If you’ve never heard of the “No Dig” sustainable gardening concept, don’t feel left out, I just stumbled across it myself. This is a non-cultivation concept that has gained popularity around the world.
This is not a concept that you want to try everywhere. It is a solution for those who live in areas where the soil conditions are not up to par with growing a sustainable garden full of healthy food; areas that would otherwise be avoided for gardening, such as those consisting of compacted clay, or similar such soil structures.
For compacted soil conditions, what you’ll want to do first is clear any and all weeds from the surface. You do not need a tiller to do this, simply yank them out by hand, toss them in a wheelbarrow and do away with them as you please. Once the weeds have been removed, you then begin the process of mulching the surface soil to a depth of 1-2 inches. You can do this by spreading a healthy layer of compost across the surface structure itself. Do not expect miracles overnight. As a matter of fact, the first year you should probably just spread the mulch/compost mixture over the area and let it rest, as the soil will not have made much of a transition and anything grown on it will more than likely be sparse at best.
The following fall you should spread another 1-2 inches of mulch/compost and mix it in with the soil that is currently there. By the second growing season you should be able to grow vegetables by sowing seeds or transplanting seedlings. Continue adding mulch/compost every fall after harvest, yet before winter, and in no time the compacted soil structure will be a distant memory. You will also begin to notice more production from the crops themselves, as well as fewer weeds interfering with the garden. Add a few earthworms to the mulching mixture and you’ll reap the benefits they bring to the garden as well.
In the rare event you have soil conditions that have deteriorated to the point it has the same structure and surface as hardened concrete, then you will probably need to aerate the soil with a tiller before adding mulch/compost, and you may have to wait until the third year before crops produce anything of surplus.
Managing Without Manure:
Most gardeners who stumble across this concept are concerned about getting manure to the “root level” of the plants. This is not necessary. Plants prefer to feed from the surface where the majority of fertilizer and plant food exists. The drink through their root structures. In other words, all you really need is a good mixture of mulch to convert compact soil and get the garden growing properly.
Removing Perennial Weeds:
Again, most gardeners believe that the best way to remove perennial weed problems is through digging, or by applying a weed-killing formula. This could not be further from the truth. Mulch, if properly mixed and applied, will clear and area of perennial weed problems within a few years. The gardener may have to remove the weeds by hand for the first 2-3 growing seasons, but after that the land should remain free of problem weeds. If you’ve been mulching the garden for a few years and perennial weed problems persist, then consider altering the compost/mulching mixture slightly to see if that improves results.
Mulched Soil is Slower to Warm:
This is possible depending on the type of mulch/compost being used. Light colored mulching material, such as straw and shredded newspaper, will reflect the warmth of the sun back into the atmosphere, which will slow warming for the ground and garden beneath. On the other hand, dark colored compost/mulching mixtures tend to absorb the warmth of the sun and transfer it to the subsoil structures below.
Garden beds that were established through the digging and turning of the soil, will warm slightly slower than a dark mulched “no dig” garden plot. This occurs because the garden soil has been separated from the subsoil structures below the bottom of the bed. This creates small pockets of air which will absorb the heat prior to the surrounding soil.
The type of mulch/compost you use may also have an effect on the pest population in the garden. While some pests are healthy and serve a purpose, others can completely destroy a crop in less than a few weeks. Compost provides less cover for pests and will therefore help you get rid of them if they are problematic.
The “no dig” gardening concept can be used on any type of soil surface; however, it is recommended for compact soil structures rather than healthy fertile soil systems. This gardening concept is intended to be used in areas where conventional crop cultivation is all but impossible. If you’ve been having problems in the garden with crop growth, then there’s a good chance your soil conditions are not optimal. While there are other more expensive options for conditioning soil for a healthy garden, this method is cost effective and efficient for those on a tight budget.