Are you looking for new ways to improve your garden soil faster? Have you thought about ditching the rototiller?
No-dig gardening, no-till farming’s little brother, offers an exciting way to improve soil with less labor of the back-breaking variety. It also presents a far more natural way to garden—after all, Nature doesn’t own too many rototillers.
Are there pitfalls? The answer is yes. Even so, no-dig gardening may be right for your garden.
Let’s look at the pros and cons to determine the situations where no-dig gardening will be most effective.
- Easier on the back. Digging and tilling are hard work. Eliminating those two steps is a great choice for gardeners who are elderly, have back problems, or are a little bit lazy. Add a raised bed or planter to bring the plants up to knee or waist level for even more comfortable gardening.
- No damage done to soil life. Rototillers tend to disrupt the lives of beneficial bacteria, fungi, and earthworms as they work. While these soil communities will recover before the season ends in organic gardens, the traumatic event is a setback to their work. No-dig gardening fosters life in the soil without interruption.
- Reduced soil compaction. This one may come as a surprise to you. After all, tillage is supposed to be the way to loosen up the soil in the spring. However, at the farthest depth that the blades can reach, they actually stop turning the soil and start packing it down. If tilling continues at the same depth every year, the soil immediately below the tillage zone turns into hardpan. No-dig gardens will not suffer from compaction as long as the soil health is properly attended to and clearly defined footpaths are provided to avoid trampling the soil.
- Soil aeration. No-dig gardening is precisely how plants thrive in nature. No wide-scale tillage and subsequent exposure of bare dirt occurs. Organic matter such as fallen leaves and dead grass lies on top of the soil and decomposes over time. Why is having the organic material on the surface important? Because it encourages earthworms to come up from beneath to reach the material, and worm tunnels promote soil aeration.
- Better use of rainfall. Tillage leaves large areas of bare soil exposed to the sun, wind, and driving rain. The combined action of the baking, the evaporation, and the pounding results in soil with a hard crust on top. This crust in turn prevents rainfall from readily soaking down to the roots. Soil that has not been tilled stays friable, and the layer of mulch on top further aids in the capture of moisture.
- Fewer weeds. Tillage brings weed seeds up to the surface of the ground to germinate. This can be used to advantage by tilling repeatedly during the same season, allowing several weed crops to germinate only to meet their demise at the hands of the rotating blades. Unfortunately, a lapse in the tillage routine can create a disaster. No-dig gardening keeps piling layers of soil and mulch on top of the weed seed bank, preventing it from ever sprouting and smothering the few weeds persistent enough to attempt germination. Unless you are introducing new seeds from an outside source, you will end up with fewer and fewer weeds the longer you no-dig.
- Fewer pests. Another counterintuitive effect of no-dig gardening. Tillage is often recommended to expose insect eggs and larvae to the elements (and any helpful chickens that happen to be around). But many gardeners feel that, when done with an eye toward soil health, no-dig gardening seems to attract fewer of the bad bugs, probably because the plants are far healthier overall and have more stable connections with soil lifeforms that offer protection from attack. (The only exception is slugs, as we will see in a moment.)
- Scale limitations. No-dig gardening implies the use of mulch and compost. Unless you have the ability to produce industrial quantities of these two ingredients, no-dig gardening will be nearly impossible in a large garden. Going no-dig works best in combination with intensive gardening methods such as square foot gardening.
- Difficulties with starting in seriously compacted soil. For example, former driveways. Ideally, you will choose a different site for your garden and avoid this problem altogether. If this is not an option, you will probably need to till at least once, likely more than once. The good news is that in this case you will not disrupt the soil community since the odds are pretty high that there isn’t one. (Do not be fooled by naturally clay soils that have not been abused; these are still often quite suitable for no-dig gardening with some care.)
- Need for designated pathways. No-dig gardening makes it doubly important that people and animals do not traipse through the beds. This can be hard to prevent in some garden plots. If this is your problem, consider a raised bed.
- The need for plenty of mulch. With no-dig gardening, mulch is absolutely essential to keep the soil healthy and the weeds in check. (The good news is that mulch is strongly recommended for any style of gardening anyway.)
- Slower soil improvement process. Tilling in soil amendments can create perfect soil instantly. Building the soil layer by layer takes longer at first, although it promotes healthier soil structure in the long run.
- Slugs. If you live in a wet climate, you will want to be careful with the types of mulch you use, as a stable layer of decomposing straw or grass will invite slugs to move in. This should not be an issue in dry climates.
Yes, no-dig gardening is a very natural way of building good soil. However, it requires an investment.
These two tips may make the transition easier for you:
- Keep your garden small. Except for those who engage in serious canning, most gardeners can grow all the produce they need in a remarkably limited space provided they use it efficiently. Consider Mel Bartholomew’s advice from All New Square Foot Gardening—plan on 48 square feet for every adult and 27 square feet for every child in the family, the space to be evenly divided between salad vegetables, dinner vegetables, and vegetables for preserving, giving away, or trying out for the first time. A large no-dig garden is hopelessly unmanageable for most gardeners.
- Consider using straw as your primary source of mulch. High-carbon mulches like wood chips and cardboard have to absorb a great deal of nitrogen from the soil to decompose, leaving less available for your plants and increasing the risk of insect pests, not to mention reducing your harvest. Straw breaks down much quicker, keeping nutrients available in the soil where they belong.