No-Dig Gardening Tips For Small Farms and Gardens

Here are some of the important things to keep in mind when thinking about starting a no-dig/no-till approach.

Man showing compost
In smaller-scale no-dig operations, home composting is important. Annie Otzen / Getty Images

Organic, no-till systems are the best option for farmers and gardeners who understand the value of soil and want to take steps to preserve, protect, and improve it over time. Most simply explained, the method relies on disturbing the soil as little as possible and adding organic matter to the surface.

If you are new to the concept of no-till practices (also known as no-dig), you might be confused about exactly how to make the switch to this more sustainable growing system.

If you have not yet seen the documentary "Kiss the Ground" then I would highly recommend that you watch this in order to get an overview of why implementing a no-till approach is essential. We need to appreciate our soil and all that it does for us – before it is too late.

Read more: "Kiss the Ground" Shows How Soil Health Can Save Us From Climate Crisis

As a permaculture designer, I have helped many gardeners and farmers move to no-till methods on their land. Here are a few tips to help you overcome your challenges and move to an organic no-till system where you live:

Design Beds and Fields To Avoid Compaction Issues

In a no-dig/no-till system, we disturb soil as little as possible. This not only means avoiding digging or tilling. It also involves avoiding compaction. One of the most common mistakes I have seen with beginners to this type of gardening or farming is that they fail to look at how compaction can be avoided through careful design.

Beds in a no-dig garden and rows in larger areas of annual cultivation should never be walked on or trampled while in use. This means designing them in such a way that all areas can easily be tended without stepping on them. Beds and rows should not be wider than around 4 feet (if they can be accessed from both sides). Make sure paths or access tracks are planned out carefully.

Keep Soil Covered At All times

Another major rule involves making sure that you avoid leaving areas of bare soil. Soil should always be covered, ideally with living plants. And with mulch between plants where necessary. When we leave bare areas of soil, we lose moisture and nutrients, and the soil's capacity to store carbon is reduced.

Planning for continual soil cover is one of the most important things in no-till gardening or farming – failure to plan ahead sufficiently is a common rookie mistake.

Choose Cover Crops Wisely

Some people believe that they cannot move to a no-till system because the soil has too many issues where they live. But even if you have severely compacted, degraded or nutrient-poor soil, you can improve it over time with the judicious use of organic sheet mulches and the right cover crops.

It is important, however, to understand your soil well. And to choose the right cover crops for your needs. Different cover crops can be used to tackle compaction, erosion, low nutrient levels, and other issues with soil content and structure. Remember, multi-species cover crops can often be a better solution than planting just a single type of plant.

Read more: A Regional Guide to Cover Crops to Banish the Bare Ground

Look at Mulch Materials Already On-Site – and Plant for Mulch Creation

Another reason people may find it difficult to move to a no-till system is that they believe they have a shortage of organic material/biomass that can be used for larger-scale sheet mulching and the creation of new beds.

Often, sourcing materials begins by taking a more careful look at what is already available. In smaller-scale operations, home composting is important. If you do not already create your own compost, this is something you should consider starting right away.

You may already have materials on hand for composting in place in a no-dig/no-till system. Grass clippings, pruned materials, leaves from deciduous trees already growing on your property, etc.

In other areas, where organic materials for no-dig/no-till cultivation are in shorter supply, you will need to think not just about planting crops, but also about planting for mulch creation. Think about sowing plenty of fast-growing perennials, shrubs, and trees that will provide plentiful sources of biomass to use on your growing areas.

Consider an Agroforestry Approach

The ultimate no-dig/no-till systems, and often the most successful, are those which take a holistic and integrated approach.


Silvopasture is an agroforestry approach that combines both trees and pasture. The end goal, according to Cornell University, is to have both working together to provide food and shelter for livestock, with the potential for additional economical yields from the trees.

Agroforestry approaches (planting trees in forest gardens, silvoarable or silvopasture schemes) can often help reduce resource challenges. With alley cropping, careful livestock rotation, diverse planting schemes, etc. you will find it easier to build the soil over time. And can help create thriving gardens or farms.

Planting not just for your own needs, but also for the soil can improve yields and help you create more resilient growing systems. And when you design, plan and plant for organic biomass too, you should be able to build such systems without recourse to expensive outside sources of materials.