No-dig gardening: the eco-friendly way to garden
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
The evenings are getting lighter, the weather is getting warmer and spring is just around the corner. For those of us with green fingers, the thought of getting back out into the garden is an exciting one.
But before you pick up your trusty trowel, have you thought about switching up your gardening routine, and opting for something less strenuous and more environmentally sound?
That’s where no-dig gardening comes in.
No-dig gardening, is a technique that, as the name suggests, involves little to no digging. This is in order to prevent disrupting the soil, as regular ploughing breaks up its structure, which can hamper the essential ecology within.
Jo Hull, along with her partner Dave Carney, own Applewood Acres – a three-acre microfarm in Bentley, Suffolk, that focusses on a wildlife-friendly, stock-free farming system. She explains why they made the decision to go for the no-dig method, and the benefits behind it.
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“Firstly, the ground here is rock solid, consisting of compacted sand and stone - you literally can’t drive a metal tent peg into the ground in the drier months. And secondly, the thought of digging bed after bed by hand sent shivers down my spine, so that notion was dismissed immediately.
“You may be wondering why we avoided ploughing it with machinery first before laying our beds. That’s because by digging the soil in any which way, you are, as I have learnt over the years, damaging the structure and ecology of the soil. Not to mention, our farm uses no machinery, besides a petrol lawnmower. We only try and use hand tools, keeping it simple and straightforward.”
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By leaving the soil undisrupted, it has allowed Jo and Dave to grow a variety of luscious microgreens, baby leaf salad and edible flowers on their farm. Other popular vegetables to grow in a no-dig garden include root vegetables, peas and beans.
“Damaging the soil life and ecology can create all sorts of niggling ongoing issues - not to mention the dreaded weed invasion. Whenever you dig, you are sure to disturb and bring to the surface the weed seeds which will soon take over and complete against your plants,” Jo adds.
“By not disturbing the soil, we also help to feed those beneficial soil organisms and microbes. We can form a harmony in the garden that is not only good for soil life, birds and other wildlife, but good for you. With no-dig, you get to spend more time relaxing and enjoying your garden, rather than spending hours upon hours digging and weeding.”
If this sounds like something for you, Jo’s step-by-step tutorial will help you set up your own no-dig plot within your garden.
Firstly, you’ll need cardboard, water, well-rotted manure or compost, a shovel, a rake and something to plant (either seeds or plug plants will work).
1. Find a spot in your garden where you’d like to grow. Try and keep it small if you are a first-time gardener - that way you can experiment and learn at the same time without feeling overwhelmed.
2. The area does not need to be cleared, so you can use a grassy area or a weedy area. You can use wood edging to keep it neat, or no edging at all - the choice is yours. I create pathways using cardboard without a compost cover and allow it to break down slowly, so as it does, by that time all the weeds are gone. If any do come back, use a garden hoe to go up and down, which takes less than a minute to remove any rogue growth within the pathways. But be aware, if you do use wood edging, wet wood can attract slugs to the garden, hiding in the creases and munching on your crops at night.
3. Next, lay a foundation of cardboard on top of your desired area. This is only needed initially to build the no-dig bed, so in other words, in your first year. After that, it’s simply maintenance.
You can easily acquire cardboard free from local shops or places like Facebook Marketplace – it's also an excellent way to help recycle waste. However, don’t use the shiny or coloured cardboard, as you wouldn’t want this to leach into the soil. Use plain cardboard, and remember to remove any staples or packing tape before laying it down onto the ground.
4. Once your cardboard is down, water it. This will help the cardboard to breakdown quicker, and also attract masses of earthworms to travel up through the soil to eat the cardboard. By providing a meal to the worms, in return they aerate the soil for you, and fertilise it with their ample amount of worm castings. Worm waste is a natural organic form of fertiliser, and is an excellent water-soluble nutrient source and soil conditioner, also known as vermicast.
5. Now the cardboard is wet, cover it with eight to 12 inches of well-rotted manure that is a minimum of six to 12 months old. If it is not completely rotted, it may burn your plants. Alternatively, if you do not have access to well-rotted manure, horse or cow ideally, you can use your own garden compost or store-bought compost.
If your compost is particularly lumpy, just finish with a fine layer of an inch of store-bought compost for a seed surface. Once your beds are done, use a garden rake to level the surface layer ready for seeding or planting.
6. Now, plant straight into the newly-formed bed. As your plants or seeds grow and thrive, occasionally you may get stray weeds that are blown in from other areas, but it’s extremely easy to spot them and pinch out before they grow too large. If you were on an extremely persistent weedy patch, get a small trowel. This is the only time you would need to dig, but just as deep as you can go, remove as much of the weed root as possible. This in turn weakens the persistent weed over time.
7. When harvest time comes, gently pull your plant out of the bed. Give it a shake to remove any lose soil from the roots, therefore keeping as much soil on the bed still. Then simply rake, before planting your next crop. If you planted beans or peas, leave the roots in the bed, as this provides a good fix of nitrogen to your soil and instead plant around where the old roots are.
“After your first year on a no-dig bed system, you will just need a tiny bit of early season maintenance. All you need to do is sprinkle one inch of fine compost on top of the existing bed, rake and begin planting for delicious produce. And don’t forget to water.
“However, what you will find is that no-dig beds require much less water than traditional dug beds. They retain moisture levels much better and allow the roost to search deeper too, giving strong, healthy plants to your garden.”
To find out more about the no-dig gardening method, visit Applewood Acres' website.