Low maintenance, low water needs, abundant, resilient. We all want to be able describe our vegetable garden efforts this way. However, the joy of growing fresh chemical-free food at home is regularly thwarted by our time- poor lives and often poor soils.
Over the past 20 years, I've developed a method of no-dig gardening that has proved again and again to be simple, affordable, time-saving, soil-replenishing and the maker of super-productive garden beds.
My No-Dig Garden Method is Different.
I make my no-dig gardens differently from the methods described in most gardening books - just a little twist, but it turns it on it’s head.
Simply, the newspaper is the last layer before the mulch, rather than laid on the ground under the compost layer. This little change does many things.
The compost layer integrates more rapidly with the existing soil.
Soil flora and fauna quickly get to work without the barrier in between.
The compost layer stays a more moist and stable temperature under the paper layer.
The newspaper layer prevents weeds from growing in your garden, including the unwanted seeds from your compost. (Unless you are a master composter, there will be seeds in your compost).
Less nutrients from the compost are evaporated and lost.
Roots of plants can penetrate directly into the soil so stay hydrated longer, can access minerals and have increased resilience and stability.
If you'd like to give it a try, here's my step by step guide:
Step 1: LOCATE YOUR GARDEN
Select garden site - close to the kitchen with 6-8 hours sun/day.
Start small. Keep adding later as you gather more resources.
Mark out garden edges and pathways.Cut grasses and weeds, and leave them on top. The leaves and roots add organic matter. When the roots die channels open up for air and water.
Water the area well - or preferably construct after a good rain.
Identify a good site for your garden and gather the resources.
Step 2: OPEN AND FEED THE SOIL
Open soil with a garden fork, but do not turn. Push the fork into the ground as far as it will go and pull back gently to open and raise the soil. With the increased activity of soil life, the fork will go much deeper next year.
Sprinkle high nitrogen materials such as chicken manure and fresh non-meat kitchen scraps.
Water in with diluted liquid manure.
Opening the soil.
Step 3: MAKE NEW TOPSOIL LAYER
Add 10-15 cms of compost and water in. This becomes the new topsoil.
Use what you can find locally and preferably recycled from your own on- site waste materials. Homemade compost mixed with worm castings are excellent for the soil and plants. Aged manure and mushroom compost are also good.
Bulk the compost layer by adding ripped leaves of comfrey, canna, pigeon pea or any abundant leafy green available - but not pine, eucalyptus or other oily leaves. If using lots of fresh leaves or manure, wait a couple of weeks before planting because the heat generated may burn seedlings.
Adding organic matter, compost, manure, liquid fertiliser, comfrey leaves... materials for the new topsoil. Note the little keyhole pathways that are designed to collect water and direct it into the garden.
Water this all in well before adding the newspaper layer.
Step 4: ADD A WEED BARRIER
Add a biodegradable weed barrier to prevent weeds from coming up in your garden.
Use moist newspaper about 10-15 sheets thick. Cardboard is too thick. Soak paper thoroughly in wheelbarrow or tub of water before laying. Dry paper is hard to lay well and absorbs moisture from the soil.
Overlap the paper 10 cms in each direction allowing for movement when planting through the weed barrier layer.
Before mulching, check for gaps and cover them up. If there’s a hole, the weeds will find it - they’ll be searching for the light.
Remember to paper your paths and edges too.
Adding wet newspaper, making sure to overlap it well. It is a good idea to lay it so that water is directed under the paper (e.g.: the opposite of roof tiles which shed water).
Tuck it into the sides well to prevent weeds coming through here. Paper the pathways too.
Step 5: MULCH MULCH MULCH!
Add a thick layer of SEED-FREE mulch (15 cms) over weed barrier - beds and paths.
Place anything containing seeds (not wanted in your garden) under the weed barrier.
The mulch will eventually become part of your new topsoil, but in the process will be providing soil protection and insulation and help to conserve water.
Completely cover with a thick layer of seed-free mulch so that you cannot see any paper showing through.
Step 6: PLANTING AND WATERING
Select a diversity of seasonal and perennial vegetables, herbs and flowers for a polycultural kitchen garden.
Consider the size and growth form of each plant when planning where to place each seedling/seed.
To plant, make a birds nest in the mulch to reveal the paper. Poke a hole through the paper with a transplanter and check that the soil is loose below.
Add a handful of compost in the hole to the level of the weed barrier/paper.
Plant the seedling or large seed into the compost. Press gently to make sure the seedling is firmly planted.
Bring the mulch back around the seedling, but not touching it. The mulch provides protection for the young seedling until it emerges.
Water into the individual holes and check once again that the seedlings are firmly in the compost.
To plant small seeds (eg: carrots), open the mulch along a line, slice paper and lift back a little. Add compost and sprinkle the seeds. Mix seeds with coffee grounds to help spread, and give seeds a good start.
Make little holes in the mulch and paper (like a nest). Plant through the paper into the new soil layer below - adding a good handful of compost to bed the seedling in.
TIPS FOR MAINTAINING YOUR NO-DIG GARDEN
Water only when necessary. Feel under the mulch first. Overwatering causes shallow root growth and seeds from overwatered plants expect lots of water.
Mix herbs and flowers amongst the vegetables to assist with pest management.
Pull out emergent weeds before they seed or spread.
Prepare more compost, while the garden is growing
When a plant is removed, add a handful of compost in it’s hole and replace with a different plant - no need to redo the whole area.
Next growing season, observe and use your judgment. Maybe top up with a new layer of compost and mulch. Perhaps fork the soil a little more. Add another layer of newspaper only when needed.
Allow the perennials to remain - just mulch around them.
HEALTHY SOIL = HEALTHY PLANTS = HEALTHY FOOD AND PEOPLE
My garden method is simple, easy, cheap and very rewarding. I hope you give it a try. Evolve it to your conditions and resource availability. Share it with others. It’s a fun activity to do with friends or family, community garden or school.
This post has been adapted and extended from an article published in the Maleny Organic Food Cooperative News, Spring 2015.