How to Start a No-Dig Vegetable Garden

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I’m often asked about the best way to set up a new vegetable garden, and everyone seems to have their preferred method and materials.  I personally, like the idea of a no dig garden bed.  After all, who wants to break their back trying to dig up hard compacted clay soil?  No dig garden beds are easy, quick and effective in providing vegetables with all the nutrients they need.  So here’s my step by step approach to no dig gardens.

Vegetables are incredibly hungry and thirsty plants, since they are growing quickly and developing fruit in a short period of time, they need loads of energy to get them to maturity …. rather like some of the teenagers in my house!  So a no dig garden bed is just perfect for them.

Location

To start with you’ll need to find a sunny spot to locate your garden bed.  A garden in the shade will not be as productive as one that gets adequate sunlight. Try to find an area that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight (some dappled light is okay and can even help give respite to plants in the middle of some hot summers). Plants need sunlight to produce a flower so any vegetable that is grown for it’s fruit will certainly need this amount of sun.

If it’s a brand new area you’ve chosen then you don’t need to dig up any grass, you can simply mow the grass and/or weeds down to the lowest setting to make the area easier to work on.

Step 1

Our first step is to lay out sheets of overlapping newspaper directly on the ground to cover an area of about 2 square yards.  This kills off any weeds and grass naturally and allows them to decompose into nutrients for the soil later. Just make sure to use about 10 sheets of newspaper together to get the right thickness and overlap the sheets on all sides.  Keep the newspaper damp with water from the hose after you lay it down.  I often work with a wheel barrow full of water and dip the sheets of paper in as I go.  This stops any wind blowing them all over the yard!

Step 2

This is a nitrogen rich layer of lucerne hay.  A large bail will cover a good sized vegetable garden bed.  Take off “biscuits” or sections of the lucerne and lay them over the newspaper to cover the whole area.  You will need this to be about 3 or 4 inches thick.

Step 3

This a compost and manure layer.  About 2 full wheelbarrow loads should do the job just nicely.  Spread this over the lucerne to cover.  If you have been making your own compost, then this would be perfect.  Mix in a combination of chicken manure and cow manure to give some added nutrients.  Throw over a couple of handfuls of rock dust and blood and bone. Again, make sure to water this in before proceeding.

Step 4

Now comes a carbon rich mulching layer.  Use straw or sugar cane for this, to a depth of about 3 or 4 inches.

Repeat 2 – 4

Now repeat steps 2 to step 4 over again until you reach your desired height.  The higher your bed is, the better drainage it will have and less bending you will need to do.  Always end with a layer of mulch and water it in well with a hose.

Planting out seedlings

Leave your garden bed to rest for a couple of weeks before planting.  This allows for it to settle first and it will drop in size to about 1/2 the original height.  When you plant into it just make a hole in the mulch layer and drop in a seedling.  Backfill the hole with some potting mix or compost and firm down the seedling to hold it in place.  Give it some water and diluted seaweed solution and then sit back and watch it grow.

Try to avoid any root crops like carrots or beetroot or onions for the first year.  Your bed will have too many nutrients and will encourage leaf growth at the expense of root development.  Grow a few crops through the bed first to soak up excess nitrogen and then after a year try some root vegetables.  Make sure you plant according to your climate and season for best results.

Materials

Materials needed for a no dig garden bed measuring 1 x 2 yards:

  • Newspapers to cover an area of 2 square yards
  • 1 large bail of lucerne
  • 1 wheel barrows of compost
  • 1 wheel barrow of manure (chicken/cow combination)
  • 1 small bag of blood & bone with potash (leave out the blood & bone if you’re vegan)
  • 1 small bag of agricultural lime
  • 1 bail of straw or sugar cane mulch
  • seedlings
  • seaweed solution

If you’re still unsure about the no-dig gardening approach and want some extra help, why not let me guide you through it. My gardening tutorials and free planting guides help show you  how to get it all working for you.

Happy gardening,

About the veggie lady

Toni Salter has written 4 posts in this blog.

As a Registered Horticulturist, I've been teaching people how to grow organic veggies in their own backyard for over 10 years. But it wasn't always that way ... I started out as a novice gardener when I was a stay at home mum, but ended up killing about half of the things I tried to grow. After doing a horticulture course, learning from older experienced gardeners and a lot of trial and error ... I got it right! Now I share my success with you. See more about me at http://theveggielady.com/about-toni/

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Comments

  1. says

    This method is pretty much the *only* method I use, LOL! My materials are a little different — but it amounts to the same. Works beautifully — plus it calls in the worm under the new bed & they make the earth beneath your creation lovely, too.

    Great article!

  2. says

    Thanks Chris. I think there are as many versions of no-dig gardens as there are gardeners! We all put in slightly different materials, but as you say, it all amounts to the same thing. So much easier and quicker than digging.

  3. Cassandra says

    My vegetable and herb garden is currently all in pots, as the yard at this house can’t be dug up at all. I like the idea of a no-dig garden, but wasn’t sure how to put it together- I’ve been looking for a good guide, and now I’ve found one!
    I love your tip about wetting the newspaper before you put it down. Little things like that make all the difference!

    • says

      You’re right Cassandra, the little things do make a difference. That’s why it’s always good to chat with some experienced gardeners, they’ve usually made all the mistakes before you, so you can avoid them in your garden!

  4. Nea | Self Improvement Saga says

    I wish I had a green thumb. I grew up with my grandmother who grew everything imaginable, yet I can’t bring myself to work with manure, blood, bones or even the worms under the dirt. I truly admire you for this. You’re my shero.

  5. Sandra Muhammad says

    I live in a very dense wooded area and the deers are relentless, as well as the squirrels and little possums, I want to try something easy like this. Can it be transported from one area of the yard to another?

    • says

      Not really Sandra, unfortunately. This method is best for permanent beds, although if you deconstruct it all and then reassemble in a different location you may find that the materials have already started to break down into compost. You could use this compost in the reconstructed bed and top it up with a mulch layer if needed.

  6. TexanJulianna says

    Thanks for the post. I will be trying this. One question. What is luceren and where do you buy it?

    • says

      You should really fertilise your beds at least every year since veggies are hungry plants. If you’ve had a veggie crop in the bed before then you should replenish the nutrients in the bed before you plant out again this year. Make sure you don’t plant the same thing in the same spot either (see more on crop rotation at http://theveggielady.com/online-workshops/).
      Wait until the last frost has past before planting out otherwise you will need to provide some cover for your tender plants like tomatoes.

  7. Dj says

    So happy I found you, now I have the courage to give it a go and start now with a small garden of vegetables. You are my hero. Thank you for sharing what works for your garden after all of your trials. Dj

  8. Ellen Peavey says

    I have a lasagna bed I made it is similar to your no dig vegetable garden. I used card board then news paper then compost then straw fro the chicken coop and the rabbit hutch. Next a couple wheel barrels of soil. My question is I have added all kinds of vegetable peelings to it and I now have some potato’s and onions coming up will we be able to eat them? I would like to send a picture but can’t,only if you send your e-mail address. Thanks Ellen from Georgia ellen@eyeopened.com

    • says

      Hi Ellen, I’d leave them there. These are what we call “volunteers” and they are often the strongest plants over some that we deliberately plant. The only precaution you need is to check that you didn’t have any virus or disease on your potatoes last season. Otherwise you may pass this on to the next crop.
      It’s good to practice crop rotation and not plant the same thing in the same place year after year, so keep an eye on this. You could always dig up your “volunteers” and transplant them to a suitable location to avoid spread of disease.
      Good luck!

      • Ellen Peavey says

        Thanks for the information, yes I do practice crop rotation and will more then likely dig them up and move them to the main garden area. Ellen from Georgia

  9. says

    This is great advice for beginning organic gardeners. The only thing I would add is how beneficial it is to include a twice-a-month foliar feeding with Garrett juice (very inexpensive homemade recipe). Rapidly growing vegetables need nutrition above and below ground.

  10. says

    Great idea, a little like Ruth Stout’s method! Someone told me to be careful what kind of straw and hay I use though because any weed killer used in the growing of it could prevent plants from thriving. Do you know if this is true?

    • says

      That’s true Chistiane. Always know where your raw materials come from so you can check the quality. Weed killers should definitely be avoided. If you can get certified organic ingredients then you can be sure there is no residue.

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