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Understanding no-dig gardening

Val Bourne / 10 April 2018

Find out how no-dig gardening can help improve the overall quality of your soil for and improve the growth of certain vegetables.

No dig gardening
No-dig gardening relies on a two inch layer of compost being applied to beds once a year

A lot of gardeners find digging difficult, particularly in older life, so the whole idea of not digging is an appealing one because it almost suggests armchair gardening.

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How to do no-dig gardening

No-dig gardening can’t be done from an armchair unfortunately, because the soil still needs feeding. The system relies on a two inch layer of compost being applied to vegetable beds once a year, after the crops have been lifted in the autumn. This gets pulled down by earthworms and the process aerates and feeds the soil without any nutrients being washed away. The mulch suppresses weed seedlings, and keeps the soil warmer, ensuring better germination early in the year. It also traps moisture during the drier summer months.

Hungry crops, such as brassicas, cucurbits and leeks, also get an extra summer mulch. There is little disturbance of the soil however so any nutrients are preserved, as well as the soil structure. Any mycorrhizal fungi within the soil is also preserved. 

Perennial weeds (like docks) are removed with a trowel.

Couch grass, dandelions and buttercups are killed by covering them with cardboard.

Annual weeds are hoed, mostly in spring when they germinate.

Some crops (like potatoes and parsnips) are dug out of the ground.

Most vegetable plants are raised in modules, in the greenhouse, and then planted out into the garden at the optimum moment so that they get the best start.

Find out about the importance of crop rotation to avoid disease

Making your own mulch

The material for the compost heaps needs to be vetted. Weed seeds and flower seed heads must be removed before composting, so that they’re not spread around.

The compost heap is turned once to produce flat and crumbly organic matter.

Larger lumps of compost are used round larger plants like courgettes.

The finest consistency of compost is saved for crops that are sown in situ - like carrots - and it is always added before Christmas so that there is time for it to be broken down.

Most of us can’t make enough composted mulch to feed the entire garden, so many gardeners have a no-dig bed and beds that they dig.

You can use green waste, although it might contain pesticide residues.

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The advantages of no-dig

Soil structure improves all the time and soil fertility is higher.

Heavy rain soaks in really well.

You don’t get a mass of germinating seeds every spring so you’re not constantly weeding.

The garden settles into a nice rhythm and second cropping and intercropping are easy to achieve.

The mulch over the surface keeps the soil warm and the worms are more active.

Generally you sow sooner in these beds and spring-sown crops do better because the soil is warmer and moister early in the year.

The disadvantages of no-dig

Carrot seedlings and small plants are often nibbled by woodlice which live in the surface of the compost.

What does well and what doesn’t?

Spinach, lettuce and endives develop more lustrous foliage.

Brassicas do better in dug beds, than no-dig beds.

Carrots germinate more easily in the undug bed.

Potatoes, beetroots and parsnips show very little difference at any stage.

Read our fruit and vegetable growing guides

The history of no-dig

The two pioneers of no-dig gardening were both women. The most famous was an American called Ruth Stout (1884-1980) who gardened in Kansas. She advocated using a thick eight-inch mulch of hay to suppress weeds and keep the soil moist. Stout used cheap ‘spoiled’ hay that wasn’t suitable for animal use. She also added grass clippings, straw, leaves, pine needles, sawdust, weeds, and kitchen scraps (eggshells, etc.) directly onto her garden and didn’t have a separate compost heap.

When weeds grew she added more mulch. When she planted potatoes she chitted them and threw them on to the surface and she planted seeds in the same easy way. Ruth Stout became famous for not watering her garden for 35 years.

Ruth Stout published “How To Have A Green Thumb Without An Aching Back - A New Method Of Mulch Gardening”, “The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book” and “Gardening Without Work: For the Ageing, the Busy and the Indolent”. She was an acknowledged eccentric and often gardened naked.

Her system wasn’t a labour-free one. Her partner Richard recorded that you needed 25 bales of hay for a garden plot 50 feet by 50 feet. He estimated this to be about a half-ton of loose hay and someone had to spread it over the garden. Ruth gardened at a time when hay was abundant in her area. Kansas also has a continental climate of cold winters and very hot summers so she would not have had much trouble with slugs during her growing season!

British no-dig enthusiasts include Bob Flowerdew and Charles Dowding. The late Dr. Wilfred Edward Shewell-Cooper (1900–1982), author of countless books published between the 1930s and 1970s, pioneered no-dig gardening in Britain and his son Ramsay, who died in September 1916, continued to support it. Ramsay had a demonstration plot at Capel Manor College near Enfield for many years.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.