Photo © Belinda Moore
A no-dig garden is also known as sheet mulching or lasagne gardening. It is
built by layering materials on top of the soil or in a large vessel, thereby
creating a friable and nutrient-rich environment in which to grow plants,
especially vegetables. And it's a great way to get kids involved with gardening
because it's so easy.
No-dig gardens are quick to build and require little on-going maintenance.
They mimic Nature with their layers of organic matter decomposing and being
added to in time. There is no tilling and, with a covering of mulch, weeds are
less of a problem. Because digging isn’t required, the method is suitable for
gardeners of all ages.
You can begin on any flat surface, including using an old bathtub or other
recycled raised bed. Ideally, the garden will receive at least five hours of
sunshine per day. If building on the ground, you might like to edge with wood or
rocks if you have them, but it isn’t vital to the project and is something you
might do later. Creating a no-dig bed directly on the lawn is fine, too. The
grass will rot and feed the plants.
If you are building onto clay soil, first apply a sprinkle of gypsum, lime or
dolomite. Then begin with a layer of newspaper or paper and cardboard. I usually
shred these a little by hand and combine with other organic matter to prevent
them matting together and to enable worms to move through the layer. Next, I
place vegetable scraps and other goodies to encourage the worms and
micro-organisms to come along as soon as possible – they’re the workers in this
system of gardening.
On top of this base, continue layering organic material – with heavier twigs,
bark etc. underneath, and leaf litter, hay, manure, compost, soil, seaweed and
other lightweight matter on top. Use as much material as possible from around
your house and garden, or nearby. Perhaps a neighbor has an excess of lawn
clippings or fallen leaves, for example.
I always finish with some straw or other fine mulch, because it limits the
amount of weeding and allows water and nutrients through to the plants’ roots
and other layers of the garden. During layering, water everything well after
each addition. Once complete, allow a week or so for the materials to pack down
if you have time. This isn’t necessary but be aware that the garden will sink.
Make small holes in the top mulch and fill with compost, potting mix – bought
or homemade, local soil or a mixture of all three. In this small pocket, you
plant your seed or seedlings – the size of the hole and amount of planting
medium will depend on the type of plant or seed. The young plants will get a
good start this way and, as they are maturing, they’ll be reaching their roots
into the other layers where everything is composting into food for your plants.
Water well during the first weeks so that the plants become established
quickly. You might also feed them with a diluted seaweed solution or similar
organic liquid fertilizer.
To maintain your no-dig beds, place on top more straw and other light organic
matter between crops. If you have planted perennial vegetables into your bed,
simply place the new material around the plants and this will break down soon
Rotating and mixing crops are good practices – intersperse different
vegetables and flowers to confuse pests. Companion planting charts can be found
in many gardening books or on the Internet if you wish to research which plants
particularly benefit others.
To expand into more garden beds in time, create another border – of timber,
for example – and simply throw your garden waste, paper, leaves, ash from the
fireplace and lawn clippings etc. into the new garden. When planting time comes,
add some fresh straw and start planting into pockets as described above.
I have also used this method in pots, when transplanting plants or cuttings.
I put a layer of organic material on the bottom of the pot and layer a mixture
of sand, soil and compost on top. These plants thrive compared to those planted
directly into bought potting mix alone. On top, around the plant, I put some
straw to hold moisture and deter weeds.
Great for kids
The best thing about this style of gardening is that it suits everyone, most
especially children. They love to collect and spread layers of mess and then
carefully make little homes amongst the straw for the seeds and seedlings. Also,
the plants aren’t over-run by weeds, which discourage new gardeners.
Our family has used this method for over ten years now. If I had to dig and
weed vegetable patches, I wouldn’t have time for the number of gardens we have –
eight raised beds and several no-dig plots built on the ground, as well as
potted food plants. Even the youngest children are able to put their baby plants
in place. I advise them on the spacing, or which bed to grow in, and they
happily and effectively work alongside me.
Lasagne Gardening by Patrick Lanza (Rodale Books, 1998)
No-Dig Gardening and Leaves of Life by Esther Deans
(HarperCollins Australia, 2001)
Belinda Moore is a home educating mother of six living in
tropical north Queensland, Australia. Growing things has been a lifelong
passion, no matter where she has lived.