Gardening provides many health benefits – beyond just eating good, healthy food. However, gardening can be difficult for the elderly and those who have health issues. Learning how to no dig garden can make gardening a real possibility for anyone – regardless of age or health. In addition, home gardeners can benefit the environment – more specifically build the topsoil that is being rapidly depleted by current agricultural practices. David Montgomery, a geologist at the University of Washington and author of Dirt, “Estimates that we are now losing about 1 percent of our topsoil every year to erosion, most of this caused by agriculture.” Recent research has determined that the topsoil in the United States used for crops is being eroded at least 10 times faster than the time it takes for lost soil to be replaced.
Soil isn’t just dirt – it is actually an outer protective layer over the bedrock of the planet that is teeming with life: living organisms, nutrients, and minerals. The busy environment in soil provides a habitat for plants and animals as well as helping to regulate water flow and temperature. According to Ecology Action, current farming practices reportedly destroy about six pounds of soil for each pound of food produced. Indeed, worldwide only about 33 to 49 years of farmable soil remains.
Alarming? Yes. But as the home gardener, you can indeed implement practices that will help replenish Earth’s topsoil. One way to do this is through Biointensive Gardening. In another post, I will review this type of gardening. However, it is not easy – in fact, to get started, you will find Biointensive gardening to be – well, intense. However, in 1977, Harper and Row published their first book in Australia, a little gardening book called No-Dig Gardening & Leaves of Life by Esther Deans, which offers a way to grow an abundant garden, build topsoil and never have to dig in the dirt. Often called lasagna gardening in the U. S. her easy way to garden will get you started in one season. You will be amazed at the ease with which you will learn how to no dig garden.
High Yield from a No Dig Garden
Esther Deans had health issues and could not grow a garden the traditional way. But, she didn’t know how effective this method of gardening would be – no research was out there since really no one had tried it before. Her first try was a 6 X 8 foot garden using her no dig method – and from just the first planting, her yield was 49.5 pounds of potatoes. A visitor to her garden became very excited about the prospect of growing this way and during her first season of the no dig garden, she produced 200 pounds of zucchini and button squash – enough to feed her family and sell to others. Clearly, you can expect high yields from this type of garden.
How to No Dig Garden – A Garden of Paper, Straw and Hay
No dig gardens are maintained using organic principles without toil and sweat. It is easy for a child or old person to build and if built up on a raised bed, can be built and maintained by someone in a wheelchair. The idea is to build a garden on top of the existing ground – even if that means building it on top of concrete – or as in my case, on top of hard, packed red clay. The garden comprises rectangular beds raised above the ground, surrounded with hardwood, small bricks or concrete blocks, or anything that can hold the rich organic moisture in place. The no dig garden can be built in two environments – one that will go on lawn or an existing garden, the other one that will go on top of hard, rocky ground or concrete.
To build on top of a lawn or existing garden, select a sunny area. Surround the area with a wall, then spread a layer of newspapers at least a quarter inch deep. Overlap the pages of the newspaper to keep the lawn from growing through. Do not use the colored paper from the newspaper or cardboard for this step. Cover the newspaper with pads of alfalfa hay. Then sprinkle a light dusting of organic fertilizer or dry chicken manure over the hay. Cover with eight inches of loose straw and sprinkle with more fertilizer. Finally, top with a patch of good compost three to four inches deep and about 18 inches across where you will plant the seeds. According to Deans, two bales of alfalfa hay and one bale of straw will make a good-sized garden.
To build on top of hard, rocky ground or concrete, first put down a layer of old leaves, small sticks and pieces of seaweed three to four inches deep. On top of this, build the garden as described above.
Follow the steps below to build your first no-dig garden – seemingly instantly.
- Make a frame of any materials you have available – old timber, pallet boards that have been heat treated, bricks or concrete blocks. The purpose is to contain the garden – around the area you have selected for your garden.
- Cover the area with a layer of newspaper at least 1/4 inch thick, overlapping the layers four to six inches to keep weeds and grass from growing through. Thoroughly soak the newspaper before laying it down or water it once on the ground. Remember: do not use glossy colored paper as it bleeds ink that can be toxic.
- Cover the newspaper with pads of alfalfa hay as they come off the bale, about four inches deep. Water the hay lightly. NOTE: You can use other types of carbon containing materials such as pea straw, straw, sugar cane mulch, etc. but alfalfa has a much higher nitrogen content making it preferable for no-dig gardening.
- Sprinkle the hay with blood and bone fertilizer or chicken manure and lightly water it in.
- Cover this area with about eight inches of loose straw and lightly water in.
- Again sprinkle the straw with blood and bone fertilizer or chicken manure and lightly water.
- Top in a circle of compost about four inches deep and 17-18 inches across. If you have enough compost, you can cover the whole area.
Planting in the No Dig Garden
This is quite simple: Plant your seedlings in the compost. Water gently.
Maintaining the No Dig Garden
To maintain any type of no-dig garden, remember one simple rule – don’t dig it!!!! If you dig the garden, you will ruin all the work the earthworms and other aspects of nature are doing for you. Earthworms continue to cultivate the soil and they don’t like to be disturbed.
After harvesting and the end of growing season, the layers will have rotted down into the soil, enriching it and improving the structure. At that time, you can replenish the no-dig layers and will replenish them again at the end of each major growing season.
How to replenish the layers of the no-dig garden:
- Add a layer of manure. As an option, you can also add compost.
- Next, cover the manure layer with a layer of straw
- Water the straw and compost it in and you are ready for the next growing season.
No-dig Gardening is the Way to Go
Learning how to no dig garden is definitely a great way to enrich your soil, improve the environment and make your job as a gardener easier. For those who have disabilities or who are elderly, this could be a way to be able to garden again or for the first time. This is definitely a way to make your life and gardening more sustainable. If you would like more information about how to no dig garden, I found these sites to be helpful:
Deep Green Permaculture – No Dig Gardening
Charles Dowding’s No dig gardening on No Dig Gardening