How No-Dig Gardening Leads to Healthier Soil and Thriving Plants

When you let nature do the work, you'll end up with a healthier garden.

In January 2021, I moved to a new home with my family. It's fair to describe it as a garden with a house attached (a small house with a big yard), which felt like a dream come true for us. Fortunately, the house itself was move-in ready. Unfortunately, however, the yard had years of deferred maintenance. As a result, weeds and an abandoned lawn grew in soil that could be best compared to concrete. Yet, for me, it was a blank slate I couldn't wait to bring to life, all without digging.

Instead of bashing the soil to bits with a tiller or trowel, I let nature do the work. Besides saving my back, the perks of no-dig gardening include far fewer weeds to pull and a much healthier garden. Here's how it works and why you should try it in your yard.

Compost for a no-dig garden
Courtesy of West Cliff Creative

What Is No-Dig Gardening?

While it might seem counter-intuitive to grow a garden without digging, take a moment to consider how forests and meadows grow in nature with no help from us. Leaf litter and debris from trees, grasses, and other plants fall to the ground, where it collects, forming a blanket of organic matter. It's organic matter that feeds the topsoil and the ecosystem living in the soil.

Animals such as birds, worms, insects, moles, and microbes (think fungi and bacteria) act as ecosystem engineers. As these creatures go about their daily lives eating, depositing poop, reproducing, moving seeds, and tunneling, they naturally aerate the soil and help transform organic matter into dark, nutrient-dense soil called humus.

Plants, animals, and microbes collectively function as an ecosystem or biological community where members interact with one another and their environment. Simply put, they need each other. Together, they create a matrix of life in which the individual's resilience depends on the ecosystem's resilience as a whole. People are part of this matrix too. As humans, we're only as healthy as the environment in which we live.

Soil is life, and it takes life to grow life.

No-dig gardening asks you to reframe the conversation around growing. How can you think like an ecosystem and work with it rather than disrupting it by disturbing the topsoil or soil? Your job as a gardener is to build and create soil by mimicking nature's system: organic matter falls to the earth, and the biodiversity living above ground and in the soil does the rest of the work. Basically, in a nutshell, soil is life, and it takes life to grow life.  

Benefits of No-Dig Gardening

I'm so passionate about no-dig regenerative gardening that I wrote GROW NOW: How to Save Our Health, Communities, and Planet—One Garden at a Time. While working on this book, I was surprised (and not surprised) to find microbes at the heart of my research. Many of the same microbes we seek to foster with no-dig growing inhabit our bodies like old friends, helping us decode and distill the world around us. The more biodiverse and abundant these microbes, the better. By restoring the natural areas around us, particularly soil and topsoil, we can improve our health as well as the health of the environment.

The benefits of no-dig gardening also include:

  • Building a healthy soil ecosystem that naturally supports pollinators, insects, birds, and other animals.
  • Cultivating rich, healthy soil with excellent structure and tilth
  • Providing the nutrition and environment plants need to thrive with reduced to no added fertilizers.
  • Reducing weeds because seeds remain buried under compost rather than getting tilled to the soil surface where they sprout.
  • Increasing the soil's water-holding capacity makes your garden more drought-resistant.
  • Decreasing the time and effort needed to tend your garden because there's no need for tilling, and weeding and watering are reduced.
  • Sequestering carbon. No-dig gardens retain carbon in the soil, which helps mitigate climate change.
  • Growing a healthier, more biodiverse garden which, in turn, produces more nutritious food and an environment that's equally good for your physical and mental well-being.
A thriving no-dig garden in front of a house
Courtesy of Emily Murphy

How to Start a No-Dig Garden

Utilizing the no-dig process in food gardens, landscapes, perennial borders, raised beds, and containers is possible. You can even use it to transform lawns and areas with hard-to-work, seemingly impossible soil. The first step I took to improve my new, soon-to-be garden was to employ a tenet of no-dig gardening known as sheet mulching or lasagna gardening. Sheet mulching is a simple process of layering organic materials over the existing topsoil and soil rather than digging down to restore it. Nearly a year later, I have light, crumbly soil filled with life and ready to plant. It's truly quite remarkable.

I go into more detail about how to sheet mulch in GROW NOW, but here are the basic steps:

Sheet Mulching Simplified

  1. Place four sheets of newspaper or a single layer of cardboard over the topsoil surface or lawn area. Wet the newspaper or cardboard, and then top with compost. The amount of compost applied depends upon what you plan to grow. Generally, 2 to 4 inches is sufficient.
  2. If you're growing a food garden, use compost made with various materials, including kitchen scraps.
  3. Place an inch or two of compost over your initial layer of newspaper or cardboard if you're creating a perennial garden or flower border. Then top this compost layer with mulch such as wood chips, bark, or a mix of coarse organic materials.

Keep Adding Compost

Like fallen leaves and other organic materials, compost is soil food. It feeds the soil ecosystem, which works in partnership with plants. Apply compost to the topsoil once or twice a year. I like to use a layer of 1 to 2 inches of compost in spring and fall. Remember, don't till in the compost. Just let nature do its thing.

How to Plant a No-Dig Garden

Your goal is to disturb the soil ecosystem as little as possible. Create a planting hole just big enough for the plant at hand. Pull the soil back with a small trowel, your hands, or a chopstick or pencil (for tiny seedlings), and tuck the plant in by gently pushing the earth back in place around the roots. Keep off your planting beds as much as possible as you work in them. Stepping on soil compacts it, which makes it harder for air and water to reach the soil life that needs it, including your plants' roots.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I plant a no-dig garden on ground that's not level?

    If your yard has dips or small hills, leveling the area before you begin a no-dig garden is best. While digging out the soil is not ideal, you can fill the space with more soil to make it even. Leveling is hard on a garden the first year but makes for a much more productive garden each year after.

  • What are the best natural mulches for vegetable gardens?

    The best natural products to use for mulch are compost, grass clippings, straw, leaves, pine needles, or cocoa hulls. Though not a natural product, black plastic works well, too.

  • How much compost do I need for a vegetable garden?

    One cubic yard of compost should cover around 325 cubic feet of topsoil. However, the depth of the compost will depend on what you're growing.

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  1. How to Correct Problems Caused by Using too Much Compost and Manure. University of Minnesota Extension

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