Every spring there’s an outbreak of bad backs across the country as gardeners, who have mostly been tucked up in the warm all winter, go out to dig their vegetable gardens. No doubt there are many more who stay inside, believing that they should be digging their plots but unable to muster up any enthusiasm. And what about the non-gardeners, who would love to grow some of their own food but are put off by the hard work they believe it entails?
One possible solution to all of these problems is No Dig gardening. No Dig gardening is one of the most controversial topics in gardening. There are passionate Diggers and committed No Diggers who all believe that they are following the One True Path to soil fertility.
The truth is that, done properly, either digging your garden or following No Dig principles will yield good results. Which you choose should depend on which works best for you.
The main advantage of a No Dig system is obvious – it does away with the heavy digging that many people simply can’t manage. This leaves you with more time and energy to devote to other gardening tasks.
When you stop disturbing your soil by digging, you stop disrupting the complex ecosystem that exists in your soil – allowing earthworms and a lot of other soil organisms to flourish. They then take over some of the garden work for you. Earthworms naturally distribute organic matter through the entire layer of topsoil, leaving behind tunnels that aerate the soil as they go. Other soil organisms help to break down organic matter into plant nutrients, and their actions make it easier for plants to access the fertility they need.
These natural improvements to the soil improve drainage and minimize water loss. Soil improvers are added to the surface as mulches, which slows evaporation and reduces the need to water. The use of mulches also helps to control weeds – another big time saver.
There are some disadvantages to the No Dig method, of course. With badly compacted or poor soils there may be a need for an initial dig to make the soil workable. And although No Dig methods are great for reducing the amount of annual weed seeds that come to the surface and germinate, perennial weeds need to be removed before you start or they become a big problem. Soil improvement is a more gradual process, and there are some underground pests that are normally kept under control by exposing them to birds by digging.
If you love digging and are happy with your garden then No Dig is not for you. But if you find digging a chore and would rather spend your time mulching, then give it a go – you’ve got nothing to lose except the back ache!
The Golden Rules of No Dig Gardening
- Don’t walk on the soil. If you compact your soil by walking on it then digging is the only rapid way to fix the problem. No Dig gardening is easiest if you have a system of beds and paths.
- Use mulches to cover the soil. Mulches add fertility, reduce evaporation and soil erosion and help to control weeds.
- Minimize soil disturbance. Some disturbance is inevitable, for example when planting out and harvesting, but disturbing the soil brings weed seeds to the surface.
- Remove perennial weeds first, by digging them out if necessary. They are hard to control in a No Dig system.
- Try to deal with problems organically – when you disrupt the soil ecosystem with chemicals, it has trouble doing its job properly.
This article first appeared in Country Gardener magazine in October 2008. If you would like to know more about soil, listen to episode 44 of the Alternative Kitchen Garden Show on soil composition.