The Secrets Of A Successful
No Dig Vegetable Garden

No dig gardening, also known as no till gardening, is a method of cultivation that aims to copy nature and eliminate, or at least very much reduce, the need for digging.

It relies instead on building up surface layers of organic mulches, often referred to as sheet mulches, which gradually break down and are incorporated into the underlying soil by the action of earthworms.

This high level of organic matter also encourages a host of other beneficial soil organisms to flourish which is good news for you and your plants.

For years I've used a sort of 'less dig' form of gardening - mainly because it's easier and takes less time and effort. But I decided that the time was ripe to find out more about the true 'no dig' method which promises a whole lot more for a lot less work.

Previously I'd always put off starting a no dig vegetable garden because many of the instructions I'd read seemed very exact and I often couldn't imagine where I'd get all the ingredients.

This was enough for the familiar inertia to set in and I found myself promising to start 'next year' when alfalfa hay, for example, would miraculously become available in our area. Who was I kidding?!

Quite clearly, the hardest part of beginning your own no dig vegetable garden is... well, the beginning!

Enter Edward - a committed no dig gardener living a few miles away who was willing to share his secrets.

According to Ed, most people are a little bit daunted at first as they get to grips with what may well be an entirely new way of growing vegetables.

"Beginners find it confusing because no dig gardeners all seem to have their own recipes for the different layers and combinations of mulches and it is easy to be put off because you can't get hold of one of the ingredients. Don't let this stop you because there are no hard and fast rules just a few general principles. Think of your no dig vegetable garden as a compost heap - OK it's long and thin, but it's a compost heap nevertheless, so build it in the same way."

"Don't get hung up on the details - just give it a go."

As soon as you decide to try your hand at creating a no dig vegetable garden, start to gather together the sheet mulching materials you are going to use. Most of them can be sourced locally and are either cheap or, better still, entirely free.

Step 1: Choose a Suitable Location

Ideally your no dig vegetable garden should be in a spot that receives at least five to six hours of sun each day. You won't have to clear the ground first so the bed can be positioned on an area of existing grass or weeds.

Mark out the area you are going to use for your bed. The important point here is to remember that you should avoid walking on the bed itself to eliminate the possibility of compaction so make the bed narrow enough that you can comfortably reach the centre from each side. If you only have access from one side it will have to be narrower.

It can be helpful to edge the area you are going to use for your no dig vegetable garden with bricks or wooden boards as this will help to keep the mulching material in place.

"Does this mean that you need to build proper raised beds?"

"No, it doesn't, it's simply a way of making things a bit easier and keeping your no dig vegetable garden tidier especially in the early stages when you will have 30cm (12in) or more of mulches.

A successful no dig vegetable garden can be created with or without raised beds, it's entirely up to you."

Step 2: Create a Weed Barrier

Start building up the layers in your no dig vegetable garden by putting down a biodegradable weed barrier - old cardboard or newspaper to you and me!

First chop down any grass or weeds in the bed and spread the clippings out, covering with a good 5cm (2in) of rotted manure or finished garden compost. This layer isn't essential but it will really get the process going so do it if you can.

Next, lay down your chosen weed barrier as follows.

If you're using cardboard, remove any packing tape and staples and spread out two sheets deep overlapping the edges by 15-30cm (6-12in) to exclude all possible light from the ground below. Dampen the sheets down once they are in place.

If you are using newspapers your layer will need to be at least six sheets thick. Discard any glossy, coloured material and soak the paper in water before you lay it, overlapping the edges as above.

The purpose of this layer is to prevent those existing weeds and grass from growing up through the layers above by smothering them.

Step 3: Build Up the Layers

Build up more layers of mulching materials above your weed barrier. There is no exact science for this, just use a combination of 'green', or fresh, materials and 'brown', or dry, ones.

Choose from the list of sheet mulching materials according to what you can easily get hold of. Aim to have, say, four or more alternating layers of green and brown, each layer at least 5cm (2in) thick.

"Remember what we said about a no dig bed being like a compost heap? Well use the materials in roughly the same proportions giving you a brown to green ratio of 3 to 1. So for every three barrowloads of brown stuff, you will need one barrowload of green."

"So the 3 to 1 ratio relates to the quantities of material, not the number of layers?"

"That's right, it doesn't mean that you should have 3 layers of brown materials and one of green, just that your layers of brown should be thicker. Ideally you should aim for at least two green layers as it is these layers that kickstart the process."

The final depth of your no dig bed needs to be around 30cm (1ft) at a minimum, but it can be as deep as you like. If the thought of this horrifies you, remember that some materials, such as straw, are very bulky and will easily create a layer several inches thick. The thickness of the whole bed will decrease over time as the composting processes get to work.

Water each layer as you build your bed. The aim here is to get each layer nicely moist - you don't want the whole lot absolutely swimming in water.

As most vegetables like a slightly alkaline or limey soil, you could sprinkle some lime as you build up the layers, or even add crushed eggshells that you've saved from the kitchen waste.

You could also add a sprinkling of rock dust to add essential minerals, or blood, fish and bone to boost fertility.

Step 4: Planting Your No Dig Vegetable Garden

Some people like to leave their bed to 'cook' for a while before planting but this isn't essential and you can start planting right away.

At first it's easier to transplant established seedlings into your new bed - you can sow seeds later when the mulches have had a chance to break down.

Either scrape the mulch aside, make holes in the cardboard or newspaper layer, and then plant into the hole, or make pockets in the mulch and fill with compost or good soil then transplant your seedlings into the pockets.

Courgettes, marrows, squashes and potatoes work really well as the first crop.

For potatoes use a slightly different planting method. Simply lay the tubers directly on top of the cardboard or newspaper and push the mulches back over the top. As the shoots emerge keep piling new mulching material around them - the equivalent of earthing up.

Step 5: Maintaining Your No Dig Vegetable Garden

Over time the mulches will break down and need topping up. Simply add new material to the top using the 3 to 1 principle. This doesn't mean that you have to add both brown and green materials every time, just that the overall composition of your layers should remain in roughly that proportion.

If weeds appear at the surface, simply add a few layers of wet newspaper to exclude the light and cover with grass clippings or a layer of straw or leaves.

Need More Information?

You can find more information on the ideas behind no dig gardening at No Till Gardening: Too Good to be True?

Ed explains how no dig gardening works and offers advice about which sheet mulching materials are suitable for a no dig garden.

If you're ready to try no dig gardening yourself, follow us as we put the technique to the test by creating our very own no dig garden. Was it as easy as it's made out to be?

If you are new to growing vegetables, check out five easy vegetables to grow.