Reasons to Dig in a No-Dig Garden

Digging can sometimes play a role in improving a site's resilience and utility.

digging in a garden

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In a no-dig garden, we do not dig or till the soil in growing areas. This is an important strategy to protect the soil in an organic garden; however, while we talk about "no-dig" gardens, we may still find reasons to dig in them occasionally. While disturbances can degrade the soil ecosystem in our beds and borders, there are a number of reasons why digging elsewhere in your no-dig garden may still be a good idea. 

As a permaculture designer and on my own property, I know that digging and earthworks can sometimes be important in improving the overall function and resilience of a site. Today, I thought I would explore and explain some of the reasons to dig in a no-dig garden.

First of all, let me note that when I talk about digging in a no-dig garden I am not talking about excavating in the growing areas themselves. Other strategies can be used to avoid digging, even in areas with compacted or otherwise problematic soil. Rather, I am talking about how digging in your garden can help you develop holistic systems that operate in a more sustainable way. 

Dig for Water Management

One reason is to manage water on your property. Just as no-dig beds can help protect and improve the soil, so too can effective water management on site be crucial for the ongoing health of the system. This might prevent certain areas from becoming waterlogged or from drying out excessively.

Water management can often involve undertaking earth-working schemes. For example, you might dig to create:

  • Swales, ditches, or drainage channels
  • Terraces on a steeply sloping site
  • Basins for rain gardens, wetland schemes, or similar
  • Ponds and reservoirs for water collection

Dig to Create Habitats for Garden Wildlife

Ponds are not only useful for water management in your garden. It could also be an excellent thing to do for garden wildlife. A pond can support and benefit a wide variety of life—and that wildlife is not only of value in its own right, but can also make your job easier as a gardener. Rain gardens or other garden habitats filled with native plants will benefit pollinators and other useful insects.

When we use no-dig methods on garden beds, we are protecting and enhancing the precious life below the soil surface. Digging elsewhere in your garden can create a range of habitats which draw in the life which helps us and on which we depend in an organic garden. 

Dig for Materials for No-Dig Gardens

This might sound counterintuitive, but sometimes it may be useful to dig in one location in your garden to provide loam or topsoil for elsewhere. Material removed from making ponds, etc. might be relocated and used to top no-dig beds.

You might also consider digging sunken pathways or other recessed areas in a garden, since this can provide other benefits while giving you materials that you can use to finish off your growing areas. Traditional "lazy beds" in Scotland and Ireland, for example, involve turning turf upside-down to use in new raised beds.

Dig for Sustainable Year-Round Growing

One other interesting thing to think about is digging to provide a space which can used for year-round food production. Earth-sheltered greenhouses, or sunken greenhouses (walipini), can remain more constant in temperature throughout the coldest months. 

Remember, in a no-dig garden, longevity, resilience, and productivity are key goals. So undertaking a project to build something that will allow you to grow more food where you live can be a wonderful option to consider.

Soil is precious and we should seek to disrupt its function as little as possible. But as you can see from the above, while there is no need to dig the beds themselves, there are still some good reasons to put a shovel to work in a no-dig garden.