No-Dig Gardening is such a brilliant form of home-based agriculture I was convinced the TreeHugger archives would be rich with its merits. Was very surprised when I only found one mention, in a post chronicling Leonora's permaculture adventures in New Zealand. So I launched into the following first-person account of No-Dig, only to discover that in North America the same process might be better known as as Sheet Mulching. Nomenclature aside, it's worth covering the topic again. Especially if you want to grow your own veggies for a little food security.Background to Cultivation Free Farming
No-Dig Gardening can probably trace its legacy back to visionary Japanese agricultural pioneer, Fukuoka Masanobu, who embarked on his Natural Farming experiment in 1938. His very productive organic farming methods did not require extensive soil tilling, weeding, or application of synthetic pesticide or fertilizer. Best known for his 1975 book One Straw Revolution, Fukuoka Masanobu advocated returning grain and rice straw stalks to the fields as a way of enriching soil development.
American home gardener, Ruth Stout, put out a book in 1971, called the No-Work Garden Book, which echoed Fukuoka’s decades of natural farming. Ruth, though maybe lacking some of the quiet humility and philosophy of her Japanese predecessor, also promoted covering gardens in a dense layer of straw and green mulch.
In the Antipodes we had Esther Dean, who released her own book Growing Without Digging in 1977, seeding a small cult following of No Dig gardeners. And, of course, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren who refined their concept of a nature-inspired agriculture with the publication of Permaculture One in 1978.
All would champion the idea that soil quality will dramatically improve if left undisturbed by cultivating, tilling, plowing, digging etc. They believed that soil was enriched with top layers of mulch decomposing to develop the appropriate communities of worms and micro-organisms that enhance food growth. Their ideas have since been embraced even in broad acre agriculture under the guise of no-till farming (see links below).
So How Does it Work in Practice?
There are many ways to implement a no-dig garden. What follows is just one method.
1. We selected a section of the yard that would get at least six hours of direct sunlight. Unfortunately we had to cut down a couple of trees to ensure this access when the sun dropped to lower plane in winter.
2. We set up four main beds, so we can practice crop rotation, which rests the soil and reduces chances of plant pests making a comfortable home in the soil.
Your first bed might get the root crops such as carrots, onions, beetroot and potatoes. The second is for Curcurbits, which are melons, pumpkins, squash, zucchini and cucumbers. Corn can also be planted here. For the third bed consider Acid Lovers: tomatoes, chillies, capsicums (peppers) and eggplant (aubergine). And in the last one go the Legumes, like peas and beans (These are also nitrogen enriching plants) and the Brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, etc). Each year plant the same vegetables per bed, but one bed further round the rotation.
Separate non-rotating beds for herbs, and for perennials such as asparagus, strawberries and rhubarb, can also benefit from no dig methods.
3. Because our soil is exceedingly clayey, we sprinkled gypsum through the grass to help loosen up the clay. Then we laid out salvaged railway sleepers to give the four main garden beds some definition. These beds were well watered down.
4. Atop the wet grass we laid out big sheets of cardboard (all their staples and packing tape removed). This helps supress weeds. The cardboard was thoroughly wetted down too.
5. A bale of chopped lucerne straw was spread over the soggy cardboard. And half a bale of long stem lucerne straw covered the lighter chop. This was watered in also.
6. On this went a thick layer of what might be called soil ‘matter.’ It comprised material rescued from the floor of an old chicken coop that we’d shovelled out, and sieved through an old wire bed frame (to avoid weeds. twigs and rocks). It was a mixture of ancient chicken manure, soil, sawdust and compost scraps. Wetted down too.
7. Over this soil matter we scattered a bale and half of plain straw and gave the whole shebang a deep soaking.
8. We let it ‘stew’ a little while we waited for our organic seedling and seeds to arrive in the mail. And for the truck to drop off the the 2 tonnes of garden soil, mixed with cow manure.
9. With these other ingredients in place we spread apart, with a trowel, strategic holes in the decomposing layered no-dig garden bed. Into these holes we dropped a couple of scoops of the soil/manure. Using a scoop home-made from a juice container. The beauty of this approach is that you only need use soil where you have plants. It’s cheaper and saves on the volume of soil that needs to be humped about in a wheel barrow.
10. Using a ‘dibbler’ stick we created a hole in the soil, and inserted the seedlings and seeds to their recommended depth and spacing. These were watered in with mixture of water and seaweed extract, to promote root growth. Then we pulled the straw loosely back over the mini-plots to reduce the soil from drying out.
11. Of course it doesn’t take long for snails and slugs to find these succulent new growths. So we cut up more containers to make ramps on the outside and shallow dished inside, which we filled with beer or wine. The slugs tempted by the sweet aroma slide up the ramp and succumb to alcohol poisoning. We also sprinkle some pine needles around the plants to create a spikey surface over which they need to crawl. Though this latter measure can make the soil a bit acidic, so we might experiment with wood ash from the slow combustion heater instead. We’ve also gone out at night with a head torch to pick off the sneaky slimy critters who don’t fall for the beer traps.
12. Water for the first couple of weeks to help the seeds and seedlings establish. Then let the straw mulch provide the soil with shade and to hold in any moisture from rain, dew or fog. But otherwise the garden should look after itself by-and-large. If weeds do poke through they can be pulled up, or simply smothered with another layer of straw.
The many steps indicated here might make it seem a drawn out process. But if you had everything together, it could all be set up one day on the weekend. Once set up, your No-Dig Garden shouldn’t need more than a few hours tending each week.
And besides it is far more satisfying to walk out into the backyard to harvest your own food, than to bump and grind around supermarket aisles and carparks. Cheaper, healthier and saves on the gym subscription too.
More No-Dig Gardening
• ABC Gardening’s No-Dig Fact Sheet
• No-Dig Gardening from New Zealand
• US Sheet Mulching
More No-Tillage Farming
• Free PDF version of One Straw Revolution
• No-Tillage Farmers Look to Earn Carbon Credits
• Plowing's Dark Secret
• Conserving and Rebuilding Soils
Photo Credits: Warren McLaren/INOV8