As an organic gardener, it is very important to understand that success begins and ends with the soil.
Healthy soil leads to healthy plants, which, when growing food, leads to healthy people. If we neglect the soil or allow it to become degraded, the whole system can suffer and we humans suffer too.
When thinking about and implementing an organic garden, it is crucial to develop an understanding of the role soil plays in growing food, how important the soil is, and what we have to do to protect and enhance it.
Soil is far more than just ‘dirt’. Living soil teems with beneficial fungi and bacteria, earthworms, and a whole host of other creatures big and small who aid us in our efforts to grow food organically.
We need to protect and take steps to improve this soil ecosystem in order to get as much as we can from our gardens. Tilling and digging disrupt the fragile networks that allow the soil to function and plants to grow well. This is where no-dig gardening comes in.
What is No Dig Gardening?
‘No dig’ gardening is a response to an understanding of the complex web of life in the soil and the importance of maintaining it intact. It is an important component in permaculture gardening and is a concept that underpins several of its common practices.
As the name suggests, rather than digging or tilling the soil, we aim to disturb it as little as possible.
Traditionally, gardeners will turn over the soil to maintain aeration and to incorporate organic matter. Those who practice no-dig gardening can demonstrate that this is not only unnecessary but also that disturbing the soil through these practices harms the ecosystem.
Healthy living soil comprises:
- Minerals. (Sand, silt and clay particles.)
- Organic matter. (Decomposing plant and animal life.)
- Living organisms (micro-organisms, earthworms and other soil biota)
- Air and water. (Gases and moisture.)
Understanding and taking care of these four fundamentals are essential in helping your garden grow. And taking a no-dig approach is the best way to make sure that the conditions for a healthy living soil are met, and soil can be maintained and improved over time.
The Goals of No Dig Gardening
In a no-dig garden the goals are to:
- Avoid digging or tilling whenever possible.
- Take steps to avoid compacting the soil.
- Keep soil covered with plants and/or organic mulches, ideally keeping a living root in the soil at all times.
When we leave soil bare, it is more vulnerable to becoming degraded over time. Bare soil should therefore be avoided whenever possible when you are trying to improve the soil in your garden.
Bare soil is likely to be:
- Eroded by the rain and wind.
- Leached of its nutrients, overheated or parched by the sun.
- Overly saturated (waterlogged), or have its nutrients washed out by rains.
- More easily compacted (this is especially true of heavy clay soils).
When we make sure we cover soil, we can keep it protected, build it up and improve it over time. We can ensure a healthy microbial population in the soil, and ensure that the soil ecosystem works as it should.
In a ‘no dig’ system, we do not dig compost or other fertilizers into the soil. Instead, we lay these as mulches on the soil surface. We lay the organic matter on top of the soil and this protects the topsoil below.
Nutrients are slowly incorporated naturally into the soil below, in the same way, that leaves break down below deciduous trees and shrubs. In a no-dig system, the soil is protected, fertility and moisture are retained, and the ecosystem below is able to function as it should.
In essence, the idea is to work with nature rather than fighting it and to think about longevity and resilience in the ecosystem as a whole.
The Benefits of No Dig Gardening
Practitioners and gardeners have found, and demonstrated, that taking a no-dig approach in the garden and working towards the goals mentioned above can improve yields, enhance biodiversity, and build healthy soil over time.
What is more, no-dig gardening often makes things easier for gardeners too. It can allow you to avoid the back-breaking labor of digging or tilling in the creation of new growth areas, and in the maintenance of the garden.
Getting Started With No Dig Gardening
There are several different ways to get started with no-dig gardening. If you would like to create a new growing area, you can make new beds without digging or tilling by:
- Making a lasagna garden. (These are raised beds with layers of organic matter which compost in place, topped with compost/ topsoil into which seeds can be sown or plants placed).
- Creating hugelkultur mounds. (Like lasagna beds, these involve layering organic materials, but to create rounded mounds rather than flat-topped beds. And rotting wood forms a sort of skeleton at the heart of the new growing area.)
- Establishing straw bale gardens. (Straw bales topped with compost/ well rotted manure which are used as raised beds.)
Over time, the materials in these new growing areas will break down and be incorporated into the soil below. They will sink down over time, and new organic materials will be added as mulches around your plants to maintain fertility and replenish the system.
If you already have an established garden, you might not want new growing areas. But you can still make the transition to no-dig gardening by mulching existing areas with organic material, and by making sure that you implement practices that allow you to avoid digging or tilling these areas.
- Making sure that beds are of a size so that you can easily reach the centre without compacting the growing area.
- Using green manures and cover crops to avoid leaving areas of bare soil and to maintain fertility.
- Implementing successional planting and crop rotation plans to make sure you can maintain growing systems which are as healthy and productive as possible.
Mulching in a No Dig Garden
Those new to no-dig gardening often worry that it will be expensive to implement these ideas. They are concerned that they will have to spend on materials to lay over the top of the soil surface.
Not taking a no-dig approach, however, can be much more costly (in every sense). And you will often be able to source materials to make new no-dig growing areas, or to mulch existing areas in your own garden or local surroundings, without any financial outlay at all.
Any materials which can be composted at home can also be included in a no-dig garden bed. The idea is to layer brown (carbon-rich) and green (nitrogen-rich) materials to compost in place – you are just composting in situ rather than in a separate composting system. (Though it is also a good idea to have a separate composting system, so you will have some good quality compost to plant into for the tops of your new growing areas.)
Look around you, and you will often find that you already have many natural resources available to you for use in your no-dig garden.
Plan, prepare and plant wisely and you should be able to create closed-loop garden systems over time, without the need for any external inputs.
You will be able to keep the soil healthy and create a beautiful and abundant garden.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer, garden designer and green living consultant. She lives in Scotland where she grows food and keeps rescue chickens, and is working on an eco-build barn conversion project. She designs sustainable farms and gardens all over the world through her small business www.ewspconsutlancy.com.