The traditional way of growing vegetables is to use digging to keep the ground around them free of competing plants, so that they get the best possible access to light, water and nutrients. Even if you enjoy digging, it’s a lot of work. Not only that, but digging causes the soil to lose organic matter so you have to incorporate compost or manure to offset the damage. Put like that, it sounds like a losing game, doesn’t it?
No dig gardening replaces the annual dig with an annual top-dressing of a couple of inches of compost, which is usually done in the autumn. You don’t dig at all; just hoe off annual weeds, dig out perennial ones (or cover them with several thicknesses of cardboard), spread the compost on and leave it be. This may sound like an easy option, but it isn’t – make no mistake, moving around that much compost is quite a bit of work!
Over the winter and following spring, worms begin to incorporate the compost into the soil below. The result is a richer, crumbly soil with plenty of air spaces. Sandy soil holds water and nutrients better; clay soil becomes less heavy and drains better provided the whole area doesn’t puddle (if it does, consider confining your no-dig area to raised beds).
You still need to keep on top of weeds in a no dig bed, but this is less work than in conventional growing. Not only are you not bringing dormant weed seeds to the surface, but because the soil is so much lighter the weeds lift out of the soil with much less fuss. Once the soil structure improves even dock and dandelion roots pop out of the ground without protest, leaving you with more time and energy to tend to your food plants.
Gardeners who haven’t tried no dig often point out that digging is needed to break up hard clods in the soil, and to cut through the soil pan (the layer of compacted soil that forms just below the cultivated depth). In fact both clods and soil pan are a symptom of poor soil structure – in other words, they’re caused by digging in the first place! In most cases they correct themselves within a few years; the only digging that’s necessary in a no dig bed is to lever out root crops, or to fork out potatoes.
- You don’t have to dig!
- Less time and effort spent weeding
- Impressively healthy plants with improved resistance to drought
- Improved soil structure and fertility
- Uses an awful lot of compost so you may have to arrange bulk delivery
- You need a good worm population to start off with – non-organic growers may have to wait longer for their soil structure to pick up
Do you get as much produce from a no dig garden?
Actually, you may get more. Charles Dowding, the undisputed king of no-dig in the UK, has run several experiments over the years. Keeping all other factors as similar as possible, he found that even newly-created no dig beds give about 10% better yields than conventionally dug ones.
How to move to no dig gardening
- Go organic. No dig is all about healthy soil – about worms, minibeasts and fungi and the complex web of nutrient exchange that goes along with them.
- Work out how much compost you’re going to need on an ongoing basis, and where it’s going to come from.
- In autumn, prepare the existing beds by hoeing any annual weeds off. Dig out perennial weeds or cover them with several thicknesses of cardboard.
- Top dress the beds with a one-off SIX INCHES of compost, which will starve out any weeds with the exception of bindweed and marestail.
- Start growing in the spring as normal – and see the difference!
- In future years, top dress annually in autumn (or spring, for beds occupied in autumn) with one or two inches of compost – no less than two for very sandy soils.
Bulk compost image by Bryn Pinzgauer on Flickr