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To Dig or Not to Dig: Raised Bed No-Dig Gardening

September 26, 2019

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Raised Bed Planting Puts Nature back in charge

No-dig or do-nothing farming might have you scratching your head a bit. After all, growing the plants you love takes work, doesn't it? You've got to break out the shovels and rakes. You need fertilizers and weed killers. You need to break a serious sweat to get the best results, or do you?

The answer is both yes and no.

Yes, you need to work at it if you're going to have the best-looking flower beds or the most productive vegetable plot. You have to prep and tend to these consistently. It is a simple fact; the effort you put into it will directly affect the abundance and beauty you are rewarded with.

What you don't need to do is help nature do what it's already designed to do. This should not be a back-breaking effort.

No-dig planting gets you in tune with nature so you can work together to produce incredible results, but before we talk about how to let's talk just a bit about the origins of this farming approach.

Most credit Masanobu Fukuoka, a gentleman from Japan, with the development of no-dig or as he called it, do-nothing farming. He saw the real strength of the natural world and understood that to farm most effectively, we would have to yield to nature's brilliance rather than trying to outthink it. So, in 1975, he introduced The One-Straw Revolution, a book that introduced the world to a real gardening partnership with nature.

So, what is No-dig farming?

In short, it is farming without the introduction of anything that isn't already present in nature. You neither add nor use anything that has been manufactured, including gardening tools, chemical fertilizers, and insecticides.

It also means that you need to observe your environment and plant a diversely based on what that environment can naturally support. You can and will help, but it's nature's abundance that will allow your plants to flourish.

You must be asking by now, "How can I do this"?

It all starts by preparing your plant beds, and whether your planning to create a flower or vegetable garden, the process is the same.

  1. Choose your location wisely. Some plants thrive in the shade, while others need lots of sunshine. So, place your beds based on what you will be growing to ensure the best results. As a basic rule of thumb, select areas that get an average of 5 hours of direct sunlight, and most plants will do well.

You can place your beds over soil or hard surfaces. Your preparation will change slightly, but both can be good choices. Just be sure the area is reasonably level or your plant material, and many of the nutrients will tend to wash away in the rain.

While not critically important, it will be easier to place and space your plants properly if your planting bed is squared at the corners. However, landscape beauty can be enhanced with the use of irregularly shaped beds. It will just take a bit more thought when you place your plants. Let your artistic eye guide you.

  1. The first layer of your raised plant bed is critical. This creates a moist layer between the raised bed and ground that helps maintain the integrity of both. When planting over hard surfaces, it adds a cushion between your plant bed material and the surface below.

You can use newspaper or cardboard for this first level with just one variation. When using cardboard, be sure to soak it thoroughly before moving onto the next layer. This should be about ¼" thick.

If planting over a paved or rocky area, add some twigs and dry leaves over your paper or cardboard.  

No-dig plant beds do best when the plant material is allowed to remain a bit loose. This allows the root systems to spread out and draw in all of the nutrients they need. Soil that becomes tightly packed constrains root development and diminishes soil fertility.

  1. The next layer will be 4" thick mulch. This is your nitrogen layer, and you are aiming for something in the range of 18:1. Alfalfa hay matches this perfectly while other straw mulch is much lower. Lower concentrations will require more material to achieve the best nitrogen concentration.

There is no need to pack this or any layer in your no-dig plant beds. Nature will do that for you without allowing the bed to get too tightly packed.

Note: Some plants require more or less nitrogen to flourish. You will need to match your mulch to the plants you will place in this raised bed. 

  1. Next is the manure or compost layer. This should be about 2" thick and can also include worm castings and rock dust. The rock dust and work casting can also be added at higher levels and still be just as effective.

If you are adding any kitchen scraps to your plant bed, this is the right level. If they are any higher up in the plant bed, you could attract rats and other vermin that will destroy all of your hard work.

  1. Lay down another layer of straw that is also about 4" thick, and the same rule concerning nitrogen content applies. It should be matched to the plants you will be growing.
  2. You need to repeat the manure/compost layer as well, but remember, no food scraps are added at this level.
  3. The last layer is another 4" mulch layer, but you will add this one a bit differently. Your raised plant beds are now ready for planting, so you will be preparing holes in this layer to accept them.

Keeping the proper spacing between plants in mind, create holes that are approximately 4" wide and just as deep. Fill these with manure or compost, and you're now ready to plant. Now water the entire bed liberally, and your raised plant bed is prepared to nurture a spectacular garden.

By the way, this is the process of creating a new plant bed. It's even simpler if you are converting an existing plant bed from traditional to no-dig gardening. Just loosen the existing soil and start building your raised bed from the first level of mulch.

You can also renew your plant beds easily by simply adding a layer of manure and a layer of mulch on top of the existing material. Remember, this is a no-dig planting system, so there's no need to loosen or turn the existing materials.

The most important thing to remember is that your raised plant beds and this no-dig approach are designed to mimic nature. There is a natural cycle of life that has given rise to rich forests and meadows. It is the same natural process nature uses to heal itself after fires and floods. Mother nature doesn't worry about turning and tilling, and neither should you. 

One final note: earthworms are your garden's workforce. They tunnel through the soil and help create healthy a structure for your plants to thrive in. Earthworms will occur naturally if your garden beds are placed directly on the earth, and you have prepared your beds properly. If your garden beds are not placed directly on the soil or are mostly a closed bottom, such as when using livestock troughs, then you may need to add earthworms yourself. We have had success with this package of 500 red wigglers from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm.