If I said you could grow vegetables easily without having the backbreaking task of digging over your beds each year, would you believe me? You may have heard of the 'No dig' gardening method and think its too good to be true. I caught up with Charles Dowding on one of his 'No dig' masterclasses to find out why it provides bumper crops, is better for the environment and will save you from backache!

The grow your own movement has really taken off over the past decade here in the UK along with No dig gardening. You only have to look online to see Instagrammers and social media full of grow your own tips. People are turning to grow your own for a variety of reasons.

  • You can grow a wider variety of produce.
  • You know exactly where your foods coming from.
  • The very act of gardening brings a heap of mental health benefits.

Even if you are a complete beginner or are short on time the ‘No dig’ method is an easy way to take your first tentative steps to productive gardening. Part of this movement is down to the guru of ‘No dig’ Charles Dowding.

Left to Right: Charles Dowding, Sofie Paton-Smith, Stephanie Hafferty & Garden Ninja at Marbury Halls ‘No Dig’ Workshop.

I advocate that ‘No dig’ gardening is perfect for the beginner new to growing vegetables. There’s no need to create ‘the perfect tilth’ (that’s a fancy word for nice soil texture) or to break your back slicing through hard weed infested soil. In fact ‘No dig’ frees up time for the new gardener to enjoy one of the main benefits of gardening ‘learning to grow’. I spent some time with Charles and his partner in ‘No dig’ crime Stephanie Hafferty (who turns her ‘No Dig’ vegetables into delicious dishes here) on his ‘No dig’ course at Marbury Hall.

So first things first; let me explain how ‘No dig’ gardening works and why it is perfect for the beginner gardener.

What is ‘No dig’ gardening?

Put simply ‘No dig’ is exactly as it sounds. It’s a means of gardening without digging over the plot repeatedly each year. It’s based on the principles of minimising disturbance to the soil, leaving it a far less disruptive state. Over decades the advice to dig over your soil to ‘cultivate’ and improve it has been used across allotments and gardens countrywide. Under the somewhat false impression that this promotes healthy soil and removal of weeds.

Want to grow your own and save time? Then ‘No dig’ is for you!

In fact, the opposite is true based on Charles Dowding’s detailed practical research and results. Charles has spent 30 years of experimentation with ‘No dig’ and dig gardening with startling results on his vegetable patches. His work has revealed that this intensive ‘dig’ cultivation is actually harmful to the soil, promotes weed growth and leads to a reduction in crop production. Not only that it requires a huge amount of manual labour leading to less time harvesting your bountiful crops!

With a ‘No dig’ garden you’re only disturbing the soil to plant your seedlings and undertaking some light hoeing. Followed by a compost mulch once a year and you’re good to grow. No more forking, double digging or pulling your back. For the beginner gardener, I often hear complaints that gardening is ‘too much effort’ or ‘they don’t have the time’. If you’re not huffing and puffing fighting your soil then you’re saving both effort and time!

How does ‘No dig’ gardening work?

The ‘No dig’ methodology relies on careful preparation of your growing area first with the removal/smothering of weeds (more of that below). Followed by a thick mulch of cardboard then compost. Once you have prepared your site in the first year you’re good to grow! The principle of ‘No dig’ is that each year you’re topping up your raised beds with additional compost, light weeding and plenty of harvesting. Starting a ‘No dig’ garden can be broken down into 3 main steps.

  1. Preparing the site – mulch and weed smothering
  2. Enriching the soil with a thick compost mulch (no digging in)
  3. Each year topping up this compost (again as a mulch)

Charles makes a key point that you’re not feeding the vegetables directly but feeding and improving the soil. This is a complete 360 from most gardening guides on providing nutrients for plants through liquid feeds and fertiliser. Charles is a firm believer that simply adding organic matter in the form of compost is all you need. This then allows the nutrients to be released from the soil without adding extra potions and cocktails. Again saving time and money.

The great thing for beginner gardeners is that you only need a few key ingredients most of which you may already have.

  • Cardboard (any will do – obviously no plastic and try and remove staples to save your hands)
  • Compost – whether homemade, bought in or well-rotted manure collected from a local farm
  • A fork or spade – no not to dig, but to move the compost onto your new beds!

How to start a no dig garden

Preparing the site is key to a ‘No dig’ garden. If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Charles explains that the basis for starting your garden is to use cardboard to smother any existing weeds or grass and then dress the soil ready to plant. There are a few key steps to staring your ‘No dig’ vegetable or herbaceous plots. I’ve broken them down into 6 key steps below for beginner gardeners.

These steps will allow planting in year one. Far faster than the ‘dig method’.

  1. Cut out any Bramble crowns if present – leave all other weeds in situ.
  2. Prepare the site by layering thick cardboard over the site that is to become your beds and pathways between the beds.
  3. Weight the cardboard down with stones or similar.
  4. Add a 6″ thick layer of compost to this cardboarded area.
  5. Leave until the cardboard has fully been broken down. By this point any weeds are smothered and you’re left with your clean beds ready to plant!
  6. Each year top up your compost to enrich the soil for the following years planting.

The cardboard and compost dual layer excludes light and acts as a barrier for weeds. Meaning they either die back or get prevented from growing in the first place. What’s really great about this is that it’s completely organic using cardboard which is recycled by the soil. The key here is to exclude light which kills off the weeds. No need for chemicals, toxic concoctions or back-breaking digging to get them out. The cardboard and mulch does all of this for you. So why not go grab a brew and sow some seedlings instead?

Removing perennial weeds

The great news with ‘No dig’ is that there is no need to remove weeds before laying your cardboard and mulch down. This is the main issue that puts off new gardeners. Weeding. No one enjoys it. It’s time-consuming and can feel relentless. Many new gardeners explain that they initially find it hard to tell a weed from a ‘real plant’. Have a look below for some of the contenders you want to get rid of. However, ‘No dig’ minimises the occurrence of weeds and those that do appear can be easily hoed off from the loose topsoil structure. As the soil is free and relatively soft you’re not having to dig down to get them out.

The only exception would be Brambles and Charles recommends cutting out the woody crown first before laying the cardboard and mulch.

The usual offenders of perennial and annual weeds. Notice their different root types and leaves.

Most perennial weeds will be weakened and then killed off with the cardboard and mulch. However, there are always those exceptions such as Ground Elder, Bindweed and Mares Tail. All of which will require some continued observation and intervention. I use a Hori Hori for light weeding whereas Charles recommends an oscillating hoe to lightly scrape them off once they rear their heads through your compost layer. Given the fact, the new top compost layer is loose these weeds when they do appear are far easier to remove. So whilst you’re cursing these weeds remember, it’s going to be far easier than bending over and manually digging each one out!

Charles rarely seen holding a spade showing the need to level the site if there’s any large lumps or bumps. Here he is removing a lump from the back wall that leans in towards the wheelbarrow – if left the compost and moisture will follow this fall line and cause a potential dry spot.

Layering Cardboard for ‘No Dig’

The cardboard helps prepare your beds. In his books (which cover this in much more detail) Charles states you can use a plastic membrane for this first phase to kill off the weeds, but it will need to be removed. I prefer cardboard as it is easier and is recyclable. This needs to be overlapped by 2-3″ so weeds don’t pop back through. I love this part as many of us in the UK have cardboard recycling bins, meaning we can reuse this ourselves or even with permission utilise neighbours waste cardboard.

Adding a thick layer of compost

Charles recommends a 10mm or less sieved compost as an ideal, though homemade green waste compost or even well-rotted manure will suffice. A top tip is to use your lumpier compost on the bottom and finer compost nearer the top. The aim here is to ‘top dress’ the soil so that worms and other organisms can break the compost down into the soil beneath. This also means you can plant directly into the top layer of compost even if you have poor or impacted soil. Meaning no need to soil test, dig in organic matter or any of that. You can start planting straight away in these beds.

Layering up the initial mulch on top of layered cardboard in this small area

The key is adding a ‘thick’ layer. It needs to be 3-6″ initially and then a further 2″ each year. A light sprinkling will have little to no effect so you need to go big with this one. It may be best to order a few tonnes of compost to get yourself started even with a smaller bed. You’ll be surprised at how quickly it is incorporated into the soil meaning your ‘No dig’ bed is working.

Compost is going to become your best friend as it propels your ‘No dig’ garden to bumper harvests and minimal weeding

Careful attention needs to be paid to the edges of your beds. This is the weak point where perennial weeds can take a hold again. You may even find yourself more heavily mulching these compared to the rest of the site.

Planting out in a ‘No dig’ bed

Planting couldn’t be simpler either. Charles uses a long-handled dibber, think of a brush handle without the brush. No more awkward bending or kneeling pads. He recommends growing your seedlings in modules saving time to prick out. He only makes enough of excavation for the plant to fit in snuggly. Again minimising disturbance. He also buries his seedlings deeply covering some of the stem.

Charles using a long handled dibber to make small planting pockets for the seedlings

Housekeeping is another strong message in ‘No dig’. By keeping a clean and tidy plot, ie removing damaged leaves and by regular light hoeing, you’re reducing the chances of pests taking a bite out of your crop. Charles recommends cropping your beds multiple times in a year. Leaving less space for weeds to grow and maximise your harvest returns.

See how many seedlings can be planted even into a small area in this criss-cross pattern

Why ‘No dig’ is great for beginners

If you’re not already convinced by Charles’ ‘No dig’ method, which I’m sure you will be, then here are some other beginner gardener benefits.

  • You don’t need to suffer the defeat of digging over a plot all weekend to find it covered in weeds the next weekend
  • There’s a huge time-saving meaning more time for beginners enjoying and learning from the growing process rather than weeding/struggling.
  • You can start small even a 1m x 2m wide bed can be made ‘No dig’ in less than a day!
  • The skill level to start a ‘No dig’ garden is low. Layering cardboard and spreading our compost is all it takes. Meaning more time learning about growing from seed and choosing your crops.
  • No need to apply fertiliser or other complicated plant care rules
  • Less chance of failure of harvesting due to improved growing conditions.
  • You can walk on your soil without compacting it. The compost is far more forgiving and lack of digging means it has a more robust structure.

If you’re really new to GYO and want to get cracking then the ‘No dig’ method really is very simple. Especially when applied to an allotment environment if you’ve taken over a new plot and need to get it under control asap. As you’re not spending hours weeding and digging.

If you’re looking for more grow your own tips why not follow my Plastic-Free gardening tips for sowing seeds?

Charles has demonstrated how even a tiny space can become a productive area in the garden. His website is jam-packed full of hints tips and a lively forum. So why not check it out? Charles also runs ‘No dig’ courses which if you get the chance are a wonderful way to be taught the theory and then experience the practice of ‘No dig’. His popular Youtube channel can be found here and if you’re wanting to complement that with some Garden design tips you can also follow me here!

Happy Gardening!

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