The Advantages of No-Dig Gardening

, written by gb flag

A no-dig allotment (image courtesy of the Good Gardeners Association)

Winter digging looms ahead. Well, for some of us, anyway. Personally I never do any. No, the moment I read Gardening without Digging by A Guest, first published in 1949, I was hooked. Mr Guest estimated that, even with the need to produce more compost, No-Dig reduced labor by at least 40%! Lazy? Definitely! But my enthusiasm was boosted by a bad back. Instead of hours lifting and twisting a heavy spade on cold afternoons, I now spread compost around in November and leave it. Simple as that.

I’ve also, on the whole, cut down on weeding. The additional compost is always likely to sprout some weeds, but other weed seeds in the beds aren’t exposed to light because they’re not turned over and therefore I don’t suffer that flush of weeds that digging always seems to bring on.

Why Use the No-Dig Method?

No-Dig gardening has, I think, special appeal to organic gardeners. It focuses on protecting the life in the soil and research backs this up. Not only do worms not get bisected by your spade, but agricultural research has shown that the more often and deeper that soil is disturbed, the fewer and smaller are the worms found in it. With regular compost mulches your worm population will increase.

No-dig demonstration garden at Capel Manor College
No-dig demonstration garden at Capel Manor College

And we want as many worms as possible. Worms aerate the ground with their burrows (which also form channels for roots and rainfall), and produce casts that are considerably richer in nutrients than the surrounding soil, partly down to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria found in their guts, which help them transfer a significant amount of nitrogen to the soil from the plant litter that they ingest. They’re surprisingly fast too. By the time I come to sow in spring, worms have incorporated much of the fall compost I spread on top into the ground below.

Digging also tears up mycorrhiza - invisible fungus-like networks that live symbiotically with plants, benefiting the roots. Mycorrhiza grow slowly at only 15-20 cms (6-8 ins) a year. Digging destroys the networks, preventing them from establishing themselves widely, thus reducing some plants’ ability to access nutrients and resist pests and drought.

Of course, all that compost also improves water retention. According to the website of the Good Gardeners Association (an organization dedicated to No-Dig gardening), a layer of compost will absorb 69% of rainfall. Dug into the soil, it can’t expand enough to do this. I’ve certainly found that, even in the periods of hot, dry weather this year, I didn’t have to rush out with the hose each day as the raised beds (often criticized for drying out quickly) retained moisture below the surface in the plentiful organic matter.

No-Dig Gardening in Practice

So if you fancy a change, now would be a good time to prepare. If your soil is compacted, this means one last dig over to loosen it up before spreading compost (and don’t spread compost when the ground is frozen). On a plot without raised vegetable beds, decide where you want your paths and stick to them, spreading the compost between them.

You might decide on raised beds. They aren’t necessary to No-Dig, but I think they’re easier to handle: the compost can’t spread out of situ, and as other people won’t be tempted to tread on them, the soil doesn’t get compacted.

Mulched no-dig bed
Adding a thick layer of organic matter each year is essential to the no-dig gardening method

It’s also extremely unlikely that you’ve produced anything like the amount of compost you’ll need (possibly you never will) so you’ll need to find a supplier and order some in (a lot easier than collecting from the garden centre). I top up my beds with a mix of home-made compost and bought-in well-rotted stable manure.

Above all, you must keep it up. No spreading a thick blanket of compost with a sigh of satisfaction and thinking you won’t need to do it again for two or three years. Without fail, it must be added once a year, to a depth of about 5 cms (2½ ins), though if you add more during the year and your soil is in good condition you’ll probably get away with less at this point. You can also add compost whenever you think it’s needed; I generally add it during the summer wherever veggies have been harvested.

If you do leave it too late to spread compost in the autumn, all is not lost. It’s perfectly possible to sow straight into a layer of compost, so long as it’s not too rough for small seeds. In the first year of the No-Dig demonstration garden at Capel Manor College, seed was sown into three inches of compost laid straight on to grass. They had a super harvest.

Finally, perennial weeds are often cited as a reason against No-Dig gardening and I have plenty – ground elder invades my flower beds every year. These beds are sadly neglected – I just don’t have the time to dig them or spread compost widely. However, in areas where the beds have been properly mulched over time, the ground elder roots run closer to the surface. Teasing the white strings out of the loose, friable soil in long, unbroken pieces is deeply satisfying. And if that’s not a reason to change to No-Dig, I don’t know what is!

By Helen Gazeley

Image at top of page courtesy of the Good Gardeners Association

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Comments

 
"Does this work on all soil types? I have clay soil that turns to concrete in dry periods, but is beautiful to work with when moist. And what are the disadvantages of no-dig? There must be some."
Martyn Folkes on Friday 26 August 2011
"Hi, Martyn. No-dig certainly does work with clay soil. One reason that clay turns to concrete is because of the small size of the soil particles and the lack of space between them. With no-dig, over time, you'll get a better soil structure that will retain water better and remain looser when dryer. There are some disadvantages that can be cited for No-Dig. As I said, perennial weeds can be one, so you need to clear the area as much as possible before starting this system. There is a possibility of compaction if you don't add enough organic material, and if there is a compacted layer No-Dig isn't likely to change that any time soon, so it needs to be dug over before instigating No-Dig. It's also generally pointed out that pests which live underground won't be exposed to predators. "
Helen Gazeley on Friday 26 August 2011
"Steve Soloman in his book, Gardening in Hard Times maintains that beds should be dug once a year to allow increased air space and therefore more oxygen into the soil for greater initial root development. What do you think?"
April Campbell on Saturday 27 August 2011
"Clay soils are extremely rich and fertile, the problem is to do with cation exchange, its all to do with + and - charge and that nutrients are strongly bound to the clay particles. Clay soils lack humus adding humus breaks down those bonds, thus releasing the nutrients. As for no digging, I use it on my allotment having adopted it in my second growing season which is now coming to an end. Another name for it is lasagne gardening. There is a wealth of information on the Charles Dowding website in the UK found here: http://www.charlesdowding.co.uk/Homepage I went for 4' wide growing plots across the width of the plot with 1' paths. The shading between plots stops weeds growing including grass. The paths are mulched with bark chip. This has given me two large rectangular areas in which the sheds and poly-tunnel are sited respectively. There are 14 4' wide by 33' long growing strips. Yes you do need a lot of compost and manure. We have a shop so I can buy large bags of compost for about £4 but it will work out expensive but then I do not drive or have the money to get a load dropped off aside from access is a problem. This is how I do it now, I often put a layer of newspaper, cardboard down topped off with a layer of manure, then compost. You can then plant directly in this. I still have half of my plot to do, it has had a layer of manure to inhibit weed growth this year. Any that grow through are easy to pull out. I still have a couple of paths to complete but mostly done. This year we had a plentiful supply of manure and bark chip. Hence why I did not do this in my first year, the manure ran out and I was playing catch up all year. This rectangular area is awaiting further work is to have a polytunnel put on it and the remainder of the growing plots are for fruit trees and bushes. Aside from barrowing about 200 loads of manure last autumn it has been fairly easy going. I have 3 large compost bins one of which I am now emptying, one is full and the other is nearly full. They should be ready for spreading on the land next spring and I have one of those dalek composters as well which is full of dead leaves and is rotting down. If you do what I do and grow all year round then you do not have a bare plot at the end of the summer season and you just apply layers of organic matter to a cleared area and plant your next lot of crops. Right now I about to plant winter salad crops and other crops for the lean period in spring. I can honestly say it works for me. I use no other additions of nutrients other than comfrey tea. Pests what pests, it grows so lush compared to other plots I have no problems, even the guy next to me is turning his head at the results. As for the soil, well it is full of mycorrhiza, insect life in the soil is extremely high, lots of hover flies, ladybirds, birds in general others have told me visit my plot more than theirs. Oh and worms a plenty especially of the brandling type. As for the smell the whole plot which has so far been treated and has had crops in it smells like a woodland when you walk through it in autumn and kick up the leaves. It smells sweetly of decomposition. I get lots of fungi of all types have yet to establish if they are edible or not. Like I said it works for me. All you need is an understanding of the basics and apply it to your plot, needs etc. I still have to learn how to avoid gluts, as I prefer to eat produce fresh in season rather than filling my freezer with just one crop. Which is what happened this year with the broad beans. Comments were that no one had seen or had much success with them, well I got a freezer full and with little effort. It works for me."
Steve Calver on Saturday 27 August 2011
"Hi, April. Diggers and no-diggers are trying to do the same thing, which is to improve the state of the soil. Digging does introduce air, incorporate compost and break up lumps. But no-digging should do the same thing, while not disturbing the life in the soil. Of course, no-digging takes more time, as the soil beneath the compost isn't likely to develop a really good condition after just one or two seasons, which is something I guess I could have added to the disadvantages above. Glad you've have such a good season, Steve. "
Helen Gazeley on Tuesday 30 August 2011
"There are other reasons I have gone for no digging, when I got the plot there were ducks swimming on it. Half the plot had not been used for years by the person who had had it years, he could not manage it all. Then two young persons had it they proceeded to dig off the turf dump in other areas and taking it to the communal composting area. Result the plot is 18" lower than the path in parts with clay type soil. The addition of manure, compost both of my own making and bought, will raise those areas. The manure works in much faster than you think and if you pick up a handful of the topsoil it is full of brandling worms. Whereas before I had the ones that were going for the world record in length. Now with the addition of the bark chip paths and continual topping of the growing areas and paths the result raising of the level. It will take at least another two years to get up to the level of the paths in some areas, as they are still up to 10" too low. The hard work is in the shifting of all the manure and putting it on the beds. I have two ways to go: 1. Carry on as last year and give it a good 6" layer of manure and top off with my own or bought compost. 2. A thin layer of manure 2" and top off with compost. As I still wish to raise the level will probably go with option one. Currently still completing the bark chip paths, as it all has to be available when I go. There are no guarantees that either manure or bark chip is available at the site when I go. Hence why it takes time and effort. Weather is another factor having to trek barrow load after barrow load of either is hard work in hot weather. But it keeps you fit. I for one will continue with no digging. The results so far have been worth it. The increase in wildlife is significant, no chemicals are used at all, do slug pellets count.....oh dear. "
Steve Calver on Tuesday 30 August 2011
"No dig suits me, I have health problems and I love it. I am also square foot planting, this means I only need a small ammount of compost as I remove crops. I am also using green manures,sow,grow, then you only need to chop into your soil a few weeks before using that square. No barrowing loads and loads of manure. Also stops soil erosion. "
carol on Tuesday 30 August 2011
"Sounds great, I have just started growing this year, it's a huge learning curve!!!! I put opened up plastic bags on grass, put slit holes in them and spread compost over, is this a bad idea ? Gerry"
Gerry Mullins on Friday 2 September 2011
"Gerry - Well it's horses for courses territory. The concept behind No Dig is not a new one. There was lots of research done in the early part of the last century with the movement growing from the end of WW2 onwards. However the concept is to rely on natural products, so some may raise an eye at the use of plastic which is made from a limited resource. Which goes against some of the principles of being organic and the use of fossil fuels based products. That includes the use of compost based on peat which is a carbon store as part of the carbon cycle, it is tied in with the water and nitrogen, phosphorous cycles as well. I suppose that means it is not natural. I raise eyes at the plot holder next to me who has more bark chip than growing space and frowns upon the use of little blue sweeties for the slugs. Some things you have to use, it depends on what you wish to do, I for one will use them less and less as the predators build up, now where did I put that hedgehog? But to go back to the plot holder they frown upon the use of anything that might damage the environment such as chemicals with them being a desperately earnest vegetarian and performing perfectly to stereo home-spun typical images for the type. They however have lots of plastic bags on sticks and lots of plastic in general on their site. Now to me that does not square the circle. It's just plain wrong. As for covering the grass to kill in my opinion you did that right but perhaps should have used cardboard as a barrier to kill of the grass. The learning curve is steep but the result of No Grow are there to be seen. The only addition I will make to my soil is to re-mineralise it by the use of Rock Dust from SEER. It was what Sir Howard thingamajig was talking about back in the inter war period. The decrease in the use of organics i.e. manure, compost since the late 1870s and the new uses found for what was essentially an artificial process for making nitrate based fertilisers which came out of developments for bomb making in WW1. Honestly it's a fascinating subject."
Steve Calver on Friday 2 September 2011
"For many years I followed a double-dug bed philosophy supported by Rodale Press and University of Illinois Extension Office publications. Always had great succes in very limited space. Stopped gardening for several years due to time schedule. Then moved to a new town. After reading the leading no-dig book five years ago, I hung up my fork and shovel and gave it a try. My older back really appreciated this. But...crops have been diminishing every year, so I decided to redsign and start anew...with the help of a new roto tiller. (Part of the reason for the tiller purchase was my plan to add a much larger garden in another location.) Both gardens, with compost tilled in and heavily mulched, exploded this year. I am not sure whether I will till next year, or go back to the physically easier no-dig strategy. "
The Salty Dog on Friday 2 September 2011
"With all due respect to the worms, I still think the ground becomes somewhat compacted after awhile and benefits from aeration. It can be as simple as taking a spade fork and pushing back and forth in the earth once a season."
April Campbell on Friday 2 September 2011
"that sounds a better idea April. "
carol on Friday 2 September 2011
"...and likely to be all the "stirring" my patch will get next year. :)"
The Salty Dog on Friday 2 September 2011
"Hi Gerry - I would like to say 'beware of the plastic bag' as I have just taken over an allotment where the previous owner left numerous plastic bags and plastic sheeting over many years, and although the plastic breaks up into smaller pieces, it does not disappear. I am now left with small (and I mean small)pieces of plastic over about a third of the allotment and what a job it is to get rid of it. I have just discovered paper sheeting (although not used it yet) which might be useful although obviously it does not last as long as plastic - that seems to go on forever! Hope this might help. Big D"
di rhodes on Friday 2 September 2011
"Hi, Gerry Not a bad idea to get a crop this year, but as Di says, I wouldn't leave them there. From a No-Dig perspective you want the compost to incorporate into the top layers of soil beneath the bags and the plastic barrier is going to prevent this until it starts to break up. If crops have been diminishing, Salty Dog, I wonder if your soil is particularly depleted and needs a lot more organic matter added over time. Soil can compact over time - rain is a contributory element, which is one reason why spreading compost over the top can help reduce compaction, as compost soaks up water so well and is cushioning. But there are no hard and fast rules. Gardening is an art which you develop as you get to know your own soil, so you could find that a mixture of dig and no-dig is the way to get the best out of your plot. "
Helen Gazeley on Monday 5 September 2011
"It's strange as organic and No-Dig go hand in hand but if the soil is lacking in minerals, this may lead to diminished crop yields. Then adding Rock Dust (see SEER)is not organic as they are not organic in origin. It should re-mineralise the soil, in combination with No Digging it is the way I am going. Two methods of application, one direct to land but you need to do it every 5 years. Much the same as adding lime, another one that is not organic but redresses the pH imbalance another reason for decreased crop yields. The other is to use it on an annual basis or as you give each area a top dressing of compost/rotted manure. Or add a layer to your compost bins, either way you are adding it to your soil. As we are not farmers who add lime to soil in vast quantities every X years, the latter approach is the one I would use. I for one use lots and lots and lots of manure, rotted and fresh. Word of warning watch what you are putting into you plots if you using fresh manure some crops do not like it. Do not add lime to fresh manure, it causes a chemical reaction. Beware of burying bark chip as it will lock up nitrogen, its fine for paths but not on plots unless it is really really fine and you use it as top mulch. Same applies for sawdust, of course you do not know where that one has come from and if it has preservatives or other chemicals in it. The most important thing in taking over a plot or changing your methods of growing is to make sure you have all your structures in place i.e. paths, plots, sheds, ponds, poly-tunnels, water tanks etc etc. Once you have all that in place, it takes time, the rest with No-Digging follows naturally. The 1st 3 years are you hardest part labour wise and after year 2 you should be well on your way with most structures in. It takes time and money to get it right but getting it right in the first instance saves, time, money and effort. Not forgetting resources as well. Last year was my second year of growing but my 1st year of No-Digging. I shifted 200 or so barrow loads of manure. On to my plots, the aim to raise the beds out of the duck pond I inherited. This year it may take the same amount but most of the bark chip paths are in and so it is a case of just topping up the plots, putting in the fruit trees, bushes and shrubs on the remaining half of the plot, topping up with manure and topping off with compost. So I may not use as much as I am thinking right now but right now I still have structures to get in i.e. the poly-tunnel. This will allow me to grow winter salad crops and to start off seedlings earlier, it will be a great place for the grapes and the kiwi to grow. As for plants such as blueberries or lavender I buy one or two and propagate them from cuttings to increase my stock. I for one am more than happy with the progress I have made. The only thing I have to do after this is to sort out the sheds, they need a re-lap and for them to be joined into one and of course the pruning of the sycamore tree is another task. The work never seems to end but you get out what you put in and for me No-Digging works."
Steve Calver on Monday 5 September 2011
"SEER Rockdust is accredited by a number of certifying bodies, including the Soil Association in the UK, as suitable for adding to organically managed land. "
Helen Gazeley on Monday 5 September 2011
"Here's a disadvantage to no dig - slugs - I am going to disturb my patch as much as possible this year to make sure the eggs don't get a chance to hatch. Green manure also harbours those pesky beasts as does all my bee and bug friendly plants."
Helene Wiltshire UK on Sunday 11 September 2011
"Helen Afraid that may be a big mistake, if you do not dig your soil the soil micro/macro flora and fauna increase, this in turn forms part of a food chain, remember the Burl Ives song about the woman who ate the spider? NO Well go to YOUTUBE. Aside from the usage of slug pellets occasionally, which are not exactly organic but some things you have to bit the bullet with. One further solution get a small pong if you can encourage frogs/toads they eat the slugs. I do however believe that the best solution is ducks or geese, who eat them all. Like I said it is about building up the food chain, if you can not or do not have the space for a pond of any size then slug pellets are the only solution. Not saying slugs are still not a problem if you use pellets or not, they can be especially on seedlings, an small sprinkle now and again may be the answer. I heard the time to sprinkle is in February when the eggs start to hatch thus killing the first batch, decreasing numbers for the whole year. If you can not bare to use pellets then I am afraid you will have to live with it. There is the beer trap of course, a small container buried in soil so it is level, topped up with beer I believe does the trick, but I prefer to drink mine. Without the snails and slugs of course."
Steve Calver on Sunday 11 September 2011
"I live in burmuda grass country...how does no dig do here?? This year I brought in 2 dumptruck loads of composte and tilled and tilled and tilled and raked and hand pulled out as much of the root/tubers as I possibly could. And in some places of the 1/2 acre of lawn that I am trying to reclaim it looks like I fertilized the grass!!! It's very frustrating and on much of the garden I didn't even plant so that the drought here could do it's deadly job on the burmuda there...um, it's still growing. GAH!"
Suzy on Sunday 11 September 2011
"Can you use raw manure?"
Susan on Wednesday 11 January 2012
"I'm guessing you mean horse manure, Susan. Fresh manure, when dug in, has denitrifying effects on the soil, so isn't recommended. I would assume that it would have similar effects on the soil immediately beneath it, if you just spread it out on the surface. You also couldn't plant straight into it, as the fresh manure would probably burn the plant roots. Pile up the manure and let it compost down for a time. "
Helen Gazeley on Wednesday 11 January 2012
"How can parsnips be grown in a no dig garden? Do they really stay straight, or do they fork badly? I have heard one suggestion of using a dibber and filling each hole with finely sifted compost, and sowing into each individually. Has anyone tried this?"
Leanne on Thursday 9 February 2012
"Well Helen, I suppose one of the problems of no-dig plots can be slugs. So if we're talking organic gardening, and no slug pellets, maybe a couple of hedgehogs could help ....?"
Della on Wednesday 6 June 2012
"In my experience, Della, slugs are a problem however you manage your soil. Leanne, I see no one answered that they'd tried the planting holes for parsnips. This is certainly one way to reduce digging, although you always have to do a bit of digging in order to harvest the parsnips. For this reason, Charles Dowding, the no-dig expert here in the UK always follows parsnips with potatoes, as they are the one veg that he's found do better in dug soil. "
Helen Gazeley on Wednesday 6 June 2012
"What a lovely site. I haven't been digging for many years. I'm now 69. I was inspired by old books (Shewell-Cooper, Ruth Stout, etc.). As I write this November 2012 the gorgeous yellow leaves are raining down from the silver birches surrounding my garden. The only ones I will rake up are on the lawn and they will be piled onto the raised beds and flower borders on top of the compost and old manure that I have put down. It's true that there will be plenty of slugs under them later, but with a hard winter forecast (what, no global warming!) I am quite happy to watch the blackbirds scratching away looking for them. I have also been looking at Paul Gautschi and Amelia Hazelip's videos which just confirm that I'm doing the right thing in not disturbing the soil. "
Jennie Reed on Saturday 17 November 2012
"I am a beginner. I got an allotment which was pasture before and just grass. I put down three three layers of cardboard and the the farmer delivered some well rotted manure for me, but it was rather more than I had expected and ended up 6 -8 inches deep. will I still need to put an other layer of manure over this in the autumn?"
martin jones on Tuesday 12 March 2013
"No dig gardening also allows you to turn pasture/fallow land into good gardening space very quickly indeed. We have used this method to convert about 300m2 in a community garden, going from pasture in spring to first harvest in autumn. We laid down cardboard, then wood chips on the paths and on the beds a sandwich of leaves, grass clippings (delivered for free by the estate garden contractors) and municipal compost to top it off (Lasagna gardening). We produced a 100kg pumpkin! I found that after mulching, the remaining clumps of weeds and grass simply pull out as the ground is soft and moist, an impossibility earlier in the dense pasture. In fact, we did remove the sod for one row of beds and gave up! This method does also cut down on watering dramatically, especially if beds are laid down across the slope. We hill up these beds in autumn before putting down new woodchips (also delivered for free from tree trimming companies). The beds are covered over winter with shredded leaves - picked up by lawnmower - which the worms integrate into the soil over winter, leaving the beds pretty much weed free for spring. The slugs do love the conditions created by all the rotting mulch, we had an infestation early on the second spring during two damp weeks, but it settled down after the weather turned dry. In future we will try to rake off any mulch onto the paths in late winter till the weather starts turning hot around mid-June, then mulch with grass clippings."
Susan on Thursday 14 January 2016
"Wow Susan - it sounds like your method really yielded fantastic results. Thanks for sharing your experiences. A 100kg pumpkin is ENORMOUS!"
Ben Vanheems on Thursday 14 January 2016

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