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No Dig Gardening: The Ultimate Guide to Getting Started

no dig|November 03, 2022
No Dig Gardening: The Ultimate Guide to Getting Started

What is no dig?

The goal of no dig gardening is simple; disturb the soil as least as possible and apply fertility (compost and mulches) on top of the ground rather than mixing in with the soil below. This means no digging in compost or manure in autumn, no backbreaking weeding sessions with a fork, and no harvesting that leaves the soil looking like a bomb went off. Whilst the goal is simple, the reasons behind why we should disturb the soil as least as possible reveal the plethora of benefits it has to offer gardeners. From this post you will not only know what no dig gardening consists of, but also how to start your very own no dig garden bed.

What is the history of no dig

No dig style gardening methods have been used by Indigenous communities from time immemorial and have been popularized by gardening greats such as Masanobu Fukuoka, Ruth Stout, Esther Deans, Bill Mollison, and Charles Dowding (just to name a few)

One of the most popular techniques today is no dig using compost as mulch. Sadly the dates are quite blurred as to when this method origionated, but there are two important books that often mark the beginning of this movement. These are Gardening With Compost by F.C. King in 1944, and Gardening Without Digging by Albert Guest in 1948. Both demonstrate the key foundations of no-dig gardening.

Image: My homemade compost around 1 month from completion

Whilst no dig is primarily seen as a gardening method with compost, it can also be an umbrella term for other types of methods such as mulching with hay, or even with woodchip. For example, Paul Gautschi’s back-to-eden method uses woodchip as the key ‘ingredient’ for growing incredible crops. In 1953 a book entered the market by an author called Ruth Stout who released her ‘No-Work Garden’ book to share her method of gardening by mulching her plants with spent hay rather than compost, and no need for any digging or forking.

The greatest surge of interest in no dig should be accredited to the incredible work done by Charles Dowding, who started experimenting with no dig in 1982 and then started gaining recognition from 1988 after the late Geoff Hamilton featured Charles Dowding on a Gardeners World Episode. Charles has gone on to publish multiple books on no dig gardening and also runs a very popular YouTube channel, blog, and online courses. 

Image: Harvesting no dig grown pak choi (credit: Sam Cooper)

Key benefits of no dig gardening

(Benefits by Sabina Pariser)

There are numerous benefits to no dig gardening. Whether you are a seasoned gardener or just getting started, implementing no dig gardening techniques will undoubtedly have positive impacts in your yard.

Improved soil structure: The no dig gardening method recognizes that living organisms play an important role in overall plant and soil health. The soil food web is dynamic and complex. It is home to organisms such as worms, insects, protozoa, nematodes, fungi, and beneficial bacteria. This diverse soil-dwelling community depends on organic matter as a food source.These species are abundant in no dig gardens because they are well-fed and allowed to flourish. Charles Dowding says that if you disturb the soil, then the soil must recover. Therefore, by tending to the soil without causing unnecessary disruption, the no dig method provides an opportunity for the soil to maintain optimal nutrient supply and structural integrity.

Increased moisture retention and drainage: Adding organic matter to your garden beds will improve the soil’s overall health, while also allowing the soil to better receive and store water. Productive soil structure is comparable to a sponge. Applying organic material to the top layer of your garden space allows for slower moisture percolation while also avoiding unnecessary nutrient run off. Additionally, dressing your garden beds with organic matter can protect the soil from excessive heat in the summer which eliminates unnecessary water evaporation from occurring. Furthermore, the presence of worms and fungal networks within the soil play an essential role in water retention and drainage. By encouraging these organisms to thrive, you allow tunnels and pathways created by earthworms and fungal networks to stay intact and deliver an optimal route for water and other nutrients to be distributed evenly within the soil.

Natural weed suppression: In traditional tilling methods, weed seeds have an opportunity to rise to the surface and grow under direct sunlight. By not disturbing the soil, you reduce the amount of weed seeds that have a chance to germinate by adding a top layer of mulch and compost to your garden beds. The additional organic material will smother weed seeds and prevent them from propagating. The few weeds that do have a chance to grow will be easy to remove by hand or by lightly scraping the surface with a garden hoe. Personally, I like to add a thin layer of organic mulch onto my garden bed before adding compost. For mulch, you can use leaves, grass clippings, herbicide-free straw or hay, woodchips, or the chop and drop method.

Beginner friendly: Learning about soil health does not have to be a daunting process. You can get started right away by building a permaculture bed or by implementing these practices into your established raised beds.  When I started my gardening journey, I was instantly attracted to no dig gardening methods. The no dig method felt less intimidating than other organic gardening practices I had researched, and it had the added benefit of promoting biodiversity within my garden space. This method was approachable as a beginner gardener because I could add top layers of mulch and compost to my raised beds at my own convenience. The continuous replenishment of nutrient-rich organic matter meant that I did not have to worry about adding in other amendments to keep the soil healthy.  

Fewer Pests and Slugs: The no dig method promotes balanced soil teeming with beneficial organisms that help maintain a natural homeostasis within the soil food web that deter unwanted pests from burgeoning within the garden. By not disturbing the soil, you create an environment where the accumulation of beneficial organisms are empowered to support a healthy ecosystem, such as slug-eating beetles.  Good-quality, friable compost is a natural slug deterrent because it is absent from food sources and habitats for the slugs to shelter in. If you are still experiencing slug traffic in your yard, you can use the plank method to reduce the number of slugs in your garden.  

Image: My no dig garden which enjoys very little slug damage

Save Time: One of the biggest benefits of no dig gardening is the amount of time you save. Instead of spending time cultivating the soil, you can catch up on other garden chores or rest and revel in the beauty of your garden. The more time I have to enjoy my garden, the more motivated I am to do work in my yard.

Non-toxic: Gardening organically without unnecessary digging or the disruption of the living organisms within the soil means that you do not need to amend the soil with harmful sprays and chemicals. No dig encourages the natural process of turning decaying organic matter into humus. Humus is a nutrient-rich substance that is left over after organic matter has gone through a decomposition process led by soil-dwelling organisms like earthworms, nematodes, and fungi. Humus contains nutrients needed for plant and soil health, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and carbon. Humus also contributes to soil structure and integrity because it has a loose and crumbly texture that promotes the movement of oxygen, water and other nutrients to reach plant roots and fungal hyphae. Additionally, earthworms help move humus into the soil by producing favorable castings along the way. Worm castings, also known as vermicomposting, is the consumption and decomposition of organic waste through the worm’s digestive tract that inevitably produces a sticky substance called vermicast. Worm castings contribute to soil conglomeration by acting like glue to help particles stick together and create absorbent spaces within the soil. This can contribute to stronger plant growth, improved pest suppression, and higher crop yields.

Increased yields: As discussed, no dig soil is analogous with nutrient-abundant soil. For that reason, the soil does not need to be prepped before or after a growing cycle. The consistent application of organic compost launches new possibilities for continuous crop planting without wasting time cultivating the soil. Through a process known as intercropping, you can confidently plant a diverse combination of crops to increase yields per square foot. Intercropping is an agricultural model designed to plant more than one crop in the same place, at the same time. This model can aid in the reduction of pests, while producing a prolific amount of food.

Save money: The no dig method can also save you money. There is no need for a tiller or extra soil amendments. You use less water because of the increased moisture retention and drainage. Plus, you can harvest more crops by applying intercropping methods since you do not need any soil cultivation. Lastly, you can save even more by making your own organic compost at home.

No dig vs no-till

No-till is the same as no dig, but it’s the most popular term for the growing technique in the united states. I have also found that no-till is used more frequently as a phrase in larger scale agriculture systems, whereas no dig is usually linked to small-scale growers or hobby gardeners. 

How to start a no dig bed

There are many ways of creating a no dig bed; it could be a raised bed with sides that you fill with topsoil and top off with compost, or straight onto a lawn using a couple of layers of cardboard and then compost right on top. Each type of no dig bed has advantages and drawbacks which is a whole different discussion, but here are two video guides showing you how to go about making a no dig bed with and without sides:

Maintaining a no dig bed

Maintaining a no dig garden bed is easy, and the same technique applies to any form of no dig bed too. All you need to do is ensure that you mulch the bed with around 2-3cm (1in) of compost on an annual basis. Late autumn is one of the best times to mulch your beds with compost as all of the summer crops are out by then which means there will be many empty beds over winter due to it being too late to plant anything else in the season apart from garlic.

By mulching your beds in late autumn and into early winter you are both protecting and feeding the soil over the winter months to set you up ready for spring. Whilst late autumn makes the most sense to mulch the majority of your beds, you may still have winter crops occupying space, such as kale and leeks. In this case, you can mulch around the plants in late winter, applying roughly a 3cm layer of compost. 

5 No dig growing tips for success

1. Leave roots in the ground when you harvest. Rather than pulling out a whole bean plant for example, cut the plant at soil level, compost the top and let the roots naturally breakdown in the ground. These roots add organic matter to the soil and also help reduce erosion.

2. If you find that your compost supplies are running out, you can split the mulching over two periods, for example, mulching a bed with 1-2cm in autumn (1/2in), and then again in early summer. When it comes to adding compost to your beds, sometime is always better than never!

3. As mentioned before, compost isn’t the exclusive no dig mulch, and it is always worth experimenting with other mulch materials. Whilst this is a greater challenge in slug-prone climates where slugs can hide under hay for example (and is why compost is the go-to no dig material in the UK), I have personally seen excellent results using grass clippings and seaweed as mulches on my beds.

4. No need to follow crop rotation. I have found that crop rotation in my no dig garden is a waste of time and this finding is echoed by other no dig gardeners. I will only grow a crop in a different location IF it has suffered a serious soil-bourne pest or disease.

5. If you must use a fork to harvest a giant parsnip or pull out a huge dandelion - don't worry about it! No dig is about minimal disruption to the soil; not zero disruption! 

    Image: Fennel mulched with grass clippings to help retain soil moisture

    International No Dig Day

    November 3rd 2022 marked the first ever official international No Dig Day. It is also the date that this article was published as a mark of celebration. No dig has been a revolution to so many gardeners worldwide over recent years as the importance of soil health and wildlife becomes a greater priority for many. No dig has also made gardening far more accessible to those who may not have the physical ability to dig over a whole garden bed but still want to get their hands dirty. It is expected that international no dig day will repeat on an annual basis on the same date.

    Great no dig resources for starting out


    No Dig - By Charles Dowding 

    The Vegetable Grower's Handbook - By Huw Richards (shameless plug!)

    The Living Soil Handbook - By Jesse Frost

    YouTube Channels

    1. Charles Dowding
    2. Liz Zorab
    3. Huw Richards
    4. Stephanie Hafferty
    5. No-Till Growers
    6. Back To Reality

    And for any high-quality garden tools or supplies that you need, our online garden centre covers everything from coldframes to sustainable garden twine.

    A Final Word

    No dig gardening not only is easy, it has made gardening far more accessible as there is no need to do the hard physical labour of traditional gardening! As time progresses I will continually add to this post with the goal of it becoming a one-stop guide for every single aspect of no dig gardening. My YouTube channel, linked above, also has hundreds of gardening videos from my no dig garden if you prefer to learn through video rather than written word.