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No-Dig garden beds and containers

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

Modern Farmer publisher Frank Giustra considers no-dig gardening during filming for Million Gardens Movement

While it may seem counterintuitive, late summer and fall are the perfect times to prepare for next gardening season. Creating new no-dig beds now, to rest over the winter makes sense.

If you observe nature during these next few months, through to first frost, you will see that she is in fact very busy getting a jump on spring. We can emulate this natural logic by assembling layers of biologically diverse organic material before winter takes root, to allow the still-warm weather to kick-start fungi, microbes and other microorganisms into creating luscious soil.

No-dig garden beds (raised or in-ground) and containers are fundamental to urban permaculture. Whether you live in a suburban neighborhood and tend a backyard garden, or nurture soil-filled growbags on a sunny window ledge or rooftop in Brooklyn, your efforts will be more productive, beautiful and righteous if you adopt a no-dig philosophy. I promise.

Why? Because at its roots, no-dig mimics nature's logic, and in following her you simply cannot go wrong (or at least, not often). In natural ecosystems undisturbed by human intervention, nature top-dresses the soil from above and from the forest canopy, while simultaneously and invisibly conducting a symphony of beneficial relationships below ground. Happy 'contained' soil looks very much like moist chocolate cake to me, offering a deep brown-black damp, sticky sponginess much like a black forest chocolate cupcake.

This is no accident. Healthy soil is busy soil, supporting an ecosystem of visible and microscopic organisms whose job it is to decompose plant residue and carry out a range of important functions. The less disturbed (tilled, dug) the soil and the greater the amount of beneficial organic matter retained, the more plant residue and food there is to support biological activity.

Compost worms in my newly harvested no-dig leek bed. I leave as much of the hairy root mass in the soil as is possible

Worms feed on decomposing plant matter, and as they move through and poop in the soil they aerate and fertilize at the same time - contributing to the sponge and structure. In circulating, feeding and pooping, worms and larger insects are captive, living recyclers of soil.

Tiny microfauna like protozoa and nematodes, and microflora like fungi and bacteria are equally important to soil biology and play specific roles within the biomass of the soil.

I am blown away by what goes on below ground, and while I certainly don't understand soil biology in its entirety, I know enough to share the basic about getting started. Whenever possible, start with an organic soil or organic green composted soil as a planting medium. Manufactured sterile soil mix should be your last choice, but even it can be amended with organics if sterile mix is all there is to work with at the get go.

Support all garden soil by emulating nature in managing what goes into it and how it comes out.

I do not dig, turn over, or otherwise unnecessarily disturb the soil, and I never use synthetic fertilizers or insecticides that would harm organisms and kill or harm soil biology. We harvest plants at soil level by cutting the stems and leaving the root structure to decompose naturally and become food for organisms. There are exceptions of course, but very few.

Mushrooms love this 20 year-old no-dig bed, their underground mycelial network feeding on plant and wood waste

Disturbing the soil can damage or destroy the airy network of tunnels that worms and insects worked so hard to create, and it breaks the mycelial network of fungal hyphae (mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of this underground network) that can traverse thousands of miles back and forth through the soil contained in a single small bed. This network creates mutually beneficial relationships with plant roots and root hairs, exchanging nutrients and minerals, and increasing the nutrient and moisture absorbing surface area and capabilities of the roots.

When nature composts from the top with leaf litter and decaying matter, organisms in the soil come to the surface to feed and pull the matter down below the soil - aerating and adding structure in the process - and the decomposition process is enhanced.

We replaced the 20 year-old cedar side rails on this raised no-dig bed very carefully, without disturbing the living soil

I have smallish planter pots and farm animal feed-trough planters that have supported very healthy tomato plants, fruit trees, and root vegetables for well over a decade. I have never replaced the soil or turned it over by digging. I do top-dress generously every year with organic compost. The soil levels naturally drop as organisms and plants feed on the soil, breaking it down and turning it into food for my family. Its miraculous really, what goes on down below and over time, and how intelligent the soil web of life really is.

Spring. Three galvanized no-dig planters keep trellised tomatoes healthy and producing through early November

Organic composted soil is available from most plant nurseries and garden centres in bags, and quite often you can find a double or triple-screened version for using as a seed starter mix. I simply screen organic compost myself through an old plastic strainer and by rubbing the compost between my palms. It works beautifully, in part because it holds moisture better than prepared mixes, and the extra lightness afforded by sifting creates a lighter weight, extra-aerated medium that gives tender seedlings an easier go of breaking through the soil.

Sifted organic compost works well for me as a seed starting mix in the greenhouse.
Potted perennial herbs receive a winter mulch of compost

Large quantities of organic green compost are becoming easier to find, as organic farmers are creating cash-crops from their trimmings and surplus. So-called veggie mix is often very similar to organic compost, but be sure to double-check before purchase. As I am still expanding my permaculture garden and adding beds in ground and above ground, I typically order a small tip-truck load of organic topdressing in the fall, using the bulk of it and saving a quantity for use in the greenhouse over the winter, and also early the following season before garden soils are typically available for delivery.

A generous autumn top-dress of compost, gives winter crops, dormant crops, and microorganisms in raised beds and containers an edge in transitioning to damp and cold. This may be particularly important in colder climates and in small space gardens where compost doubles as mulch. Some no-dig gardeners disagree with a fall feed, but I think we should all do what works best in our gardens and for our schedule. This works for me.

And the very best part - that things that converts diggers to no-diggers - I've left for last. No-dig equates with far, far fewer weeds. There are virtually no weeds in my no-dig gardens that utilize fully-cooked green composted soil as a growing medium. Proper composting effectively kills weeds seeds and if left undisturbed, buried weed seeds rarely germinate. Even no-dig beds comprised of garden variety soil, if left undisturbed should become relatively weed-free once they develop healthy soil biology, structural integrity, and germinated weeds have been spent. Of course you will see the odd sprout here and there from a seed deposited one way or another by a bird or a small furry creature, or by the wind, but those are beautiful signs of a healthy, living, organic garden that welcomes and supports wildlife.

A bit of an autumn top-dress mimics nature's timing I think, as that's when leaf litter falls to the ground naturally

No-dig checklist

  • raised beds such as those pictured above should be bottomless, encouraging the exchange of nutrients, minerals and moisture between the soil in the beds and the soil beneath the beds, unless of course the site is or was contaminated.

  • a base layer of upturned composted sod, or double thickness of brown box cardboard (edges overlapped) underneath the growing medium will a) kill any existing grass, and b) prevent errant grass and weeds from growing up into the beds.

  • When creating raised no dig beds without sides, it is advisable to lay cardboard over the bed area several months in advance (winter is ideal for this), to ensure that the grass dies off completely first.

  • containers gardens especially, should never dry out completely, as this can kill organisms and collapse the moisture-absorbing capacity of roots networks.

  • cut vegetation at the soil level whenever possible, leaving root structures in place to decompose and feed organisms in the soil.

  • do not dig or till soil; in nature, disturbed soil self-mulches with cover in the forms of weeds and grasses. When starting with well-composted soil there will be few weeds from the outset, but regardless, a no-dig ethos will generate similar results over time.

  • ensure that container beds have adequate drainage, to avoid water pooling.

  • top-dress annually with organic compost (or soil) or the closest available thing to it, while bed and container soil is still warm enough to activate newly arrived organics.

  • fall and winter rains and melting snow will dilute salt concentrates from animal manures that, left un-washed could be too high to support healthy soil biology and plant growth.

  • denser plantings tend to act as natural mulch, keeping the soil cooler and moister.

  • treat container beds and pots as you would raised beds, but on a smaller scale.

  • water the soil as opposed to the plants; this helps prevent rot, slugs and pests.

  • the undisputed king of no-dig gardening, in my book anyway is Charles Dowding, whose Somerset, UK market garden 'Homeacres' runs regular comparative trials.

To watch the Modern Farmer | Million Gardens Movement video "No Dig Beds" featuring our urban permaculture garden, on YouTube click here.

Subscribe to the Modern Farmer channel watch future permaculture segments.

To read more about soil and fungi, and their relationship to bees, visit Beemushroomed, a Love Affair with Bees.

Happy no-dig gardening.

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