It is really easy to build great soil with no digging involved. This type of gardening is called no dig, no till, sheet composting, trench composting and lasagna gardening. It can also be used to reference raised bed gardening but I’ll deal with that in another article. No till gardening is simply composting on top of a future garden bed but there are details that need to be attended to for it to work. You are going to be putting a very deep layer of mulch on the soil and letting it decompose in its own time before you work the soil.
Many gardeners cut their teeth on deep tilling. Tilling or digging the soil to a depth of 6 – 12 inches has been the standard method for … well, forever. Turning the soil over does give you a deep planting bed but it also can bring weed seeds to the surface and messes up the natural structure of the soil. If you have clay soil digging can cause the infamous “bathtub effect” which is water that drains into the dug soil but cannot leave because of the heavy clay soil. I will have to introduce those of you who like digging that much to the double digging method. That is a whole other article though. Gee here I am telling you all about digging and you want to learn how to not dig. Deep tilling actually works fine if you do not mind the effort that is involved in turning all that soil, adding amendments, and mixing it all together. I’m sorry about that – let’s get into the nitty gritty of no dig gardens.
Once you’ve decided where to place your garden bed you need to start collecting newspaper or cardboard. These items will be used to kill whatever is currently growing in the spot you are taking over. Normally people have sod to get rid of. You want to put down two layers of cardboard or a thick (at least 8 sheets thick) layer of newspaper. Make sure when you lay down this first layer that you overlap all the seams. If you don’t those sneaky weeds will come right up through the seams and you’ll be weeding before you even get started. Weeds are surprisingly good at getting through or around any barrier that you try to construct to keep them out.
It’s normally easiest to use leaves and grass clippings for the bulk of your organic material for your new lasagna garden. You want to build up your organic material about 2 feet high. Wow, right? The reason you need such a large volume of leaves and other organics is that the huge layer will shrink over time and be much less when you are actually ready to plant. You can use just shredded leaves and your garden will be ready to plant in a year. You’re going to have to replace the organic material that has vanished every year. I said you wouldn’t be digging but never said that there was no work involved. If you cannot find enough organic material on your own you might have to figure out how to get some extra. If you plan ahead you can snag quite a lot of leaves from other people when they rake and discard their leaves.
You can add anything that you’d put into a regular compost pile into your no dig garden bed. Things like kitchen scraps, garden trimmings, shredded leaves, store bought mulch, and anything else you can scavenge up. This stuff’s gonna be sitting around for a year so whatever you put in will breakdown within that time. Sure you might find the occasional stubborn bit but don’t worry about it. Just bury it in the good compost and pretend you never saw it. Wet the stuff down some and if you can’t stand the look of it cover it with something. Waiting – Waiting – Waiting -
Ok a year has passed and you should have a nice 6-8 inch layer of compost to plant in. So go plant it already, you’re on your own at this point. I am just joking, there is a lot more to talk about.
If you absolutely cannot stand having any undecomposed bits in your new garden bed, just use those things for a new no-till bed. How efficient is that? As far as I have been able to tell creating one new garden bed just leads to more. Once you have mastered this system you can create as many as you can find the materials for. You are only limited by how much stuff you can acquire and how much land you want to turn over to either vegetables or flowers.
Reasons to Build No Dig Garden Beds
Now that you know how to build, no dig beds I want to touch on reasons that a person may choose to go no dig. Digging is hard work. That sounds like a no-brainer but many people do not realize what they are getting into the first time they put shovel to soil. Once you get started, it is hard to stop and if you discover that, you cannot dig for whatever reason I would really hate to see you give up on the joy of gardening. Physical disabilities, from either a handicap or age, do not need to stop you from enjoying a great garden. Time restraints also play a big part in your gardening endeavors. A busy family with young children might find no dig gardens to be a more efficient use of the little bit of time that they have available. Tree roots are my big consideration. I do not like having to chop up tree roots to create a new garden bed. If I want a well-dug bed, I will either have to use no-dig gardening or cut tree roots. I am not an expert in trees and am not sure how many roots a tree can have cut and still be healthy.