
However, it won’t stop them completely, especially at the start. Because while it will weaken perennial weeds, they will still emerge.
So make sure you remove any weeds that come up as soon as possible, as this will make it easier to keep on top of it.
Over time, you should see fewer weeds though.
Apart from that, there is no more maintenance, other than taking care of your vegetable plants as usual.
Step 5 – Yearly Mulching
Now we come to the final step of our guide about how to make a no-dig vegetable garden.
Every year, after the final harvest, remove all your vegetable plants and add a layer of mulch, such as decomposed leaves or compost on top of your garden beds.
Make sure you also remove any weeds that dared to come up.
A compost layer of 3-5cm (1-2in) every year is enough. This will reintroduce nutrients into your soil ready for next year’s crop.
In garden beds where you are growing winter vegetables, add the layer of mulch in spring, once these have finished cropping.
Does The No-Dig Method Work For All Vegetables?
Now that you know how to make a no-dig vegetable garden, you might ask if it will work for all vegetables.
The answer is yes. Although, for potatoes there is a difference of opinion.
Some people think that they grow better with the traditional cultivation method, others say they grow fine with the no-dig way of gardening.
I tried it with a few seed potatoes, using the following method:
- Lay the seed potato on the ground and cover with a good layer of compost, about 5cm (2in).
- As the plant grows, keep adding compost to earth up.
- Harvesting is fairly easy: you just pull out the plant and most tubers will come out with it. But you have to carefully check for any that were left behind.
All in all, I didn’t like this method very much. One reason was that when I watered the potatoes the compost on the hill would slide down, so I had to replace it.
I did read you can also dig a hole and put the seed potato in and hill up with the soil around. But to harvest you have to dig the tubers out, which I thought defeats the object of a no-dig garden.
As a result, I would not recommend growing potatoes with the no-dig gardening method. Instead, I would suggest growing your potatoes in containers or grow bags.
Another type of vegetables I would like to mention are perennials.
Because these stay in the ground year after year, you might wonder if you can still have them in your no-dig garden.
The answer is yes. Just spread your layer of mulch around the perennial plants.
They will love the nutrients they get from the mulch as it decomposes and gets transferred deeper into the soil by fungi and microorganisms.
You also don’t need to worry about the mulch getting too high over time as you add it, because the decomposition process will ensure that it won’t.
Do You Need To Use Liquid Fertiliser In A No-Dig Garden?
According to no-dig garden guru Charles Dowding, you won’t need to add any liquid feed if you use the no-dig method.
This is because the compost or mulch will release all the nutrients your plants need into the soil.
And because you leave the soil ecosystem undisturbed, the fungi and microorganisms will feed your plants.
However, it will depend on what you use as mulch. Compost, homemade or commercial peat-free compost, should have enough nutrients to keep your plants fed and happy during the whole growing season.
Other mulches, such as decomposed leaves or crass clippings, might not have enough nutrients, so you might want to feed your vegetable plants.
But much less than you would need to use with the traditional method of cultivating your soil.
I would recommend making your own liquid fertiliser, because not only will it be cheaper, but it will also be natural and better for your plants and the soil.
Does A No-Dig Garden Work For All Soil Types?
Yes, the no-dig method works for all soil types. It is actually a much easier way to grow vegetables with clay or stoney soil.
Because you keep adding mulch or compost, the fungi, worms and microorganisms will create a soil structure that is ideal for the roots of plants.
Also, clay soil isn’t good at water retention, but by adding organic matter year after year, you will transform your soil.
It will retain moisture much better and water will also drain away easier, due to the improved soil structure. And your soil will also be able to retain the nutrients much better.
As a result, your crop will be much more successful using the no-dig method compared to the traditional method of cultivating the soil.
And it’s also much less work, because digging over clay or stoney soil can be difficult, hard work that takes time.
The no-dig method will work equally well with sandy soil. It will improve water retention and add nutrients into the soil, which will help your vegetable plants to thrive.
Now that you know how to make a no-dig vegetable garden, you are ready to give it a go. You won’t regret it, I promise. Happy Growing!