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No-dig gardening: An easier way to grow

By Sereba Agiobu-Kemmer
13 June 2020   |   4:12 am
You dig, you toil, you reap the rewards. But, how necessary is digging? Have you ever stopped to consider the logic of turning over the soil, season after season...

No dig deep beds. Inset is a kind of raised bed… Simply place bags of garden soil on top of ground and plant directly in the bags

You dig, you toil, you reap the rewards. But, how necessary is digging? Have you ever stopped to consider the logic of turning over the soil, season after season, year after year? After all, mother nature doesn’t use a spade! It’s no wonder, then, that the practice of ‘no-dig’ or ‘no-till’ gardening is gaining ground with gardeners across the world.

The downside of digging
There’s no getting around the fact that digging is hard work, but conventional wisdom says it’s worth it. The logic goes that digging helps you to incorporate nutrient-boosting organic matter such as compost, while creating looser, fluffier soil for sowing and planting. But does it?

Consider the myriad of soil life that’s disrupted every time we dig, from bacteria to earthworms, ground beetles to fungi. Tearing at the soil disrupts this intricate web of life, setting back the natural processes that lead to healthy soil.

Leave soil un-dug and soil organisms can thrive undisturbed, which is good news for plants. And, it also allows for a more natural balance between soil pests and their predators.

Regular digging, especially double-digging, where the soil is dug to the depth of two spade blades, quickly tires you out. And it’s not great for your back either. So why do it?

How to make new no-dig beds
Digging isn’t even necessary when setting out new growing areas. Start by clearing the surface of any debris and any rocks larger than a hen’s egg. Mow down grass or cut back weeds to the ground. Now add a thick layer of well-rotted organic matter. This will suppress the growth of the weeds beneath by blocking out light, and provide nutrient-rich material for roots to grow into. Lay it at least four inches (10cm) deep. Suitable organic matter includes compost, or manure from a trusted source where you can guarantee no herbicides have been used.

Fast forward a few months and any grass and weeds below will have rotted down, while earthworms will work to gradually incorporate the organic matter into the soil below.

If there are lots of weeds on the ground where you want to grow, lay down a layer of cardboard (or thick old newspapers) before adding your organic matter. Thoroughly wet the cardboard to help it break down. The cardboard will serve as a further barrier to weeds, exhausting and eventually killing most of them off. Once the growing season gets underway, you’ll find that any weeds that do manage to make it through will be much easier to remove.

Mark out paths between the beds using thick cardboard (or thick layer of newspapers), laid with generous overlaps. This will help to kill off the weeds between growing areas. You can cover the cardboard or newspaper with bark chips or similar later.

If the organic matter in your bed is still lumpy at planting time, start vegetable seedlings off in plug trays or pots to plant out once they’ve grown a sturdy root system. This will also make it easy to space plants out at exactly the right distance, saving you time thinning out rows of seedlings.

Mimic mother nature
A common variation is to use materials that are readily available to nourish and build soil. Popularised by organic gardener Paul Gautschi in his ‘Back to Eden’ method, materials such as woodchips are used to mimic mother nature’s infinite ability to recycle nutrients.

Let’s make a bed using this method. Start by laying a thick layer of paper, old newspapers or cardboards over cleared ground. Add around four inches (10cm) of compost, then add a layer of woodchips about two inches (5cm) deep, taking care not to mix the two layers. Then simply push aside the woodchips to plant into the compost beneath. You could, of course, use other materials such as leaf mold or hay in place of woodchips. The secret of this top layer is to slow down evaporation and constantly feed the soil below, so that no additional fertilisers are ever required.

Mulches not spades
The secret behind any no-dig garden lies in regular mulching with organic matter. Mulches cover the soil’s surface, protecting it from erosion, locking in soil moisture and suppressing weeds. As they rot down they add fertility to the soil while at the same time improving its structure, without the need to dig. In no-dig gardening, mulching replaces digging.

Replace old mulch as it rots down or becomes incorporated into the soil, so that the ground is being constantly fed and gradually built up. Add mulches around mature plants or wait until the end of the growing season. Suitable mulches include compost, leaf mold, hay, woodchips, grass clippings, straw and sawdust. Mulches also need to be weed seed-free, so they’re not self-defeating.

No-dig gardening
No-dig gardening suits gardens of every size, including small, city plots. Aim for beds no wider than four feet (1.2m) and you’ll never need to step on the soil inside. This helps to prevent the soil from becoming compacted, which lessens still further the need to reach for the spade. Using raised beds is not essential, but the sides do help to contain all that additional organic matter.

Over time, the weeds in a no-dig garden become few and far between as mulches work to weaken weeds by smothering them. And because you’re not digging, weed seeds in the soil below need never come to the surface to germinate. No-dig really does save you time!

It’s a wonder any of us still dig! No-dig gardening is kinder to our backs, the crops we grow, and the precious soil we grow in.

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