Welcome to no-dig gardening. This is a tutorial which is written in a form of questions and answers. Questions will lead you on a path, and answers will give further directions. I want to share with you seven years of experience with no-dig gardening which gives abundant yields and improves soil life and quality year after year.
First we will take a look at natural patterns, weeds and learn about soil protection. What is the best mulch you ask? How can we simplify the mulching process? We will explore how to take care of an established garden, what we can do for Autumn/Winter production, and finally, how to prepare for new season and how to establish new garden areas without digging.
Is no-dig gardening natural?
It’s about observing nature and using patterns of nature! One of the crucial patterns in nature is soil coverage. Whenever there is bare ground, nature works to protect the soil with help from living plant cover and through the breakdown of organic matter on the soil surface.
Do we have more weeds in a garden if we dig and disturb the ground?
Yes. By digging, and similar disturbance, we destroy soil structure and we activate untold weed seeds. Remember, their role is to cover and protect the ground and repair the soil structure. If we work with nature, we disturb the ground as little as possible, and thus end up with less weeds. We still need to weed, but we do it faster and easier.
Soil protection is the key?
Healthy living soils are key in no-dig gardening. The foundation of a healthy living soil is soil life. We need to take care of it and enhance it. We do that with nature’s way of soil protection. Otherwise we have bare ground which gets compacted by rain. The sun bakes the soil, the wind dries it and blows it away. Water can’t infiltrate the soil anymore, as the soil is compacted and without air. With minimal interaction and good soil protection we can avoid this — even better, we can improve the soil over time.
A dried, compacted and cracked soil surface — we can do better than this!
Can mulch help with soil protection?
Mulch is priceless! With its help we can retain soil moisture, and the soil is not over-saturated with water. Instead it becomes loose, aerated and fertile. And alive!
What is mulch?
Organic matter, which is applied on top of soil without incorporating it in the soil.
I get this question a lot: "What type of mulch is the best?" I came to the conclusion that it’s not the right question. I tell people: "It’s not so important what type it is, but in what condition it is".
My favorite is half decayed, with a lot of small particles. It has a humus smell. It’s moist and it’s almost black in color. Be it hay, straw, leaves, grass, wood — if it has the above characteristics I use it happily!
Part of the garden is protected in June with one year old, rotten hay
The garlic bed was mulched immediately after planting in October last year.
First a thin layer of compost mulch and than 10 cm (4 inches) of leaf mold.
Leaf mold at bottom right. Leaf mold is rotten, decayed leaves and it’s a great mulch.
Can we have troubles with mulch?
Mulching with fresh, undecayed and rough organic matter (fresh grass, hay, straw, leaves, manure) gives a lot of food and optimal living conditions for slugs and snails. It also attracts and gives shelter to other, bigger animals, which can be a challenge for gardeners. I avoid fresh/rough mulch where there are already existing problems with slugs, voles etc. If there are not such problems I don’t hesitate to use fresh grass, hay, straw, leaves…. There are also troubles with sowing and planting in fresh/rough mulch. Older gardeners in particular have troubles working with mulch, as they were used to working with bare ground all the time. Well, fresh/rough mulch is very valuable and finds its place in a garden (paths, certain beds…), especially if we don’t have the above design challenges. What works for me is mulching with compost, old rotten manure, leaf mold, fresh grass, rotten hay, grass clippings.
We can use compost as mulch?
Compost is amazing mulch, my favorite, thanks to Charles Dowding, one of the best gardeners in the world. He gardens in a similar climate to myself (humid cold temperate) and we have the same challenges when it comes to using fresh/rough mulch. When using compost as mulch, everything is simplified. Garden beds with compost mulch are always ready for sowing and planting. It has fine particles, retains a lot of moisture, the black color gives extra warmth when needed in spring and autumn, and retains existing soil moisture in summer. Compost attracts far less slugs, because a compost outer surface dries out fast and it doesn’t contain fresh food for them. A compost surface does not crack and compact! It gives perfect soil protection when spread on top and it’s just amazing with providing soil life and soil improvement. If we mulch our garden soil with 2-5 cm (1-2 inches) of compost, we invested in half a year of soil protection, depending on soil type and quality and the type of vegetables growing there. You do not need to dig compost into the soil – rather, spread it on top and nature will take care of the rest.
When to re-mulch my garden?
When a previous mulch starts to disappear and the soil becomes bare again. I usually do it before this happens — I just can’t look at bare soil anymore. Even if there are just small bare patches on a garden bed I mulch it straight away.
Soil eats mulch, whether it’s compost or hay. Sooner or later we will have bare ground if we don’t take care of it. Most of the mulching is done after harvesting plants in Summer, Autumn and before Winter. This way our garden soil is prepared for a new season before Winter and it’s ready faster and in better condition in Spring. Wintertime can damage soil a lot, if we don’t protect it. Or it can be a time of soil rest and feeding. We know that we are growing soil, not plants.
What can be done in Summer-Autumn for Autumn-Winter vegetable production?
When certain plants move out of the garden, we replenish soil cover and the soil is ready for a new phase of succession planting/sowing.
When garlic, carrots, salad, peas, early cabbage, potato and others are harvested, the soil starts
to become bare. If we wait too long the soil starts to erode and compact and we also start to see
an abundance of weeds. No cover, no living plants = soil’s and gardener’s worst nightmare.
As soon as we don’t have enough cover and/or living plants, we mulch with 2-5 cm (1-2 inches)
of compost and sow/plant new veggies like endive, kale, chicory, lamb’s lettuce, winter salad….
In autumn there is a lot of green and black color.
Soil is protected by compost mulch and living plants.
In autumn most of the garden is protected with compost and sown/planted with winter salads,
mizuna, pak-choi, endive, chicory, lamb’s lettuce and others.
What about preparing the garden for a new season and what happens with an empty bed in the Winter?
Soil degrades heavily in Winter if it’s bare and left unprotected from the natural elements. We need to protect the soil over Winter! We mulch when plants are harvested late in the season (late cabbage, beetroot, turnip, corn, peppers, pumpkins and others). When we harvest these plants, we can mulch with 2-5 cm (1-2 inches) of compost and maybe plant some Winter veggies, but mostly we’ve done that already. The garden is ready for a new season — the soil is happy and the gardener is satisfied.
What do I use if I don’t have enough compost? Can I use manure?
Manure is especially useful for Autumn preparation for a new season in areas where nothing will grow over Winter (empty winter beds). In this case we can mulch with at least 12 months old and rotten manure. Whatever we use, be it compost or manure, we don’t incorporate it into the soil, we just spread it on top, usually in a 2-5 cm (1-2 inch) layer. Old rotten manure breaks down really well over winter, with the help of freezing and thawing and the casual breaking of lumps with a rake or fork. In spring we have a fine compost surface, ready to sow and plant.
What about weeds?
We need to be there for the garden and take care of it — part of this process is weeding. The best is to do it often, when weeds are small. It’s easy to weed in no-dig garden, there are less weeds and they are easier and faster to remove. If we have good weed-free compost or manure it’s a lot easier.
Can we establish a new garden area on a grassy or weedy spot with the help of compost or manure?
We can spread old rotten manure or compost 10-15 cm (4-6 inches) on top of grass/weeds. That way we can prepare a new garden on a random surface, without digging — but just by spreading the material on top. The best time for this is in late Autumn, when plants go dormant and don’t fight back and are killed by the lack of light.
Again we break surface lumps by hitting them with a rake or fork over Winter, and in the Spring we need to weed out plants like dock, thistle, bindweed and others that appear. Again, we weed often and little, keeping the surface clean so veggies can take place. It’s easy to maintain weeds and have a clean garden at the end of the season when we apply a new thin layer of compost — if it’s even needed, as most of the time it’s not. We need to apply 2-5 cm (1-2 inches) in the future when the soil starts to become bare.
In December we spread one year old cow manure on top of a grass field. In spring everything
was compost and different types of veggies were happily planted and growing afterwards.
Kale and lettuce in June.
After one month on the same patch — kale, pepper, tomato and melon.
A grass field turned into garden simply by spreading 15 cm (6 inches) of one year old cow
manure. The hokkaido pumpkins did really well — lots of produce is hiding in the grass. Note clean
and compost surface. Lots of young thistles were removed in spring, little and often — there was no
hard work, just some fun, knowing it’s a future investment. There was no need for additional
applications of compost for the next season, as there was plenty left.
Is this all?
You know, gardeners are learning all the time, until the end of their lives. So many details… but there are principles we can use. Permaculture starts with ethics, goes on with principles, they lead to strategies and we end up with appropriate techniques. I gave you some techniques that might not be useful to you, but the principle is there — protect the soil! If you have any further questions, write it below in the comment area. Any suggestions, ideas or constructive critics are welcomed! For those in the Northern Hemisphere, I wish you an abundant close of the gardening season and good start for the next one. And lots of compost!