Organic vegetable gardening, the cheapskate way!

What is a no-dig garden?

No-dig gardening is a relatively new gardening method that has proven itself to be a simple, stress-free, low maintenance, and cost-effective method for organic vegetable gardening as well as organic landscaping.

Rethinking Fertility

One of the main reasons that no-dig gardening is so environmentally friendly is that this method involves no tilling of the soil. While conventional wisdom has claimed for years that fertility is achieved by bringing in additional inputs of manure, fertilizer (organic or conventional), or compost, this method allows the soil to maintain its fertility with no further inputs required beyond organic matter.

If you've ever seen a forest floor, You'll see no-dig gardening in action! the soil is clearly fertile to support the many trees and shrubs, and this is all a result of grass, leaves, and other organic debris falling to the ground and 'composting' in place. This method encourages healthy growth of soil bacteria and invites earthworms to come and leave their castings, thereby increasing the soil's productivity and, in your case, laying out the groundwork for a thriving organic vegetable garden! This method also has the advantage of requiring less water, because the organic matter you lay down acts as a heavy mulch as it decomposes, reducing water loss by evaporation. But enough theory - let's get started!


Getting Started

To start your organic vegetable garden using the no dig method, you will need:

  • Lots of "Green" organic matter - grass clippings, coffee grounds, kitchen waste, etc. This material will be your main source of nitrogen.
  • Lots of "Brown" organic matter - dry leaves, some dry grass, straw, sawdust - anything dry and brown, which will add carbon to the mix. The finer the material is chopped, the better.
  • Kill mulch - brown cardboard is generally agreed to be the most effective, but some people report success with natural burlap sacks or newspapers. This layer is the first to go down, and will suppress weeds or other competition.
  • (optional) Compost or potting soil - not necessary, but helpful to kickstart the decomposition process. Also, some smaller seeds benefit from having even a thin layer of soil-like material to sprout out of. This layer is essentially unnecessary if you set up the garden bed several weeks before you intend to plant. Ask around - somebody in your life probably has some spare compost or potting soil around. Even used potting soil from flower pots work!

That's it! All of the required items are free if you can hang onto your yard trimmings, or ask around. In most neighborhoods, you will see plenty of people leaving bag after bag of grass clippings and leaves out on the curb to be picked up. Bike shops and appliance stores have lots of free cardboard if you ask for it. Starbucks and many other coffee shops have a policy in which they offer their used coffee grounds for free to anyone interested. Coffee shops and neighbors receive free pick-up of their waste products, and you get free materials for your organic vegetable garden! Everybody wins!

It should be mentioned that a lot of other additions can be made to the parts list, such as organic fertilizers, fish/kelp emulsion, blood and bone meal, etc. but I decided to keep things in the realm of what you can scavenge rather than purchase. This method works just fine without them, and the more your spend on supplies, the less profit you make on your organic vegetable garden, so keep it simple! 

Now, where to plant?

Choosing your site

Perhaps the best part of no dig gardening is that you can start one nearly anywhere! Because you're building up from the ground, drainage need not be an issue, and because this method kills out any competition beneath it, you can start your garden right on top of your lawn. In fact, you can start a no-dig garden on top of concrete or in containers as well, though you will lose the benefits of attracting earthworms and improving the soil underneath your garden, plus you will need a LOT more organic matter to build the beds up high enough.

The one thing you need to keep in mind when choosing a site is good southern exposure and sunlight. This isn't to say that the garden won't work in partial sun or shade, but if you're hoping to have a full-on organic vegetable garden with fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and squash, the more sunlight the better!

Building it up!

Start your no-dig garden by cutting down any grass or plants currently growing in the area you want to plant. There's no need to move them out, however, as any organic matter currently there will compost in place and simply add to your soil fertility.

Take out your cardboard pieces and get them as wet as possible. Remember you want brown cardboard with no waxes or finish on it so that it can decompose completely. Once wet, lay the cardboard out in your desired shape - make it look like raised beds, or get creative! Just make sure to overlap the edges of each piece by 4"-6" to prevent weeds coming through.

Also keep in mind that if you are going for an organic vegetable garden, you'll need to keep the beds no wider than 4' and make sure to have room to walk in between the beds - trust me, this will make your life a lot easier when watering and harvesting (notice how I didn't say weeding? Another perk of this method is how little of that you'll be doing! Woot!).

From here, start layering your "Green" and "Brown" materials, alternating between the two. Make sure each layer is about 1" thick, and wet the whole thing down after each layer. If you got a hold of coffee grounds or other organic fertilizers, feel free to sprinkle them on at any point when layering. 

Build up your layers until the bed is at least 6" tall, and don't stop there if you can help it! As time goes on, the materials you're layering are going to start compressing, and depending on what type of materials you used, the bed may shrink to as much as a third of its current height. So if you can build these beds up 2'-3' so much the better! This is especially true if you're building on top of concrete or in containers (I warned you, didn't I?)

Once you've used up all your organic matter, you have two options depending on the season. If you started your bed in the fall (recommended), all you have to do is let nature do the work until spring-time, and plant then by parting the top few layers of material and sticking your seeds or seedlings. If you waited to start until spring, however, you'll need some actual soil. If so, simply plant by parting the top layers, dropping in a trowel-full of soil or compost, and plant into that. By the time your plants are getting established, the organic matter surrounding the soil will have decomposed enough for your plants to be able to send out roots. If you're desperate, you can simply dig up some native soil and use that in place of the potting soil to plant in, but it may prove harder on the plants.

When your growing season is over, there's no need to worry about clean-up. Just cut your plants off at the base, chop them up a little, and throw or bury them right back into your bed. No muss, no fuss.

And there you have it! That wasn't too painful, was it? And now you have an awesome organic vegetable garden to brag about. 

A word on slugs

Ah, but it can't be that simple, some say.  A common complaint about this method is that all the moist organic matter can attract slugs and other less desirable gastropods. I will post more articles on managing this issue soon, but for now, let me just say that no method you come across will be perfect - the key is to go out and do it! The no-dig method is low-maintenance, and basically free. What's not to love? Happy Planting!