No dig gardening has become increasingly popular over the last couple of years. This year almost everyone I follow on Instagram is doing no dig, or at very least having a no dig bed. I think no-dig is great. It saves back breaking work and is much better for the soil and our planet. However, I do feel that there are some drawbacks of no dig, or at very least with how many people perceive it should be done. In this post I’m going to explain a bit more about the benefits of no-dig and the misconception that many people have.
What is no-dig?
No-dig is exactly what it says on the tin. To put it simply no-dig means you just don’t dig. By not digging you are not disturbing the soil. Undisturbed soil is much better for the wildlife and microorganisms in the soil. With no dig, you spread a compost mulch on the surface. You then let the worms, insects, bacteria, funghi, protozoa and other microorganisms do the work for you. These organisms come up to the surface to feed on the nutrients provided by the compost. This process naturally aerates the soil and draws the nutrients from the surface into it. This improves its texture and makes the nutrients more bioavailable for the plants. Undisturbed soil enables these organisms to thrive, leading to a much healthier soil for plants to thrive too.
There is a particularly important type of funghi which is known to help plants take up nutrients from the soil. This is called mycorrhizal funghi, which you may have come across this before. You can buy some online to help plants establish themselves better and more quickly. But the truth is this funghi is naturally occurring in the soil.
Mycorrhizal funghi establish a symbiotic relationship with plants. They feed off substances secreted from the plants roots and in exchange make the nutrients in the soil more bioavailable for the plant. Mycorrhizal funghi form a web like structure in the soil. This web is far larger than the plant root system, enabling the funghi to unlock even more nutrients and water for the plant than the plant could ever do by itself.
No dig and weeds
One benefit of no-dig gardening is fewer weeds. By mulching beds you cover weed seeds so that they do not have enough light to germinate. When you dig and turn the soil over, you bring up weed seeds from previous seasons to the surface. Seeds near the surface are then able to germinate. The fastest way to start a new no dig bed and be weed-free is by covering the bed with cardboard and a minimum of 4 inches of compost. Using this method, perennial weeds such as bindweed and couch grass will come back, but should be weakened and more manageable. However, it is a great method where you can start planting immediately.
Another method of starting out is to exclude light to the area for as long as possible. Ideally this would be at least one year. This will eradicate most perennial weeds and the ones that make it will be severely weakened. Annual seeds may survive using this method so you may need to hoe the ground a few times once uncovered. It is good practice to add a layer of compost/manure before you add ground cover so the organisms in the soil can be at work while the ground is covered. This method requires far less compost than the former method. The downside of this method is the time it takes when you’re eager to get started. This method is useful for if you are happy to use a smaller amount of space in your first growing year while you leave the worst parts covered.
If you have a larger growing space such as an allotment, the former could be prohibitively expensive (I did a calculation online and to start my plot using this method it would cost me in excess of £2000 worth of compost). If you are growing in a smaller area it will be more affordable. Some people may have access to cheaper compost/manure which will enable them to use this method too. The second method is much more affordable, however it takes a long time before you can get started.
The main misconception surrounding no-dig is that you must start using one of these two methods. Whilst it is definitely ideal, anyone wanting to do no-dig gardening should not be put off by thinking they have to start in this way. To have a no-dig garden, all you have to do is not dig. It’s as simple as that. I’ll admit that you won’t get the benefits of so few weeds straight away but over time the number of weeds can still be reduced.
To reduce weeds over time, make sure you remove any weeds before they set seed by regular hoeing and weeding. This will eventually lead to fewer weed seeds in your compost too (although weed seeds aren’t such a problem if you can get your compost hot enough to kill them off). Because you aren’t digging you also aren’t bringing weed seeds up to the surface. By putting in regular work keeping on top of weeds now, your future self will thank you.
By not digging and using well-rotted compost/manure mulches on the surface, you will see many benefits of no-dig, even with just an inch of compost. Any compost/manure you might have dug into the soil, just spread it on the surface and let nature do the work for you. By doing it this way you will still improve your soil health. This is because you are not breaking up the mycorrhizal funghi web and allowing the all life in the soil thrive without being disturbed. Please don’t be put off from using the no-dig method because of these misconceptions, because there are still HUGE benefits to be had besides fewer weeds.