No dig leaves soil undisturbed, and you feed the masses of soil life with organic matter on the surface, as happens in nature, to maintain drainage and aeration.
No dig works on all soils including heavy clay.
Sometimes you need a spade, say to cut out bramble roots or make a hole for planting trees.
You can see this page in pdf format.
Apart from rare soils with pans, the answer is no. Often when starting you see plentiful growth of weeds, a sure sign of lively and fertile soil.
No, because usually when people ask this they are referring to soil that has a natural firmness, or sometimes just because it’s dry. Truly-compacted soil is rare and you will know it by a bad smell of sulphur, and water lying for a long time after rain. A one-off forking can help loosen this rare problem.
Clay soils grow fantastic plants with no dig, I know from long and happy experience.
- In contrast, loose soil holds less moisture and results in plants falling over. Roots like firm soil.
Simply leave soil undisturbed, feed with a surface mulch and soil organisms will multiply to the advantage of your plants. More on this forum post.
No this is a myth and completely untrue. For example my garden at Lower Farm had it’s best year in the horrible wet summer of 2012, when many growers and gardeners struggled even to get on their land, and that was its 15th consecutive year of no dig.
You dig a hole, just the size of the roots. Leave the adjacent soil undisturbed.
Another myth, from the misunderstanding that soil needs to be loose for plant roots to grow. It is manifestly untrue, yet it’s a deep rooted belief!
In a trial at Homeacres, the strip which we loosen every year with a fork (left in photos) has given 5% less crops (this page explains the trial) than the adjacent strip which is no dig. Both grow the same vegetables and have the same, surface dressing of compost. The right hand strip has cow manure compost.
Light hoeing and raking is fine, usually the top 3cm/1in or less. This means you run the blade through your surface mulch of compost, and it’s almost effortless.
Use a dibber or trowel to create holes for new plants. Always a little deeper than the rootball you are planting, but without loosening any wider than the rootball.
8 Does no dig work to control marestail and other perennial weeds such as couch grass (Elymus repens) and stinging nettles (Urtica dioica)?
From the many reports I hear, gardeners who don’t disturb soil have more success for less effort in reducing marestail (equisetum), compared to gardeners who dig.
In my experience, I have many times completely eradicated couch/twitch grass (Elymus repens) within a year. However it transpires that British couch grass is less vigorous than a few others, from what I am told by growers in New Zealand and parts of the USA, among others. The US Bermuda grass sounds more difficult, though still possible to eradicate by mulching.
Whichever perennial weed you have, mulching rather than attempting to dig out every root means a greater chance of complete eradication. Why? If only soil could talk… like all organisms that are alive, it’s happier when not disturbed and damaged.
Weeds are part of soil’s recovery mechanism, literally.
Best method is to lift the polythene and check for recent growth: it will be white or pale yellow stems. If you see lots of them, best leave the polythene in place because weed roots still have sufficient reserves in their roots to continue growing.
Fewer weeds germinate in undisturbed soil, and compost mulches on the surface make it easy to pull weeds or to run a hoe through the surface.
The use in year one of light-excluding mulches such as cardboard and polythene, to kill perennial weeds in that first year only, saves much time.
However cardboard and polythene also offer hiding places for slugs, which is why I recommend them only in year one to kill weeds which can’t be pulled or hoed.
After year one, in gardens where slugs are common,
- best use compost as main mulch
- avoid wooden sides around beds, to reduce slug hiding places
- and keep your edges tidy, to make slugs find a home elsewhere.
Plus no dig soil means a better balance of undisturbed soil organisms, such as slug-eating beetles, and unlike dug soil has few mini layers of compaction which make alcohol. Slugs like alcohol, one reason why digging causes more problems than it can solve. No dig allotmenteers in the UK report how their lettuce are not eaten by slugs, while their digging neighbours are suffering damage to similar plantings.
Absolutely not, this is another myth and misunderstanding, perhaps because compost is visible on top, rather than dug in.
I emphasise that to grow healthy and abundant vegetables, soil needs feeding with organic matter, whether you dig or not. This is not a new finding, but has been often forgotten from a reliance on synthetic fertilisers, which feed plants yet often harm soil organisms such as fungi.
New research bears me out on this, with the discovery that synthetic nitrogen, as used by most farmers, is depleting soil carbon and being a major contributor to CO2 in the atmosphere.
Oh yes you can, and I know this contradicts much “official” advice, but these roots are not ever-living. Even in a cool compost heap, as long as new ingredients are added before any new shoots can find light, they run out of energy and expire. In a heap with some heat, they die more quickly.
At Homeacres when I arrived in winter of 2012/13, there were many roots of bindweed, couch, nettles, buttercups and docks going into the compost heap, where we had been clearing weeds off concrete paths etc. The heap never went above 40C/104F and all those roots disappeared.
Result: saving of time and more nutrients in the compost.
Likewise you can add diseased leaves to compost heaps. I add blighted plants, fruits and tubers of potatoes and tomatoes, mildewed squash leaves and rusty leek leaves. The disease spores die when the leaves they live on die. In 2018 I have super healthy leeks where I grew leeks in the past three years, with less rust this year than last.
For most weeds, it suffices to cut edges say every 3-4 weeks in the growing season, with long handled shears and/or a half moon edger, helped by mowing the ground closes to your beds, weekly if possible in the growing season.
Grass and weeds will love to grow into your fertile ground. When starting with a lot of weeds, thick cardboard along an edge is a good first step in keeping it tidy. Be sure to use wide enough pieces of cardboard to have 15cm/6in overlaps on any joins, and over weedy edges to clean beds.
If weeds start to grow through the card, say after 8 weeks or so, simply lay more cardboard on top.
Any kind of compost is the easiest and most productive mulch, and it’s worth buying if you can’t make enough, for the time it saves you and the extra harvests which result. The initial dose may be high, to suppress weeds and save a huge amount of time because of weeds growing less. If you count your time at minimum wage level, the compost will soon be paid for.
Old compost is best, say 8 months for homemade, 1-2 years for animal manure. Compost from leaf mould and woody materials is good, and there is no requirement to use animal manures. Much depends on what is available locally.
- Buy mushroom and green waste compost up to three months before you need them, so they can finish decomposing and maturing in a heap. Often these composts are still hot when delivered, say 50-60C (roughly 120-140F), and spreading them at that stage results in poor growth, especially if you had filled a whole bed with immature compost like that.
If they are not hot when delivered, they have probably aged in the seller’s yard, and can be used straightaway.
- Best not apply fresh, steaming compost.
I had this question from an allotment, where the man who ran things there said
Someone tried to put compost down and that the issue had been that it had to be watered every day or it just dried out.
And people had tried putting cardboard down but that it just attracted slugs and didn’t decompose etc.
Yes cardboard does attract slugs, therefore use it only in the initial stage, for killing perennial weeds in particular.
I advise not, unless you are fortunate enough to have healthy and unneeded soil, which is rare. Soils you can buy are often “dead”, from being stacked for long enough to kill all the microbes needed for growth. This was discovered by Professor Victor Stewart (Aberyswyth Uni.) in the 1970s and ‘80s. He worked with the National Coal Board to discover why farms became so unproductive, after they had scraped off soil to extract coal, in opencast mines, and then replaced the same soil. See Q’s 33 & 34.
Spread the least decomposed first, so it’s at the bottom, and keep the finest compost for your top layer, to sow and plant into.
An example for a bed of 6in/15cm depth would be the first third of half-decomposed animal manure, second third of old but not perfect homemade compost, and the top third of multipurpose or mushroom or green waste compost. Firm the materials while adding them: if dry, walk on them.
Yes for sure, in the UK there are now huge numbers of no dig flower growers. Sometimes it’s claimed that “compost is too rich for flower growing”, but that is another myth.
When I gave a talk to 150 flower growers, over half of whom are already no dig, I never heard a comment about beds being too rich for flowers, in fact it was praise all round. Adding compost is not akin to adding lots of fertiliser, see Compost section below.
Yes and it’s called no till, using different methods for areas above 0.5h a/1.25 acres. Perhaps use more polythene mulches/tarps, and for less intensive veg (cabbage, potato, onion, squash) see the work of Richard Perkins at Ridgedale Farm in Sweden.
In the 1980s I cropped 3 ha/7.5 acres by 1987. I used less compost than at Homeacres, and cropped less intensively with less second plantings.
No, the trials I run suggest the opposite. The same areas of dig and no dig over 11 years (2007-17) have given 863.95kg (1904lb) from the dig beds, and 923.42kg (2015lb) of same plantings from the no dig beds, at Lower Farm then Homeacres.
Soil is healthier so growth is stronger, plus it’s quick to replant in summer for a second crop, which makes it more worthwhile to concentrate compost on a smaller area and at a greater depth, say 3-5cm/1-2in each year.
Cropping a smaller area saves time weeding, watering and protecting from pests.
Any time is possible except when the ground is full of crops. Say from when a last harvest is taken in autumn, to when winter crops are cleared in spring.
Compost is not fertiliser and contains most nutrients in a water-insoluble form, hence the success of applying compost in autumn, then leaving beds to weather, which encourages lumps to soften. I never cover beds in winter apart from mulching with compost.
Only if you have a major weed problem and want to kill them using light-excluding mulches. Otherwise, compost is the mulch, rain can wash through and its nutrients are retained. They are released as and when plant roots ask for them, when temperatures are correct, through soil organisms such as mycorrhizal fungi and more.
Yes, people actually ask this! Perhaps from misunderstanding the word, which here means well-decomposed organic matter:
- garden and kitchen wastes
- animal manure
- purchased materials such as mushroom compost
- two to three year old wood chip, bark and leaves, etc.
I wonder where this question comes from: if you were silly enough to plant into say fresh chicken manure, or compost that was still 60C/130F when spread, plants will grow poorly. In my experience and the experience of everyone I speak to who uses mature compost, including half rotted manure, plants are fine. I have never seen an issue with say trees or roses, where compost butts against their trunk or stem.
No!! even though the compost you make is often healthier and better for plants than what you buy. Few of us can make enough for the whole garden.
Homemade compost is often high in beneficial microbes, and I value it highly for that. It’s precious.
I also spread purchased composts, including some old animal manures.
At Homeacres I buy potting compost for propagation. Sometimes this is called potting soil, just to confuse matters, and indeed John Innes composts do contain loam, which is soil! They are useful for filling beds but give variable results for seedlings, because they are a franchised recipe fabricated by different suppliers.
Most is fine, except I would not use manure from battery farms because of cruelty and antibiotics etc. However there is an issue with a small percentage of horse manure.
A few farmers spread a weedkiller based on aminopyralid, a poison which stays on hay and is excreted by the horse, then only decomposes when in contact with soil organisms. It harms legumes and solanums in particular. Therefore you can test for it’s presence by sowing peas, beans or potatoes in horse manure before taking delivery.
If you have spread some which is causing problems, either you need to remove and dump it, or grow brassicas and sweetcorn for a year until it is decomposed.
Generally no although perhaps if your soil is light and sandy, and your winter mulch was light and has ‘disappeared’ into the soil by midsummer. However most of us can mulch just once a year, say in autumn, for two plantings through a whole year.
If you have plenty of spare soil, this is an option. However in organic hardening advice, it’s sometimes presented as a necessity, and I notice how people then feel guilty if they don’t grow them. Most allotments and gardens do not have empty beds and it’s more viable to use a little extra compost and double crop for example.
There are issues with green manures: how to get rid of them, slugs accumulating underneath, and time lost in spring while they decompose. Try some methods that work for you, just don’t imagine they are simple to get rid of, except for white mustard sown early autumn, which is killed by frost. And green manures are a way of bulking up the compost heap – if you have the space!
No need for this unless your vegetables are mostly tall, and would shade beds on the non-sunny side. More important is to run beds up and down a slope if it’s less than say 10%, so that compost and water do not fall into paths below, and to have entry point to paths where you need to access.
No, because with no dig you can put a foot on or even walk on beds, so they can be wider. I have some of 1.5 up to 1.8m/5-6ft, where there was not space for two beds of 1m/3.2ft + a path. and they crop well.
Incidentally paths of 40-45cm/15-18in are good, and even be narrower when you have no wooden sides.
Only if you like that, but having no sides saves money and reduces pest numbers, such as slugs and woodlice, because they have less habitat.
As wood decays where in contact with soil, that creates a damp pocket of space which is ideal shelter for slugs, in dry weather, just near to your plants!
Not having sides mean your beds become mounds, with sloping sides. They are still raised above path level. Paths must be weed free for this to work, see other answers.
Any mulch is better than bare soil, paths included. Their cover protects and feeds soil life, while increasing crops through the extra fertility. Plants in beds root horizontally into paths – most roots are active near the surface.
I cover paths before winter with a thin mulch of compost or pieces of small wood such as dust, shavings and small chips, preferably aged 6-12 months or more so that fungal breakdown has occurred. See photos above.
Less than you might imagine, because compost consolidates after being eaten and excreted by soil life, such that it reduces in volume by as much as three quarters over a year.
Therefore beds filled with compost do not ever need to have compost removed. They can be topped up every year, to maintain their level.
34 My beds have no more room for compost. The current compost is at the very top of the raised bed lip. What do I do?
These beds must have been filled originally with soil, or some soil.
Unlike compost, soil does not sink or settle.
So yes you may need to remove some.
Or remove the bed’s sides, mulch paths with thick card if not weed free now, and pull some of the bed onto the path. making the bed a little wider in the process. You can walk on no dig beds.
Yes you can. This means you can work in any weather and not lose precious opportunities, say when plants need to go in. No dig is versatile, thanks to the soil preserving it’s structure all the time:
- you can walk on paths in wet conditions to access beds
- for planting, you can dib holes in wet compost, or make holes with a trowel
- your boots stay clean, except for a bit of mulch material.
No, because old roots feed microbes and other soil life, as they decay. Better twist/rotate stems of broccoli, lettuce, spinach etc, which snaps off the roots close to a stem and causes less soil disturbance than when you pull upwards. If ever I have upheaved the soil at all, I walk on it to re-firm, before resowing and replanting.