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An Easy Way to Start a New Permaculture Garden

I think that many people find it daunting to start a new permaculture garden as it appears to be a lot of work, especially digging to prepare the space. However this need not be the case, as there are ways of starting your garden without any digging whatsoever. I certainly found this the most discouraging thing, especially as the surrounding area was overgrown with kikuyu grass and various other weeds. I was not interested in bringing in a small tractor to plough up everything and digging the place up with so much overgrown grass was more than I could think of managing. So after contemplating this problem for some while I hit on an idea which I thought was very novel because I had never heard of anyone doing it. I have subsequently heard that some people implement this method, but that’s it’s not as well known as it should be!

What you need for this project though is empty cardboard boxes, which you can obtain from most supermarkets or bottle stores free of charge.

Step One would be tramping down and if necessary cutting down the weeds that are protruding up too high. All your weeds can remain in the ground, but if they are too tall then it is preferable to cut them down in order for the cardboard boxes to lie flat.

It is really best to tackle this task after it has rained, but if you have adequate water you can give it a good soaking before you start.

Step Two: The cardboard boxes get flattened and then placed on the area you want to garden, covering the entire surface as flat as possible. It is best to overlap your cardboard as some grasses and other plants are very persistent and tough and with the slightest bit of light they reach up a tendril to survive. However these single tendrils are much easier to get rid of later on than a whole area of grass.

Step Three: I always water the cardboard so it is somewhat soft and therefore malleable and easier to keep down.

Step Four: After you have covered the area with cardboard you need to put a very thick layer, about 40 to 50 cm, of compost and mulch on top of the cardboard. Dry leaves, grass and straw are ideal for this and then all the compost that you can afford and that comes from your kitchen waste, and once you have covered the cardboard boxes with the mulch and compost, you need to water very thoroughly and be sure that the soil is wet throughout. Then you are ready to plant in your new garden. In due course the cardboard breaks down and disintegrates and the weeds underneath also become food for the plants. So you need to water deep and thoroughly.

Step Five: Now you can plant seeds or seedlings directly. The seeds get planted straight into the mulch at the depth you would normally plant the seed.

Regular watering softens the cardboard and by the time the plants have grown to almost full size the roots can easily penetrate deeper through the cardboard into the soil underneath. Because the plants are in soft compost and mulch they sprout so much easier and before you know it they are looking fantastic. The absence of light under the cardboard does kill off the weeds and also the seeds so that you have very little weeds sprouting as your garden progresses.

Initially daily watering, and even twice daily, is required if it is very hot. But if you have planted seedlings then you should water for longer periods so that the water goes deeper — every second day to start with and then moving on to every third day, once the roots have taken hold, which should take about a week to ten days. Your mulch keeps the moisture content higher, and prevents evaporation, so watering becomes less essential as the mulch breaks down into humus. You want to remember that you need the water to get to the bottom of the roots of the plants. To approximately determine this depth take note of the height of your plants…. As above so below. If you water too shallowly then the roots tend to turn upwards to find water, which weakens your plants and then they are prone to diseases and insects. Most diseases and insects occur when the plants are not happy — in particular regarding watering as this lowers their immune systems and they become prey to diseases. Loads of compost and good watering is the key to healthy and happy plants.

However to every rule there is an exception and in this case carrots are an exception. Carrot seeds like poor sandy soil, but once they are growing they like deep watering to form strong roots. So for your carrot section it is advisable to put down some sandy soil and leave off the compost. Some mulch will help to keep the soil wet. Initially you must soak the cardboard very well for carrots so that they easily can penetrate through into the soil underneath otherwise they grow short and stocky.

A golden rule to remember is: Mother Nature hates being naked, just like we do. In the summer the soil burns and the roots can burn too, no matter how many times a day you may water, and in the winter the cold and possible frost also damages the roots. Everything needs to be mulched at all times. Lots of mulching and groundcover is advisable and don’t be too intent in taking every little weed out because they are often useful and edible in some cases. Of course too much will overtake what you are wanting to grow but when you do take some out leave them on top, to cover the soil and turn into compost.

I have done my entire garden like this and found it extremely helpful and useful. If you think you don’t have enough mulch or compost then go and rake up the leaves your trees have dropped. I fortunately have many Acacia trees around and this gives me wonderful compost and mulch in one, as it is very rich in nitrogen. Unfortunately, if you are in a suburban area, you may have to look to your local nursery for this kind of material but you could take a drive into the country over a weekend and visit some stud farms or dairy farms to collect some compost manure.

It is fine to use some cow or horse manure if you have access to this, but it is not advisable to use chicken manure or pig manure at this stage. These are best used after first composting them with other yard waste, or as liquid manures only, which can be made by leaving them to soak in a container of water for about ten days. Chicken and pig manure is strong and acidic and tends to burn the roots of plants, so care should be taken to keep them away from root systems.

This method avoids any tilling, so doesn’t ‘wake’ dormant seeds in your topsoil layer. The covered weeds turn into soil, and your vegetables can flourish. This method does significantly reduce the time and effort involved in starting a new garden, and the results are fantastic.


  1. Do you need to use cardboard if you are putting down 40-50cm of dirt? Cow and horse manures in my experience are full of weed seeds, but are pretty good for growing if you can get the drainage right.

  2. Cardboard can usually be readily obtained at hardware stores as well. Some hardware stores mix their cardboard with other waste and some don’t. Best to find one that keeps their cardboard waste aside for the recyclers. We just recently started a Mandala Garden a la Linda Woodrow and laid down plenty of cardboard with about 50cm of straw on top. Not a weed to be seen aside from what grows out of the straw which makes good tucker for the guinea pig after weeding. I can never quite understand why people are happy to dig a garden or get out the herbicides when all those difficult grasses make such a good mulch under the cardboard or paper as the case may be and I get to keep my fat tummy from not having to raise much of a sweat. Go for a pleasant walk instead, I reckon.

  3. Hi Andy, you HAVE to use cardboard or some other barrier that will break down with time. grasses and tap root weeds will come through anything even if it’s a foot thick they will find a way up. You would need A LOT of dirt to smother what is underneath and that in itself could contain weed seeds. I have used cardboard because it is easy to get and easy to use, BUT I have also used old plywood/chipboard, dogfood and catfood bags – even with some plastic coating it will break down eventually – be inventive!…newspaper layered thick can also work. be aware… you are introducing a lot of carbon and you will need extra nitrogen to help break down the barrier…

  4. After my experience with no dig gardening, I was wondering what definition of “easy” Lois was using :)

    Our land is just above the keyline in a broad valley, 150M from the river. It comprises of heavy compacted clay with big chunks of limestone, the size of house bricks, a remnant of glacier deposit from the last ice age. The topsoil is very thin, 2 to 3 inches, vegetation is mainly cow parsley, and nettle, with some vetch, fescue, buttercup, and willow herb popping up in between too.

    My first thought was to terrace the growing areas, on contour, I had visions of a swale along the bottom contour of the plot, running 450M from the nearest keypoint, to bring water into the growing areas. A mammoth task, the idea was soon put to rest when an old back injury reared it’s ugly head. We can all dream eh! Whatever I was going to do, digging was out, so was bending.

    I came across this video by Myk Rushton, No dig garden construction – workshop which seemed a good way forward. I started gathering essential supplies, completely underestimating the amount of cardboard, compost and straw that was required for even a small area, let alone the whole plot.

    I had a 25sq M black plastic damp proof membrane I had recovered from a builders skip, so I decided to tackle a 5M x 5M area, so I could subsequently move along the plot in 25sq M steps as I got each one established. I could use the plastic sheet to cover the area if my back played up so as not to lose my hard work to weed seeds before it was finished. After the first crop of potatoes was harvested I could dig out paths on contour, establishing raised beds each side, all on contour.

    I discovered each plot would take around 40sq M of cardboard so as to cover the gaps, this amounts to 1.5 cubic Meters of cardboard, each layer of compost would equate to 1.5 cubic Meters too, and two bales of straw for each straw layer, with 1.5 cubic meters of topsoil to finish it. To get the bed 10 inches deep it took 3 layers of compost with straw in between, one layer of topsoil, and a final layer of straw as a mulch, this added up to 4.5 cubic Meters of compost and 6 bales of straw. Each straw layer needed watering during construction, it took 2 gallons per sq M, so I had to haul in 50 gallons, 4 times!

    I planted the first plot up with potatoes as some of the compost was a bit rich, one 2” layer was fresh blanket weed pulled from the river! The top layer of straw seemed a bit thin as I had only acquired 5 bales of straw, I decided to use the membrane as both a weed stop barrier and to prevent all that water I’d brought in from evaporating. So as not to compact my new bed I used a plank to do the planting, I marked out plant spacing on the plastic sheet, cut an ‘x’ for the plant hole and put another couple of handfuls of topsoil on top of each spud. It took me 3 days to complete. Easy? You be the judge :)

    This was 3 yrs ago, I moved the 25sq M on once to form another similar bed the year after. On the original bed after I harvested the spuds I dug out paths 10” deep and put the (great) soil onto the beds to raise them further, filling the paths with woodchip hoping they will form a sort of reservoir in between beds, as the woodchip breaks down it’ll go onto the beds too and be replaced with fresh woodchip. But all this made me realize I was not getting very far very fast, so I use a different method now, utilizing woodchip as a sheet mulch which breaks down enough for planting spuds in around 2 years. I’ll expand on this with some photos and send it in to Craig to see if it passes muster as a separate post ;)

  5. Similar to lasagne gardening :-) Cardboard/newsprint is good in the bottoms of raised beds or other beds with well-defined borders to keep weeds out. Where I live, kikuyu seems to find the smallest holes to send a tendril though, even weed fabric (geo textile) was penetrated.

  6. Just to be clear you put down compost then layer the mulch on top or do you mix the mulch & compost together? Thank you for your response.

    1. It’s been nine years since you asked your question – never mix mulch and soil or compost! the mulch always lies on top, like clothing over skin, but if you mix it in then it can rob the soil of nutrients such as nitrogen while it is breaking down. I live in Central Texas, and out here any exposed soil will be scorched and dried out by the sun during the Summer months. Even an inch or two of woodchips makes all the difference, and the rich black and moist soil can be found just beneath the chips…

  7. I am not sure about using cardboard. How do I know if the cardboard was not produced with the help of harmful materials? Those would then get into the ground…

  8. I tried using cardboard for the first time. I recently built a 4×4 concrete block raised bed on grass. I dug up all the grass, dug down about 18 inches into the clay, hoed the clay, and pulled all the weeds. I added two flattened cardboard [moving] boxes from Lowe’s. I’ve never done this before. Then I added a layer or two of sticks, a very large layer of oak leaves I raked, a bunch of food scraps, pine needles, and lots of compost. I added a layer of Jungle Growth on top and surrounded the plot with clay pots filled with manure and jungle growth. The cardboard seems to be effective for providing support and stability and will hopefully keep some of the grass down. I mulched with cypress mulch around the plot, but grass is already pushing through the mulch. There may be some small concern about the type of ink used on the cardboard box I got from Lowe’s, but it was only a small bit of ink, and it is probably a lot less toxic than most of the pesticides that are directly sprayed on food. I wouldn’t worry about the cardboard.

  9. Can this process be started in the fall, like currently in a warm November? Also, my back yard terrain is pretty uneven, and not intentionally. Any suggestions on making it level without a gas powered rototiller?

  10. I have been using this method for years! I love this method! Here’s a couple tiny tweaks that I found make it a tad more efficient:

    1) Get your cardboard from a mattress store. The HUGE cardboard the mattresses are packed in allows fewer cracks for tenacious weeds/grasses to poke through, and it *really* cuts down the time spent working!
    2) Use a roto tiller to chop the weeds. Go down an inch or two into the ground, then rake the weeds out. This doesn’t hurt the soil structure, but it gives you ahead start on knocking back the “weeds.”
    3) First I put down rows of soil/compost mix, then I cover everything with 4-6 inches of wood chips. When I plant, I plant in the soil/compost rows just below the surface of the wood chips.

    Using this method we have seen worms making their way through the cardboard in about one year, but the weeds do not! This method also has sped up the process of maturing a wood chip garden for us. For us, a regular wood chip garden would take about three years to really start working good. This method almost cuts that time in half. Also, I think it helps us to live in a temperate climate where the snow melts and freezes and melts, helping the corrugated cardboard break apart gently and evenly while the rest of the layers.

    Toby in North Idaho

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