no dig garden
Beginner Gardening

No Dig Gardening for Beginners: Simple Steps to Get Started

You may or may not have heard about no dig gardening. Contrary to what the name suggests, yes, there is some digging involved. It’s a method that doesn’t involve the traditional turning and tilling of the earth, thus preserving the complex ecosystem beneath our feet. The no dig method relies on adding layers of organic material directly on top of the soil, creating an environment conducive to plant growth and beneficial organisms. Hence the name no dig. However, you still have to dig holes in order to put plants in the ground.

For beginners, no dig gardening is attractive because it reduces a lot of the work. It’s a quick and easy set up to install a new garden or new garden beds. Plus it helps a great deal with weed suppression. This method emphasizes feeding the soil from above, mimicking natural processes found in wild environments. Organic materials such as compost, manure, straw, and leaves are layered to build fertile soil over time. The approach not only nurtures plants but also fosters a web of soil life that supports a more sustainable garden ecosystem. It eliminates tilling, which is disruptive and destroys the soil.

organic gardening method

Key Takeaways

  • no dig gardening is a soil-preserving practice that reduces labor and encourages a healthy garden ecosystem.
  • Beginners can easily start by layering organic materials to prepare the soil, eliminating the need for tilling.
  • Maintenance involves adding more layers as needed and can lead to easier planting and harvesting.

This post is all about no dig gardening for beginners.

As an Amazon Associate I earn on qualifying purchases. This post contains affiliate links, which means I make a small commission at no extra cost to you. See my full disclosure here. I am in no way sponsored by any of the companies/products listed below and therefore have no bearing on the products I choose to review or recommend.

No Dig Explained: What is the No Dig Gardening Method?

No dig gardening is a simple and earth-friendly way to grow plants. The process begins without turning over the soil, which helps to maintain its natural structure and the beneficial organisms within it. The method involves putting down material, like cardboard, in the area where you plan on making a garden. The cardboard kills off the grass and any weeds. Next, put a thick layer of soil on top of the cardboard. Below is a guide on how to set up your no dig garden.

What are the Advantages of No Dig Gardening?

As with anything, there are plenty of advantages and disadvantages to the no dig method. I want to make sure you’re able to make the best decision as to what type of gardening method you’d like to implement. 

So let’s discuss the advantages of a no dig garden. (I discuss the disadvantages later in this post).

1. Enhanced Soil Structure

No dig gardening maintains the natural layers of soil, creating an optimal environment for robust root development.

2. Reduced Weed Growth

By minimizing soil disturbance, this method acts as a natural defense against weed proliferation, saving time and effort in weed control.

3. Preservation of Soil Ecosystems

The no dig approach safeguards the diverse community of microorganisms in the soil, fostering a balanced and sustainable ecosystem.

4. Improved Water Retention

The undisturbed soil structure enhances water retention, reducing the need for frequent watering and promoting efficient use of water resources.

5. Increased Nutrient Availability

No dig gardening promotes nutrient retention in the soil, providing a steady supply to plants and supporting their overall health and productivity.

6. There may be fewer pests.

Although it isn’t necessarily a guarantee, there can be fewer pests. Healthier soil equates to healthier plants. With these very key elements, there are fewer pests.

No dig Gardening Guide: Setting Up Your Garden

It’s time to set up the garden and the perfect time to do this is in the spring. It’s probably best when the soil is no longer hard, even though the garden won’t be going into the existing ground. The reason this may be a good idea to consider is that the soil you put down will harden and won’t be easy to work with.

1. Select the site of your garden.

Look for a spot that receives sufficient sunlight which would be 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight. It shouldn’t be in a location that will accumulate water. Locations that collect water will waterlog your plants.The location should be easily accessible for watering and harvesting.

As the iconic and face of the no dig method, Charles Dowding, suggests,

“For a beginner, the best option is to start small with just one bed, say 1.2 x 2.4 m / 4 x 8ft. Small areas concentrate your time and resources, and make management easier. Harvests are often just as plentiful as from larger areas that are less intensively cropped.”

(Dowding, n.d.)

Leave at least 2 feet between beds for walkways. Smaller beds are easier to manage for beginners. This will help so much with maintenance.

2. Gather the following material

  • Cardboard
  • Compost
  • Organic material (like straw or dried leaves)
  • Fertilizer (organic preferred)
  • Hose

3. Start by setting up the base of the garden.

Lay cardboard directly in the location you chose to put your garden. Be sure to overlap the pieces of cardboard to prevent any of the soil, grass, etc that’s underneath doesn’t peek out. After laying the cardboard, soak it thoroughly with water. This will help the cardboard eventually decompose.

4. Building the Layers

Spread a thick layer of compost over the wet cardboard/newspaper. Then alternate organic material and compost in several layers. It starts to take on the structure of a lasagna. Add alternating layers of green materials (like vegetable scraps or grass clippings) and brown materials (like straw, dry leaves, or shredded newspaper). This creates a balanced carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. Aim for a total depth of 10 to 12 inches.

5. Planting

The next step is planting! Once the layers are set, start planting the seedlings directly into the compost. This is where people are confused though because this does involve digging a hole to plant the seedlings.

For seeds, it may be necessary to wait until the compost settles or add a thin layer of potting mix as a seed bed. Direct sowing into compost isn’t a good idea. Although compost has a lot of nutrients, it can be high in ammonia and salt.

6. Maintenance

Maintenance is generally the same as any other garden. Water it regularly and add more organic material and compost periodically to nourish the soil.

By using the no dig method, it greatly reduces the steps to get a garden set up and to start building better soil. It does away with traditional methods that both disturb and destroy the soil by exposing the microbiome to the elements. Cardboard reduces weeds and therefore maintenance in the garden by not having to weed as much. This thereby reduces weed stress on your plants as they won’t have to compete for nutrients.

[RELATED POST: The 5 Best Composts for the Garden]

No Dig Tool List: Essential Tools and Materials

In no dig gardening, a minimal selection of tools and high-quality organic materials set the foundation for a thriving garden. In spite of its name, no dig doesn’t mean no digging. You’re still going to need tools to get your garden started and keep up with its maintenance.

no dig garden

Choosing the Right Tools

I’ve compiled a quick and easy checklist for you to get you started. This by all means is not an end all, be all list. There may be other tools and materials that you find necessary and work for you that aren’t included.

  • Spade & Fork: Arranging beds without digging calls for a good spade to edge and a fork to gently loosen the soil, if necessary.
  • Wheelbarrow: Useful for transporting compost and mulch to garden beds.
  • Rake: Levels soil and helps spread mulch or compost evenly.
  • Gardening Gloves: Protects your hands while working with compost, organic materials, and other objects/things you may come in contact with.
  • Watering Can/Hose: To be used for both the set up and watering your plants.

Selecting Organic Materials

In my garden, I only use organic materials so that’s all you’ll find here.

  • Compost:
    • Homemade or Store-Bought: Rich in nutrients, it’s essential for feeding the soil biology.
      • Of course it is a lot easier to get started by buying compost at the store. So look for a good quality compost. Don’t just buy anything! I have a couple of posts of which ones are currently the best rated.
    • How much to apply: Approximately 2-4 inches to top up garden beds annually.
  • Mulch:
    • Types: Straw, leaf mold, or wood chips help retain moisture and suppress weeds.
    • How much to apply: A few inches spread around plants can make a big difference.

[RELATED POST: 5 Ideas on Where to Buy Compost]

[RELATED POST: The 5 Best Composts for the Garden]

Planting in a No Dig Garden

The garden’s all set up and ready to go with planting. 

Selecting Plants for Your Garden

When choosing plants, they should be suited to the local climate, soil conditions, and the amount of sunlight the garden receives. Here is a table with examples of plants that can be successful in a no dig garden environment:

Plant TypeExamples
VegetablesLettuce, Spinach, Carrots, tomatoes, zucchini
HerbsBasil, Chives, Mint, oregano
FlowersMarigolds, Nasturtiums

If you’d like help with when exactly to plant and when to plant, check out the planting zones that I’ve planted so far to get you started!

[RELATED POST: What You Need to Know About Planting Zone 8]

[RELATED POST: USDA Planting Zone 5: A Month-by-Month Guide]

[RELATED POST: The Beginner’s Guide to Zone 7 Planting]

[RELATED POST: Planting Guide Zone 9: Here’s Exactly What to Do]

[RELATED POST: Quick Guide to Planting Zone 1]

Planting and Spacing Tips

Planting and spacing in a no dig garden isn’t different from other methods of gardening. Proper spacing is important for air circulation around plants, reduces stress on plants, helps reduce the risk of diseases and pests, and overall allows the plant the opportunity to grow. Improper spacing between plants causes a build up of moisture (resulting in diseases such as powdery mildew), and a whole host of other problems.

Follow the instructions on the seed packs or the tag that’s attached to the plant.

Whenever I’m transplanting a seedling, I always use the container that it’s currently planted in to be my guide. Dig as deep to the height of the container. This means the container should easily fit in the hole that you dug and shouldn’t be above the soil level.

Always water the plants gently after planting to help settle the soil around the roots. Mulch can be added around the base of the plants to retain moisture and suppress weeds without requiring tilling or digging.

Maintaining Your no dig Garden

Proper maintenance of the garden done a little bit at a time will save a lot of time and work in the long run. Weeds can quickly become out of control and take over if a gardener doesn’t regularly weed. They take over even faster after it rains. Maintaining the garden also helps to reduce diseases and pests.

Here is a list of tips and practices to do throughout the gardening during the growing season.

Watering Practices

Consistent and deep watering encourages strong root growth. If watering is done too shallow, it can be harmful to the growth and overall health of the plant. Shallowing watering will make it harder for plants to survive during dry, hot weather. Aim to water early in the morning to reduce evaporation and allow plants to dry off before nightfall, decreasing disease risk. Watering in the evening can make the plants susceptible to disease as it doesn’t allow the plant to dry off.  You may even want to consider installing a drip irrigation system for efficiency. Plants should receive one inch of water per week, although this can vary depending on climate and soil type. During really hot months, you may need to water more frequently and provide more water.

no dig gardening for beginners

Weed Management

Weed control in a no dig garden relies heavily on mulching and minimal disturbance. Regularly check for and remove weeds. Applying a thick layer of organic mulch often suppresses new weed growth. If weeds do appear either pull them out by hand or use a tool like a hoe or a weeder.

My favorite tool in the garden has been Fiskar’s Weeder which handles those deep rooted weeds like a champ!

Adding Mulch and Compost

Mulch and compost are the lifeblood of a no dig garden. Add a new layer of organic mulch, such as straw or wood chips, at least once a year to maintain soil moisture and improve soil health. Either once or twice a year, spread compost over your garden to rejuvenate and replenish the soil with nutrients. 

Pruning Plants

Although pruning plants is important for any type of gardening method, I thought I’d still include it here to round out the maintenance needs. By keeping your plants pruned, you’re giving energy back to the plants. By not pruning, the plant will focus primarily on growing foliage instead of what we want – its fruit! By pruning it back, it will allow the plant to refocus on growing the fruit. 

Not only that, but pruning the plants ensures they don’t become too overgrown. Overgrown plants can be susceptible to both disease and pests. Plus it can even ruin your harvest.

no dig fence ideas

Harvesting and Next Steps

When it’s time to harvest,  it’s important to avoid damaging the plants and soil. 

Harvesting Your Produce

Gentleness is key when picking vegetables to avoid harm to the plants and the soil structure. Try the following tips:

  • For root vegetables: Loosen the soil around the root vegetable with your hands or a fork before pulling.
  • For leafy greens: Cut the outer leaves, allowing the center leaves to continue growing. For example, with lettuce you can introduce the technique, “cut and come again”. This prevents you from having to remove the entire head of lettuce. Instead, take off the outer leaves of the lettuce.
  • Fruiting plants: Support the stem with one hand while detaching the fruit with the other.

Preparing for the Next Season

Preparation for the next growing season includes maintaining soil health and preserving its structure. It looks very similar to what’s done in preparation for the beginning of the growing season.

The to-do list at the end of the season is to:

  1. Add compost: Top the beds with a new layer of compost to replenish the soil. Growing crops depletes the soil of its nutrients and needs to be added back in.
  2. Mulch: Apply a layer of mulch to retain moisture and suppress weeds. Over time the mulch breaks down and a new layer is needed.
  3. Plant cover crops: Sow cover crops like clover to fix nitrogen and improve soil fertility. They also keep the soil from becoming impacted.
  4. Remove debris and dead plants: Remove any debris and dead plants from the garden. It should be cleaned out and look neat. Dead plants can be added to the compost pile, except if they had any type of disease. Instead, diseased plants will have to be discarded.

By keeping these simple tasks in mind, it’ll set you up for success for the next growing season.

No Dig Gardening Disadvantages

We talked thoroughly about the advantages and how to create a no dig garden. But are there any disadvantages that you need to know about?

Here’s what you should know:

1. Initial Setup Challenges

Establishing a no dig garden requires effort in the beginning, with tasks like creating raised beds or layering organic matter can present challenges. A lot of soil will have to be hauled in, which can be costly. However, buying in bulk from a local nursery may help with the start up cost.

2. Need for Additional Organic Matter

Sustaining fertility demands regular additions of organic materials such as compost or mulch, requiring ongoing attention and maintenance. This is not just limited to no dig gardening though.

3. Space Limitations

no dig gardening may be space-intensive, especially if using raised beds, potentially limiting the available gardening area. If you are worried about space, consider building the garden on the ground instead of in raised beds.

4. Dependency on External Inputs

Success in no dig gardening often relies on external inputs like quality compost, which may not be readily available to everyone. You’ll also need a LOT of compost.

5. Cost Prohibitive

Building raised beds, if you choose to build them, can be expensive. Cost will depend on the type of wood you use, how many beds you plan to build, and how big the beds will be. The method relies heavily on compost. If you don’t have your own compost pile and need to constantly buy it, it can be expensive.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the best way to set up a new no dig garden?

To start a new no dig garden, one should begin by layering organic materials, such as compost, manure, and straw, directly on top of the existing soil. This creates a fertile environment for plants to grow without the need for tilling.

Can you create a no dig garden using cardboard layers?

Yes, cardboard layers can be used as a base for a no dig garden. They serve as a barrier to weeds, help to retain moisture, and eventually break down to enrich the soil.

What’s the optimal compost to use for a no dig garden bed?

The best compost for a no dig bed is well-rotted organic compost that’s rich in nutrients. Homemade compost, worm castings, or store bought compost that’s specifically labeled as ‘garden ready’ can be highly effective. If you’re going to rely on store bought compost, make sure it’s high quality.

Is it possible to establish a no dig flower bed?

Absolutely, a no dig flower bed can be established following the same principles as a no dig vegetable garden. Layer organic materials and mulch, and choose flowers that thrive in the resulting soil conditions.

When’s the perfect time to get going with a no dig garden?

The perfect time to start a no dig garden is during the early spring or autumn, when temperatures are milder. This allows layers to break down and settle before the intense growing season begins. It also allows for the nutrients from the compost or any other additions like blood meal to have time to work their way into the soil.

This post was all about no dig gardening for beginners.

Sources

Dowding, C. (n.d.). No Dig: Where To Start. Charles Dowding. Retrieved January 20, 2024. https://www.charlesdowding.co.uk/get-started

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *