Healthy plants depend on healthy soil. No-dig gardening cares for soil by cutting out the need for cultivation. So put away your spade, and gain the benefits of improved soil health that will allow all your plants to thrive. No-dig growing is often less work and can benefit the environment.
- No-dig gardening using compost produced in your own garden is an environmentally sustainable way to care for your soil
- This method can be used for edible and ornamental beds and borders
- Improve any garden soil by adding organic matter and reducing cultivation (digging)
- Plants access nutrients through the action of soil-dwelling organisms, meaning little or no fertilisers are required
What is no-dig?
Why is no-dig best?
Digging damages soil structure by destroying natural drainage channels made by worms, disturbing fungal networks, and releasing carbon that’s locked in the soil. Reducing soil cultivation through no-dig gardening preserves and improves the soil structure, greatly improving its overall health.
In the past it was thought necessary to dig soil, particularly to prepare new beds for growing ornamental plants, fruit and vegetables. Now, scientific evidence shows us that cultivation damages soil structure and disrupts the natural processes that occur within it. This makes no-dig a better choice for soil health by minimising disturbance.
How to start a no-dig garden
You can make new no-dig beds at any time of year, but late winter (February or early March) is best as long as the soil isn’t waterlogged.
To start from scratch where you have an area of grass or weeds, lay a double layer of cardboard on top of the soil. Overlap the sheets of cardboard to help prevent weeds pushing through the gaps. Avoid using shiny printed cardboard, and be careful to remove any staples or parcel tape first.
Create or extend existing beds by smothering grass and/or weeds with a double layer of cardboard, weighted down with mulch
The cardboard will suppress most weeds, but keep an eye on the bed, removing any weeds that appear as soon as possible before they become well-rooted or seed themselves.
If you’re converting an existing bed to no-dig, there’s no need to cover with cardboard, unless it’s particularly weedy. Simply spread a thick (10-15cm) layer of organic matter over the soil.
For convenient access, make your no-dig bed around 1.2m wide. Paths about 45cm wide between beds can help to improve access and remove the need for mowing between beds. Beds can be as long as you wish, depending on available space.
Using organic matter produced in your own garden by composting avoids the fossil fuel emissions and plastics of purchased products. This helps to ensure a climate-positive approach to no-dig gardening.
How to plant up no-dig bedsA no-dig bed can be planted up as soon as you’ve made it, so long as the organic matter used as mulch is well-rotted and sufficiently deep (ideally at least 10cm).
Sow seed directly into the surface mulch, as you would normally in the soil/ground. Alternatively, raise young plants in cell/module trays, before planting out into the layer of mulch. The latter tends to lead to less slug damage, since plants are larger and more robust when planted out.
So long as you minimise soil disturbance, it’s fine to dig small holes through the mulch layer to the soil beneath to plant into. For instance, you’ll need to do this when planting bushes, trees or potatoes. The main thing to avoid is digging over the whole area.
These tips will help you maintain no-dig beds, which includes edible and flower beds.
Looking after no-dig beds
Sow seed or plant plug-raised plants directly into the surface mulch
Sow seed or plant plug-raised plants directly into the surface mulch
Watering – Crops will still need watering if prolonged periods of dry weather occur, however, you should notice less watering is required because mulching helps to prevent evaporation from the soil surface. The addition of organic matter, which will be incorporated into the soil by worms, also acts like a sponge; holding water around the roots of plants where it’s needed.
Weeding – You’ll also notice fewer weeds, since these are repressed effectively by mulching. Inevitably you will get some, but these can be easily be removed by hand, or by shallow hoeing. In areas where weed competition isn’t an issue, e.g. around established ornamental plants, leave some weeds, since they make valuable habitat and potential sources of food for pollinators.
- Pick leafy crops like salads, tomatoes, squash, peas and beans in the usual way
- Lift root crops such as carrots, parsnips and beetroots by firmly pulling or twisting the root from the ground
- Lift potatoes by pulling upwards on the stem – the tubers easily come to the surface, as the mulch in which they’re growing is looser than soil. Pull back the mulch with your hands to find any that are buried deeper
- After harvesting, there’s no need to leave the bed empty – you can sow or replant straight away to maximise the space.
Edges – Try to maintain an edge, especially in areas of grass, to prevent this from creeping back into the bed.
Compaction – Walk on your beds as little as possible. Beds of around 1.2m width should allow you to reach into the centre from either side. Where beds are wider or soil is saturated after rain, use planks to spread your weight. However, don’t be too concerned about where you tread: the improved soil structure from a no-dig approach will help your soil withstand compaction.
Add a layer of organic matter, such as garden compost, to beds annually
How does no-dig work?
No-dig preserves and supports the existing soil structure and fauna through minimal cultivation, while at the same time improving it with the addition of organic matter. It’s mainly used for growing vegetables, but can be used anywhere in the garden as a way to care for your soil.
The use of organic matter, applied as mulch to the soil surface, feeds soil fauna and fungi, which in turn release nutrients that plants can use. For this reason it works well with any size garden and whatever your soil type.
What are the benefits of no-dig?
Benefits to gardeners
- Digging can be hard work. Spreading a mulch is faster and usually less work
- You’ll see a reduction in weeds, particularly annual weeds, whose seed comes to the surface and germinates when digging
- Mulches help to retain moisture in dry weather, reducing the need to water
- Crops are cleaner when harvested, since they have less soil sticking to them
- Some studies suggest crop yields are higher
Soil health benefits
- Increased availability of nutrients and minerals for plants
- Improved drainage due to increased worm activity
- Increased soil fauna activity, which aids the breakdown of organic matter
- Preservation of beneficial fungal networks, which can help plants access water and nutrients
- Soil stores carbon well when you don’t dig, helping you to garden in a climate-positive way
- Soil coverings help to protect it from the destructive impact of raindrops
- Soil degrades when unprotected; organic mulches or growing plants to cover bare ground prevents this
- Where plant cover is not already achieving this, mulches come into their own
- Synthetic fertilisers, which have an environmental cost, aren’t needed, since plants are supplied with nutrients via the organic matter
- Weedkillers (herbicides) aren’t needed, since weeds are repressed or easily removed manually
Are there any disadvantages to no-dig?
While there are many benefits of no-dig, there are some drawbacks to be aware of.
The no-dig method can use large quantities of organic mulch – this can have an associated environmental cost of production and transportation when bought in. For this reason, home composting to make your own mulch is best.
Even with homemade compost, studies have shown that spreading mulch in autumn can be wasteful of nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient. Winter rains wash out nitrogen, so aim to mulch in late winter rather than in autumn. Mulching at this time releases the soluble nutrients (including nitrogen) from the mulch just as plants begin to grow away in spring.
If you don’t have enough homemade mulch, don’t worry about doing no-dig everywhere in your garden. You could use a green manure or add what organic matter you can, when you can – it’s a step in the right direction.
Use your hoe to slice weeds off close to the soil surface to minimise soil disturbance
It’s best not to dig the soil. Where the ground feels overly firm, insert a fork and gently rock it back and forth before removing, and repeat. Organic matter can be worked into the holes to prevent spaces from closing up completely. Work over the area in this way, but avoid turning the soil.
How do I plant new plants without digging a hole?
So long as you minimise soil disturbance, it’s fine to dig small holes to plant into. For instance when planting potatoes, rather than digging a long trench, drop individual tubers into holes made with a trowel or bulb planter. Once shoots emerge, earth them up with additional organic matter.
How does crop rotation work with no-dig?
Crop rotation fits well with no-dig gardening, since whether you dig or not, it’s best not to grow the same crop in the same place for too long. This helps to prevent build-up of soil-borne disease.
What organic matter can I use as mulch?
You can use any well-rotted organic matter – homemade garden compost or well-rotted stable or farmyard manure are ideal. However, good quality peat-free mushroom compost or soil improver will also work. Leaf mould is less rich in nutrients, so is best used where growing ornamentals rather than vegetables.
I have bought some manure/soil conditioner that is steaming and smells slightly. Is it ok to plant into this straight away?
After applying it to the ground, allow six weeks or more for this organic matter to compost further before planting.
Is no-dig gardening just for growing vegetables?
No-dig is mainly used as a technique for growing vegetables, or eliminating grasses and weeds, but organic mulches (a form of fertiliser) can be used anywhere in the garden as a way to enrich and develop your soil. Bear in mind the cost of imported (bagged/delivered) products, and ask yourself if further nutrients are really needed or desired on a bed-by-bed basis.
How do I harvest root crops without digging them up?
Crops such carrots and parsnips can usually be harvested by firmly pulling or twisting off from the ground. Lift potatoes by pulling upwards on the stem – the tubers easily come to the surface as the mulch in which they’re growing is looser than soil. Pull back the mulch with your hands to find any that are buried deeper.
Do I still need to use fertilisers?
Additional fertilisers aren’t required with no-dig growing, or mulched borders, as plants get the nutrients they need from decomposing organic matter. Using additional fertilisers can disrupt the delicate balance that exists within the soil. However, for hungry crops such as tomatoes, and where nutrient deficiencies occur, apply according to need.
Can I do no-dig whatever soil type I have?
No-dig gardening benefits all soil types. Soil and its structure can be greatly improved with the addition of organic matter applied annually as mulch.
How to grow a no-dig garden
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