No-Dig Vegetable Gardening

Kale seedlings in no-dig garden bed.

Kale seedlings in no-dig garden bed.

No-dig gardening is a simple and low-maintenance method created by Australian author Esther Deans in “Esther Deans’ Gardening Book, Growing Without Digging,” first published in 1977. Esthers’ philosophy was that “one should be able to enjoy the results of successful vegetable growing, as well as other plants, without tiresome ‘spade’ work.”

To build and maintain a no-dig garden, just layer organic materials on top of the ground and let nature do the work for you by creating beautiful fertile soil as the material breaks down, a lot like composting. It’s a great option if you want a garden but don’t have a lot of time to devote to its care and maintenance, and because you don’t have to dig the soil, it’s kind to the life in your garden too.

Benefits of No-Dig Gardening

  • Low maintenance, no digging required

  • Easy to build in a couple of hours or less

  • Any type of soil or surface, even concrete

  • Creates rich, fertile soil, ideal for vegetables and flowers

What You’ll Need

The main ingredients are paper, fertiliser and hay/straw. Lay materials on the ground in alternating layers of green (nitrogen), and brown (carbon). Include one or more material (the more diverse, the better) from each of the following options, using what is locally available and affordable for you.

Green (nitrogen) Layer

  • Compost (preferred)

  • Fresh lawn clippings (avoid weed seeds and pesticides), leaves, garden pruning

  • Kitchen scraps

  • Coffee grounds

  • Comfrey leaves

  • Lucerne mulch/hay (hay is green and cut before going to seed)

Brown (carbon) Layer

  • Lucerne/pea/wheat straw (straw is brown and cut after going to seed)

  • Sugar cane mulch

  • Shredded paper/cardboard

  • Sawdust (in small quantities)

  • Autumn leaves

  • Dry lawn clippings

  • Other seedless mulches

Optional Material

  • Rock dust

  • Mycorrhizal fungi or other beneficial soil bacteria

  • Wood ash

Bottom Layer

  • Newspaper (not required when gardening on hard surfaces)

  • Broken branches/twigs (required for drainage/aeration when gardening on hard surfaces)

Garden Edging

  • Brick

  • Wood

  • Rocks

  • Metal

  • Other material, limited only by your imagination

Constructing Your No-dig Garden

  1. Find a sunny location for your garden.

  2. Mow existing vegetation short and leave in place; it will add organic matter and nutrients.

  3. Build a box or edging to contain the garden. I recommend at least 12 in or 30 cm in height.

  4. Cover the ground with a layer of overlapping (by 4 in or 10 cm for complete coverage) wet newspaper 1/4 in or 1/2 cm thick to break down existing vegetation and stop it from growing through. If gardening on concrete or hard surfaces make the first layer of broken branches to create drainage/aeration and skip to step 6.

  5. Add optional material as per supplier specifications, and water well.

  6. Add a layer of pre-soaked carbon, 4 to 8 in or 10 to 20 cm thick, and water well.

  7. Add a layer of nitrogen, 2 to 4 in or 5 to 10 cm thick, and water well.

  8. Continue alternating layers, ending with a carbon layer, until you reach height desired. In a2-6 months, the garden will reduce in size by half as the material composts, so build it two times the final size you want.

Bottom layer of wet newspaper.

Bottom layer of wet newspaper.

Spreading carbon layer of Lucerne mulch.

Spreading carbon layer of Lucerne mulch.

Watering the layers.

Watering the layers.

Completed no-dig raised garden bed.

Completed no-dig raised garden bed.

Planting Your No-Dig Garden

  1. Make holes, 3 to 4 in deep by 18 in wide or 8 to 10 cm deep by 45 cm wide, in the top layer of mulch where you want to plant seeds or seedlings. Most plants do well in the first 2 to 4 months, but roots, beans, peas and other deep-rooted plants will struggle because the material below the compost won’t have composted in that time. After 2 to 4 months, they’ll grow much better.

  2. Fill holes with compost, make holes in compost, plant into and water well.

Maintaining the Garden

  1. Water as needed. If allowed to dry out, it can become very difficult to wet again.

  2. Protect the soil life, don’t dig or cultivate.

  3. Add homemade compost on top of the garden in spring and/or autumn and cover with a fresh layer of mulch/carbon material. Cut dead plants at soil level, leaving roots to decompose. Chop and drop dead plants on surface, or tuck under mulch to return nutrients to the soil.