What Is No Dig Gardening? (5 Good Reasons To Try It)


Have you ever wished there was a way to plant in your garden without having to turn over all of the soil every year? Or how about the tragic, yet inevitable worm casualties at the hand of your spade that you can’t help but feel bad about? 

No-dig gardening is a simple method of gardening that leaves your soil undisturbed, allowing the natural structure of the earth to continue as nature intended. Layers of organic material help to add nutrients to the soil and your plants, creating the optimal environment for growth.

As simple as this practice sounds, however, there is an art to it to effectively provide your garden with everything it needs. This article will talk about the benefits of no-dig gardening, and give you some pointers to get started. 

What Is No Dig Gardening?

No-dig gardening is an ancient method of growing plants without digging or disturbing the soil. Instead of planting directly into the existing earth, no-dig gardeners layer organic material on top of the ground and sow seeds or transplant them into the top layer. You can also start a no-dig garden in a raised bed. 

raised bed image homepage
A raised bed is one way to do no dig gardening.

Many different organic materials can be used to layer your garden, such as kitchen scraps, compost, and wood-based mulch. The top layer of no-dig gardens is typically compost, which is where you will plant what you’d like to grow there.

Kitchen scraps are a welcome addition to layers in your no-dig garden.

Throughout the year, the compost naturally breaks down, so a fresh layer of compost is needed at the beginning of every growing season. This is typically the only maintenance that is needed to prepare the bed each spring. 

Does No Dig Gardening Work?

Although no-dig gardening has become more prevalent in recent years, it is by no means a new method. It’s not clear when the practice began, but many horticultural experts link no-dig gardening to nineteenth-century farming techniques. 

Many well-documented accounts of the success of no-dig gardening arose in the early 1900s. The first known book published on the subject was called “Is Digging Necessary?”, authored by F.C. King in 1946.

shovel
In addition to less work digging and breaking ground, no dig methods may yield better growth and fewer pests than tilled areas.

King was an English horticulturist who chronicled his trials with no-dig gardening and found that the method yielded better growth and fewer pests than tilled areas. Many more pioneers followed shortly afterwards with comprehensive guides on how to maintain health gardens without tilling.

Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, evidence continued to stack up, proving that no-dig gardening is a successful way to grow plants and maintain healthy soil. Despite this, mainstream, traditional methods have remained in the foreground, and no-dig gardening still seems to be considered an unconventional practice. 

Advantages Of No-Dig Gardening

The hardest part of no-dig gardening is getting started. But the cost and labor associated with setting up are generally considered minor hurdles compared to the countless benefits that follow.

Here are some of the advantages of no dig gardening:

Less fertilizer: The organic materials you use (especially compost) will reduce the need for fertilizer during the growing season. Many no-dig gardeners report never having to fertilize their plants. 

ammonium nitrate
No dig gardening means you may not need to fertilize plants so often (or at all!)

Better for the environment: Any time you dig into the soil, carbon rises to the surface. Once the carbon comes into contact with oxygen, it turns into carbon dioxide. Many researchers agree that tilling farmland has increased the emission of carbon dioxide, therefore advancing global warming. No-dig gardening is a small way for gardeners to reduce their carbon footprint. 

Saves time: Once a no-dig garden is established, there is little to do to maintain it. Since the soil is naturally healthy, pests and weeds are minimal, and no digging is required, it’s less labor-intensive than dig gardening. This makes it a great option for those who struggle with mobility or other health issues. 

wooden raised garden beds
A no dig garden can help if you have mobility problems.

Healthier plants: Earthworms and beneficial fungi are two of the major players in the intricate ecosystem that contributes to flourishing plants. The organisms that live in soil provide natural aeration that allows plants to breathe, and transport organic materials to the root systems. 

Works with almost any soil: If you live in an area with rocky, clay-heavy, or otherwise poor quality soil, you’ll never have to lament about the difficulty of planting again. With no-dig gardening, the compost you place is all your plants need to thrive. If your soil is deficient in certain nutrients that your plants will require, you can easily add it to the compost. 

compost bin
No dig gardening has a focus on compost, which restores nutrients to soil and adds organic material, which attracts beneficial bacteria and earthworms.

Controls weeds: When you turn over the soil to prepare for planting, seeds of invasive weeds are brought closer to the surface, where they are exposed to light, and subsequently germinate. No-dig gardening greatly reduces the amount of unwanted weeds that grow in your garden. Although you will still notice weeds emerging, it won’t be as often, and their roots will typically be more shallow, and easier to remove. 

Maintains soil health: Even when done with the best intentions, tilling the soil damages the rich ecosystem that exists underground. Undisturbed, that complex structure stays hard at work to provide the optimal environment for plants. 

Retains moisture: Without digging, you decrease the amount of water evaporation in the soil system. The thick layer of compost you use will retain moisture efficiently, and you won’t have to water as much. No-dig gardens often fare better in areas that are prone to drought. 

watering can
No dig gardening may reduce your need to water, which is important if you often encounter dry weather.

Easy planting: Unlike with traditional gardening, planting something new is a quick process. All you need to do is dig a hole the same size as the root ball, set the plant inside, and firm the compost around it just enough to cover the roots and stabilize the plant.  

How Deep Should A No Dig Garden Be?

Experienced no-dig gardeners use varying amounts of layered materials to build their beds. The method you choose will determine the depth of your garden. 

The simplest way to start your garden is to use a layer of light-blocking mulch such as newspaper to eliminate weeds, and top that with 4-6 inches of the compost of your choice.

newspaper
You can use a light-blocking mulch (such as a layer of newspaper) to eliminate weeds. Put 4 to 6 inches of compost over it to get started.

This strategy is acclaimed by experts like Charles Dowding, an internationally respected gardener who is widely renowned for his flourishing no-dig gardens. If your new space is not particularly weedy to start with, according to Dowding, you can use as little as two inches of compost. 

Other gardeners set up with more complex, multi-layered no-dig plots. The University of Florida’s cooperative agriculture extension office recommends the following structure:

  1. Any grass clippings or weeds that you chopped in your new garden area
  2. 4-6 layers of light-blocking carbon source like newspaper or cardboard
  3. A layer of compost, worm castings, or manure up to three inches thick
  4. A layer of leaves, sawdust, or straw
  5. Another layer of clippings or chopped weeds
  6. Repeat the process until you’ve reached anywhere form 18 inches to three feet
cutting grass
Grass clippings can form one layer of a multi-layered no dig garden plot.

If you’re not sure which technique to use, go for the former (simpler) option. You can always amend your soil with additional layers as needed. Or, if you’re a more curious gardener, try different materials in separate garden sections, and compare this season’s growth in the two areas. 

Can You Use Cardboard For A No Dig Garden?

Cardboard is widely accepted in the no-dig gardening community as one of the best ways to block weed growth. A thick layer of cardboard blocks light from any weeds growing underneath, and prevents seeds from germinating. It’s also a much more eco-friendly alternative to herbicides, which gardeners today are increasingly trying to avoid. 

cardboard box
Recycling cardboard is a good choice for blocking light to eliminate weeds in a no dig garden.

One of the best things about cardboard is that it breaks down over time, so that by the time the roots of what you’ve planted reach that layer, they’ll have no trouble extending into the earth below it. Here are some important things to note if you decide to use cardboard for your no-dig garden:

Cut your weeds first: Your cardboard layer will be more successful if you trim any grass or weeds growing there as close to the ground as possible. You don’t have to pull the weeds – either mow them down or cut tall weeds with pruners.

weeds
Cut weeds short before you cover them with a layer of cardboard.

Wet your cardboard: Once you’ve placed at least two layers of cardboard onto the ground, water it well until it’s soaked. This gives the cardboard some extra weight and helps to block out any light that could potentially reach the weeds underneath.

Plan ahead: Once you place the cardboard, many professional gardeners recommend waiting 4-6 weeks to plant anything. By that time, the weeds beneath it should be mostly dead, and the cardboard will have gotten a chance to start decomposing. 

You will only need to place cardboard the first year you begin your new garden. After that, minor weed-pulling, watering, and yearly applications of compost are the only maintenance that a no-dig garden requires.

(You can also use cardboard to make a plant collar or a container for plants).

Conclusion

Like with any new gardening skill, expect some trial and error before you master the art of no-dig gardening. If you stick with it, you can say goodbye to back-breaking shovel work in the garden forever! 

I hope you found this article helpful. If so, please share it with someone who can use the information. 

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here. Enjoy! 

About the author:
Kathryn is a plant enthusiast and freelance content writer who specializes in home and garden topics. Based in New York, you can get in touch with Kathryn at https://kathrynflegal.journoportfolio.com/.

Kathryn F.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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