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No-Dig Gardening: How to Get Started With the Green Alternative

Looking for innovative and eco-friendly ways to grow your own food at home? No-dig gardening is your secret to sustainable cultivation.

Written by
Lindsey Anderson

How does your garden grow? If you're into this trending method, the answer is sans any digging. "No-dig" gardening is a non-cultivation method of organic gardening that utilizes a layering technique in which organic material is layered on top of the soil, serving to protect and enhance its natural structure.

Practiced and promoted by famed English horticulturalist Charles Dowding since the 1980s, no-dig gardening has only recently gained notoriety. Known for its environmental benefits and physical ease, the method is finding favor with green thumbs and foodies alike.

What Is No-Dig Gardening?

The key to no-dig gardening lies in its name: there is no digging required. Instead, a layering of compost, soaked cardboard or newspaper, and manure serves as a foundation for your sowed seeds.

When left undisturbed, the soil sustains a healthy ecosystem in which both insects and microorganisms flourish. In turn, the soil retains more water, making it more drought resistant and in need of less frequent watering.

Why Is No-Dig Gardening Beneficial?

In addition to maintaining the soil's microbiome (and demanding less physical labor), the no-dig method helps keep carbon in soil. Carbon-rich soil tends to be more fertile and less erosive, increasing its health and longevity—and that of your plants.

When disrupted, soil releases carbon, leading the carbon to enter the atmosphere as a potent greenhouse gas. No-dig gardening prevents these emissions by storing carbon that would otherwise be released should the soil be dug or tilled.

Cost-effective by nature, the no-dig method is also the perfect point of entry for those learning how to garden. In fact, you probably already have most of the required materials somewhere in your home. What's more, the layers of cardboard and newspaper prevent weeds from growing by eliminating their access to sunlight, eliminating the need for harsh weed-killers and other chemically-based products.

The same goes for fertilizers. Each layer of the no-dig garden will break down, similar to compost. The remaining decomposed material is highly fertile and nutrient-dense, eliminating the need for artificial fertilizers.

Interested? Understandable. Read on for tips on starting your own no-dig garden at home.

How to Start Your No-Dig Garden

1. Find a Suitable Place for Your No-Dig Garden Bed

You can really build your garden bed anywhere you'd like—your garden will succeed as long as it has access to soil. Opt for a lawn, raised beds (easily built from old fence posts or wooden palettes), or an upcycled container.

2. Remove Any Weeds or Grasses

Pull up any weeds or grasses at your garden site. This will help you kick off your no-dig garden with a clean canvas.

3. Add Your Layers

Begin with your light-blocking material. As noted, cardboard or newspaper are good options here—with enough time and moisture, these layers will decompose into organic material. Be sure to wet your light-blocking layer before putting them down to expedite decomposition.

Next, add a thin layer of straw, followed by a layer of organic material—typically compost—which will serve as the main source of nutrients for your plants. You will want to reapply compost once or twice a year as your garden continues to grow.

Your final layer should consist of Mother Nature's fertilizer: manure. Both cow manure and chicken manure are good options for home gardens, but chicken manure tends to be higher in nitrogen. If you choose to, you can top off the manure with a thin layer of straw, but this step is optional.

There are many different ways to layer your materials for a no-dig garden. Variations of the above steps are also acceptable and equally successful. Get creative! The options are endless.

4. Plant Your Seeds

Finally, use your hands to create small holes in the compost. Plant your seeds or crop starters in these holes, burying them about 10 centimeters down. Water where you've planted and watch your garden grow.

Be sure not to overly compact any of your layers. Keeping them loose and fluffy will encourage aeration and drainage, two key factors in maintaining healthy, self-sufficient soil. So stop your digging: No-dig gardening is one of the most sustainable gardening methods around.