No dig vegetable gardens are once again popular and getting a lot of attention.
But for an “old-timer” such as myself, all I can say is “what goes around- come around” :-).
I am fortunate enough to have a rather large gardening book collection and many of these books go back well into the 1800’s. We have had cycles of gardens without digging for some time now. Here are six ways you can move toward no dig vegetable gardens to feed your family without a great deal of work
The most famous of no dig gardens was Ruth Stout’s deep mulch system that this well-known organic gardener of the 1950’s promoted through her magazine articles.
This system puts a rather deep mulch of straw onto the garden (4-6 inches) and then all garden wastes (leaves, stems etc) are laid directly on top of this mulch.
Other authors have promoted variations of this no dig garden system but they’re all essentially deep mulching or green composting (below)
For green compost material from the kitchen, simply pull the mulch back and lay the kitchen waste on the ground. Then pull the mulch back over top of the waste. Worms and other soil microorganisms summarily deal with the organic material from the kitchen.
All garden waste – from leaves to cuttings – was simply laid on top of the mulch and allowed to decompose. In the fall, a fresh, thin layer of straw was laid down on top of the pile to replace the straw consumed over the summer by the soil and its inhabitants. This was the first of the no dig gardens in our modern garden history.
Our vegetable garden newly mulched in October 2014 – almost ready for winter after a few more cleanup chores
No Dig Gardens Work
I have used this no dig garden system in my own vegetable gardening and I can tell you it works very well. There is no compost bin to maintain and no heavy lifting or wheeling barrows of compost hither and yon to the garden. You simply let it all stay in the garden. The only difficulty I ever had with this system was in a wet year when slugs came out from under the mulch in high numbers to attack almost anything green. But any mulch would have done the same thing. I did not have a pest or rodent problem that I was able to see.
I never found a problem with the family levels of kitchen waste we produced when it was buried under the mulch. It didn’t last very long with the high worm populations our soil supported.
City and Dog/Cat/Rat/Raccoon Issues
I suspect if you were in the city with wandering animal, you might want to take this additional step: either use a worm compost bin to eliminate the kitchen waste before it goes onto the garden or use a blender to whiz all the organic scraps up and pour that onto the garden. Personally, I prefer the worm bin and I use that because I want worm compost.
Or, take it one step further and use trench composting or other similar compost systems I note trench composting really works well for this if you keep the kitchen waste covered up (and never put meat or fish scraps into this trench)
All other systems are simply modern adaptations of this no dig garden system.
New Bed Construction
Making new garden beds doesn’t have to be labor intensive. The trick here is to lay down overlapping sheets of newspaper – up to 20 pages thick (although I usually stop at 3-5) and then cover the entire newspaper layer with a deep (4-6 inches) layer of mulch.
Note: it’s important to let the newspaper or cardboard disintegrate before you plant. Your plants will not grow well when the cardboard/paper is stopping the moisture from reaching the plants and soaking up all nitrogen in the top inch of your garden. So do not plant through cardboard or newspaper mulch
The objective is to eliminate all sunlight from the soil and to provide a barrier the underlying grass and weeds can not penetrate. I usually overlap the newspaper by half a sheet and continue overlapping in different directions as I add each layer.
Our raised bed vegetable garden – newly mulched wth chopped up straw in late October.
(Hint: if you have trouble laying the newspaper because of wind or smaller sheets, consider keeping a hose nearby to wet each layer down and keep it in place.)
The weeds under the newspaper simply expire from a lack of sunlight.
If you add lots of compost, the soil will loosen up over a season and you can easily garden in there the next season.
Great System For Shrubs
This is a great little system for installing shrubs once the grass and weeds are dead under the paper/mulch and the cardboard/paper is disintegrated.
In one rather large bed (spring 2006) I laid down cardboard instead of paper because I didn’t want to garden there. I then covered it with bark mulch and the area stayed clean and weed free. This was under some rather large lilac shrubs at my entranceway and rather than weeding under there all summer, I chose to smother out the weeds.
NOTE: I waited until the cardboard was disintegrated before planting there. Do NOT plant and try to use cardboard as a mulch. It stops water and does other terrible things to the plants under it. But – as I said – I used it to kill weeds and then when it was disintegrated, I planted into the soil.