Really? A no dig garden? Yes! I first read about the possibility in a wonderful book titled Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway. Actually, if truth were known, I wanted a way to garden into old age.
One of the key concepts that struck me about the no dig garden was the fact that you’re actually building your “compost” right into the planting area. In regular composting much of the best-composted soil remains on the bottom and you just keep building on top of it. With the no dig garden you have the advantage of the bottom layer of compost gold all of the time!
You will want to prepare the garden site in the fall. That gives the site plenty of time to settle over the winter for a spring planting.
First, mark off the boundaries of the garden. One way is to use a garden hose and keep moving it around until you get the design you want. My first no dig garden was more of a rectangle….I was actually trying to eliminate Creeping Charlie that had taken over the yard. (That being said, I will someday write an article about creeping charlie or ground ivy and it’s healing uses.) This was a way of trying to reclaim a major part of the yard!
I didn’t want to use Borax or some other solution for fear it would totally ruin planting what could be wonderful garden area. Once you’ve decided the location and shape of the garden, cut the grass short. I actually used a weed whacker to shave the grass down to dirt level. This allows for the cardboard or newspapers to lay flat. Just least the grass clippings in place for added compost material.
Step 2: Mulch – with newspapers and boxes!
Next cover the entire area with several layers of newspaper or corrugated boxes. Whichever paper source you use, be sure to overlap the edges about two to three inches. Large appliance cardboard boxes work great! They cover more space in less time and provide a very sturdy underlay that still decomposes easily. Remove any plastic type labels or advertising strips. You just want the cardboard. If you’re using newspapers, you’ll want the thickness of about a half an inch. It takes a lot of newspapers.
Hint – recently, I noticed removal of large cardboard boxes used to cart in mega loads of vegetables at some local grocery stores. They may be very happy to pass them on to you!
Step 3: Give your boxes a bath
Once you’ve covered the area with cardboard, wet it down thoroughly with a hose. Really soak it good. You want the cardboard to be wet and flexible. It will break down easier that way and add moisture to the levels you’re about to add on top of it. Next, toss on leaves. Ideally, you use chopped leaves so there is less surface area per leaf to further the composting process. I plan to ask my neighbor across the street if he wouldn’t mind dumping the leaves he gathers with his riding lawn mower into my large yard bags instead of placing them at the curb for city pick up. Saves me from shoveling them into my bags and keeps his curb clear. Last year, my husband helped me haul loads of chopped leafs into the garden. It was kind of funny hauling bags of leaves across the street. But what a terrific outcome!
Continue building and layering the bed by adding marsh hay that you’ve pulled apart and shaken across the leaves and grass clipping mix. Basically, you are pulling apart the bale of hay to “fluff it up” before adding it to the site. You don’t want solid sheets of hay all over the top. Pulling it apart helps to keep surface aerated and the hay spreads more easily. Continue layering the materials until the site is about a foot deep.
Hint: Marsh hay is very different from straw. It’s softer, airier and has a light green hue from the spring harvest. Marsh hay harvested later is more golden and stiffer. I suggest you buy the amount of marsh hay you want for the growing season early if you want it for the whole season. Otherwise, the later stiffer harvest is what you get. Avoid using straw because it has weed seeds in the bale. Marsh hay doesn’t and it’s much more pleasant to incorporate into the planting bed.
Hint: I like to take a pitchfork and mix the layers together, but you don’t have to do it to be successful. I just happen to think it helps blend and decompose the mix a little faster is all. I like to add vegetable scraps right into the layers, letting it compost directly in the planting bed. Feel free to include additional composted soil when you’re layering or when you’re mixing it up with the pitchfork.
Hints for Success
Hint: You will find it beneficial to add say a half a cup or so of worm compost to each planting “hole”. See my article on how to set up your own worm bin. It’s so easy. I have found that the no dig garden lends itself well to planting plants. I have less success with seeds until the area settles and decomposes more. Otherwise, the seed can get kind of lost. I plan to try a new method next spring. Perhaps I’ll try layering a shallow layer of organic soil over the freshly layered no dig bed I want to seed at the time rather than waiting until the next season.
Hint: I wanted to plant Sweet Woodruff under a large red maple in our front yard but the found that the roots of the tree limited the planting. So, I decided to try the no dig technique under the tree last fall. It worked beautifully! I planted several sweet woodruff plants this spring and they are doing great. And, the maple seems happy to have the company and leafy compost!