No-Dig Garden Success

I have been trialling a new-to-me form of gardening this last year, a no-dig system where the soil is always covered with compost and mulch, and the soil itself never sees the light of day, just as the soil in a natural system like a forest is always covered up with plants and twigs and leaves and animal poop. The benefits of this system are showing themselves in the happiest crops I've seen yet in my garden. The corn is as tall as I am; actually, this is not such an achievement, as I am not very tall, but the beans behind the corn have grown off the top of their 2m tall trellis and have just kept going, and are now wrapped around each other and waving in the breeze.

Zucchinis are ridiculously prolific as are the cucumbers, both of which have to be picked daily to prevent them turning into monsters.

The tomatoes are giant, still green, but very much bigger and more lush and pest resistant than last year's crop. Also, far less weeds are growing because the mulch is depressing them. Every few weeks I do a bit of weeding then shovel on some more mulch and the weeds are starting to give up, which is rather surprising as my garden is a jungle of weeds, with the vegie garden carved out of the centre of the wilderness, so the fact that weeds are not getting a foothold here is amazing. Last summer I more or less gave up and the kingdom of weeds took over. Here is the tomato patch: small, but prolific.

Everywhere in these photos that you think you can see bare soil, you are actually looking at compost applied about 10cm thick over sheep and chook manure and some crushed rock minerals.
Here are my spring beds that I have just cleared out to replant for winter. I had to build up the sides of the beds with more bricks to fit in all the extra organic material going on top. Once upon a time I would have dug the soil over between crops, but this time, a bit of weeding, and lots of manure and compost. The compost is a reasonably woody organic compost that I had delivered and barrowed down from the street last spring.

Here were the beds in spring:

And the ones now filled with summer veg in their spring virgin state:

I covered the paths between the beds with cardboard, then pine bark mulch, which has stood up well so far to constant watering and walking with very few weeds breaking through.

One of the reasons for gardening in this way is that the soil structure remains intact, the bugs, worms and soil biome are not disturbed, and the vast webs of mycelium strands that naturally form vast colonies under the soil are allowed to do their thing. Scientists are just now discovering how important this web of fungi actually is for soil and planet health, from breaking down nutrients to make them available for plants to absorb, to underground carbon capture. Something I have noticed this summer, is that though it has been incredibly dry, still there are diverse colonies of fungi popping up all over the place, where I haven't noticed it before.

So I am quite pleased with the results of my first no-dig forest gardening experiment, and hoping to refine it and improve on it as time goes on. Do let me know if you have experimented with this type of gardening technique. I'd love to know more:)


Lucinda said…
Your plants look so healthy. I had a book on no dig gardening but it was so expensive with so many layers prescribed. With my little garden patch in front of my fence, I used a bit of no dig - more because my back won’t hold up to digging than from a motivation to help look after the soil.

I watered in seaweed fertilisers and water-retaining soil conditioner; put down newspaper; covered over with sugar cane mulch which I let rot down. Several months later (actually probably a year and I haven’t finished the whole bed) I put in some plants with a bit of extra bought soil when I planted them.

I’d love raised garden beds so I could have a veggie plot in a no dig bed.
Anonymous said…
I Last years container garden was a total fiasco. My tomatoes shriveled up like....prunes on the vines. The peppers died.... you get the picture. I trash picked two wooden boxes that I plan to use as raised beds hoping for better results this year. Your garden looks wonderful!
simplelife said…
This kind of gardening really appeals to me, mainly because I'm lazy. lol
To be honest though I have no garden at the moment, too many wallabies, rabbits, possums and parrots. sigh Maybe after summer when things aren't so parched and the water tank has refilled I will try again to fence off and establish a tiny veg patch. That's all I want a tiny patch to grow just a few plants
cheers Kate
Jo said…
Lucinda, no-dig is really just compost/mulch on top of soil to mimic how nature does it, so you did a great no-dig garden! Of course, you can add as much or as little as you think your garden needs - vegies need more nutrients than shrubs, for instance, because you are taking large amounts of food out of the system. Being me, I am aiming to make a lot more compost and source mulch for free, but I must say, although I generally don't spend money, the garden is one place I do sometimes splash cash around, for instance the first layer of organic mulch I added in spring.
Little raised beds for vegies are great, although the less raised they are, the better they retain moisture. One sleeper high is ideal - a little bit of space to add compost and manure and mulch, but the plants basically grow in your own soil, which will become fabulously rich and full of worms when covered with compost:)

Patricia, container gardening can be very tricky. You can water every day and then suddenly discover that the water is only penetrating an inch into the soil and all the rest of the water is running down the edge and out of the bottom of the container. This sounds like what happened in your case, generally when it is very hot. Happened to me a few weeks ago, which caused a day of panicking, because the containers hold very expensive mini fruit trees! Will do a post soon on saving container plants:)

Kate, yay, tiny gardens! They are the best, because manageable! It will be lovely:)
Hazel said…
I do no dig vegetables and am using forest gardening as the principle in other parts of the garden. Charles Dowding is the no dig guru in this country and has some excellent you tube videos that should also be relevant to Tasmania. Vera (Grown to Cook) and Steph Hafferty (Charles’ partner) are both experienced no diggers too and their blogs are on my side bar if you’re interested. Vera ( in the Netherlands) also has a a great youtube channel which is updated more often than her blog.
I realised the other day I haven’t done a garden post, I feel one coming on.
I also make as much of my own compost as possible ( the chickens are useful) but I do occasionally splash out on mushroom or general compost in bulk too. I don’t buy make up, clothes or shoes so it’s my one weakness. Well, apart from books...
Jo said…
Hazel, Charles Dowding, yes, I have watched a lot of his videos, aren't they brilliant? Also found a book at the library. One of the things I like about his videos is his constant experimentation, which is very encouraging, because I am an avid experimenter and sometimes it all goes pear-shaped. Lovely to see him failing cheerfully:)
Will look up those other blogs, ta. And yes, a delivery of compost, now there's a fun way way to spend money:)
I notice Charles just uses compost, as it seems to be quite chilly where he is, but I think I am going to need another sheet mulch on top to get me through the rest of summer. Do you use extra mulch on top of your compost?
I also watch a lot of Geoff Lawton's videos which are helpful for drier climates..
Anonymous said…
Ahhh I wish I could pay someone to come and set up and maintain a garden like this for me. I would love to - but I just don’t have the knolwledge, time or mental energy to manage it at the moment!
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

Good soil make us gardeners look like we know what we are doing! ;-)

I was really impressed when you moved those three cubic metres that day, and the results now speak for themselves. Nice one.

If you want to go really full on no dig, when your corn is done, you can just chop the stalks at ground level. I chip up the stalks with an electric chipper chopper and then spread that back over the soil. But leaving the root systems in the ground gives the little soil critters even more food.

I do find that I have to occasionally re-apply woody mulches. After a year or so, it forms a fine black sandy loam, and most things will grow in it. The mix of soil additives would be like plant heaven for the plants! I added a bit of blood and bone to the corn patch this year too, and that seemed of benefit.

Hey do you grow brown onions? If you do, what is the best time for getting the seeds in the ground? Or do you recommend seedlings for brown onions?

Jo said…
Anon, if you are the same anon who is moving to East Launceston, or are in the Launceston area - get in touch. I am a gardener and would happily set up a no-dig patch for you:) There is a contact field at the top of the page with my email.

Chris, confession: I have never planted or grown onions. I believe all the sorts have different planting times though, as they mature at different times.
Hazel said…
Jo, I think the main main reason Charles and Steph suggest only using composted mulches is the damp UK climate means a mulch full of slugs and snails otherwise. Certainly when I’ve mulched my fruit bushes with wood chip the slugs have loved it :-( From what Lisa in NW Tasmania said I don’t think you have quite the same problem as us?
A friend has horses so I can sometimes get some free composted manure from her which helps. The neighbours are used to seeing me barrow random things through the village, I don’t even raise an eyebrow anymore :-D
Jo said…
Hazel, I did find a few poor, sad snails huddled inside a breeze block while weeding in a very dry part of the garden today. I felt quite sorry for them before I squished them to put them out of their misery:) We do have snails and slugs in winter and spring, but they tend not to be a summer problem, and that's when extra mulch is a bonus.
I am loving the visual of you wheeling manure through the streets. Isn't it fabulous to be old enough not to care any more?
Beznarf27 said…
I created a large straw bale garden late last year and filled it to the brim with all of the manure that I could find, predominately $1 bags of horse manure and a bit of sheep manure and some chicken coop straw and then topped it up with an enormous quantity of barley straw. It has been so dry out here that I doubt that the bed has done much but as soon as the rains start this bed is going to start making life interesting for the soil biota underneath and at the very least, it has given the poor soil something to cover it with and thus protect it from the long dry days that have been our January. I am so excited. I am sitting here at 3am (can't sleep) wearing an actual, factual jumper! I also did a mental happy dance that our temperature forecast isn't going to top 25C for a whole week! BLISS. Add in the forecast rain that we should be getting at least a few times this week and you are talking to one happy little black duck. I don't even want to think about how much our water bill is going to be this quarter but its my little luxury and I need it to survive summer. That's my story and I am sticking to it. I love your garden ideas. I am going to have to find sources of free mulch. I was most proud of my hermitty self the other day. HTC have been driving around hacking down tree branches in our area and I heard the big chipper down at the front gate on Monday and I spent a good 5 minutes trying to talk myself out of getting into our old jalopy and zooming down to the front gate to enquire about whether or not I could have the chips from our hacked trees (only fair!) and to my surprise, they let me have the whole load of chips!!! YAY! They are down at the front gate and this weekend I will be shovelling them into our trailer and hauling them back to let them age a bit before using them on the under-deck garden. If there is one amazing hint/tip that I could give to anyone gardening its MULCH MULCH MULCH MULCH with any and everything that you can get. Your post reinforces this and shows that its the only way to garden, especially in the long dry months of summer. Lovely post, lovely garden, just "lovely" Jo <3 :)
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

Thanks for the reply - and I have no idea either. Not a bad place from which to commence an endeavour! :-)

Like the new format for the blog too.

Jo said…
Fran, love the sound of your straw bale garden experiment. I will be interested to see how that progresses. I have amassed an enormous pile of prunings/weeds in my backyard. it is now taller and longer than I am. This autumn I will be trialling hugelkulture mounds, which preserve moisture inside them as logs, branches and mulch break down. So many fun things to do in life!
PS Did you know it is legal in Tasmania to collect 100kg of seaweed per day, per person? I double checked on the DPIPWE website. This is also a great free mulch for the garden.

Chris, as you say, all the information we gather from here will be sending us upwards on the learning curve! My small garden and the ridiculous cheapness of onions has always prevented me experimenting, but I shall watch your progress with interest:)

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