No Dig?

Easy, Productive and Protective

No dig gardens are easy. They give you quick food production and protect the soil. We built our 1-acre garden completely by no-dig because it was covered in invasive big trees and Kikuyu. The soil was heavily compacted by horses and DDT had been used on the site previously.

No dig gardens are easy. After an acre of no-dig, we have learned some tricks. Firstly, check that you are not killing any beneficial native grasses. Get to know what you are covering up. Work what it wants and find how to deny that. For example, Kikuyu wants to be mown and it wants sunlight and water. So, we stopped mowing in the areas we were working on and blocked the light. But we didn’t stop the water because we wanted to preserve any worms.

No-dig Gardens Provide

  1. soil protection from erosion
  2. moisture trapping (if laid carefully in the reverse-tile pattern).
  3. evaporation barrier
  4. carbon and organic matter
  5. worm-food
  6. composting of a waste that is often sent to landfill
  7. weed-suppression and conversion to worm-food
  8. food without killing soil micro-organisms
  9. habitat for soil fungi

Martin Crawford understands the power of no-dig gardening in his food forest. He has a beaut book “Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops”

Concentrated Effort

Start small to be successful. This is a permaculture principle. Focus first on no-dig gardens that serve to protect the growth of young trees. This is also known as spot mulching. With tall Kikuyu, spot mulching involves layers of suppressive materials, so it is the same as no-dig. Watch your trees to check they don’t suffer from nitrogen drawn-down. This happens when there is a lot of brown, dead material, so add some natural fertiliser from your worm-farm.

Adapt Your Method

For best success with no-dig garden beds always start on a stable edge. The stable edge includes an old pathway, another garden bed, an out-building, a fence, or a wall. The bed can be extended more easily than a bed in the center of a grassy area. Because you are not trying to combat weeds in all directions. 

No-dig gardening was pioneered by Esther Deans, she wrote fabulous book in the 70s about No-dig gardening and she came to visit our site and although we do it slightly differently because we don’t use hard edges, she encouragingly approved!

All our edges in the garden are relocatable to allow us to expand the garden and use the previous garden bed as a stable edge.

No dig for Beginners

If you want to try a no-dig patch, here’s the easiest way to get started.

You will need a stack of cardboard, some aged straw bales, compost and small plants and seed. Best to use annual plants. When they die off, its time to check for weeds and root out any weak points.

1. Start on flat land. You can have hard clay or deep lawn. Just tread it flat.

2. Flattened and soak your cardboard

3. Add aged straw and pockets of compost or soil for plants are added.

4. Insert paths along the contour, add sticks on top to deter chickens. Cloches can be made from bottles.

5. Water regularly and watch your plants. Any plants going yellow need some natural fertiliser.

No-dig beds on flat areas

No-Dig garden beds on flat land are easier to maintain those than on sloped land.

  1. Soak paper and cardboard
  2. Flatten the area and dig out the strong weeds such as clumping grasses.
  3. Plan a neat edge with a hose or string as a guide.
  4. Step into the center of your planned garden and start laying cardboard. Overlap the cardboard by 20cms. Work in a circle laying cardboard in a fan. Circular beds have less edge to maintain.
  5. Use rocks, lumber or pots as to hold cardboard in place and create garden wall.
  6. With a sharp spade cut grass runners at the edge
  7. Cover the entire area with a 30cm deep layer of aged mulch.
  8. Check for exposed areas before planting. Plant annuals in pockets of compost.
  9. If there is grass coming through, scrape back the mulch and plaster this area with paper and cardboard. Increase the thickness of mulch too. Wait again!
  10. Finally, when the old lawn beneath the new garden is dead, you are ready to plant perennial seedlings and trees.

A stable edge to fight grasses with larger plants directly in the soil like arrowroot, or lemongrass and shrubs.

Jerusalem artichokes work well on slopes to rejuvenate soil

Sit Back and Enjoy

In our garden, we wait for 18months. If you don’t have this amount of time to wait, plant only annuals then quickly repeat the process (steps 1-9). In the first year, you get to harvest annuals such as melons and vegetables.

Planting into your garden is truly the fun part – insert your little seedlings with just a handful of compost or soil, mulch up the plant. You can add a rock to increase condensation harvest to the seedling. Keep the area watered in early period as these plants do not have rising moisture from the soil.

Shane calculating contours

No-dig Beds on Slopes

We use discarded hessian sacks from coffee factories to ensure it doesn’t have a store of toxins in it.

  1. Prepare the slope by digging trenches to hold water.
  2. Dig out the strong weeds such as grasses from your stable edge place paper.
  3. Start at the top. Do not start in the center. The cardboard slips when you walk on it. So start high and do not walk on it.
  4. Overlap to cardboard 30cm. The join will trap a little rainwater, not shed it like a roof tile. Cover the cardboard in hessian or papier-mache. Secure the top edge with tent pegs or rocks.
  5. Create a garden bed shape that follows the contour and is narrow, with paths on contour. This makes it easier to maintain the edges. Drooping, and weeping plants on the lower edge keep the weeds from running uphill.
  6. Lay sticks and branches on the cardboard to hold the mulch. Protect young plants from sliding mulch with strong cages or boulders.
compost lasagne added after digging trenches on contour, and laying papier-mache

Learn more by doing a permaculture course with us.