Friday, 18 January 2013

How to make a no-dig garden

Our veggie garden was built on the top of an exposed hill.  There was no existing topsoil and more mud-rock than dirt making it very hard to dig.  So I thought I was very clever when I built my no dig gardens and they were successful.  Under the circumstances, it was the only option we had at that time.

Well!  I couldn't believe the miracle of watching soil develop at the bottom of the no-dig garden.  After the first year, if you parted all the mulch, there was a definite layer of dirt.  But then I made some big mistakes.  After a couple of years, rather than rebuild the no-dig layers of lucerne straw etc., I just added manure and blood and bone to the soil.  I was feeling pretty cocky because I had caused soil to be created!  Not bad hey!  No soil brought onto the property - just existing dirt turning into good gardening soil.  I thought that was wonderfully sustainable.
our own garlic and broad beans at the end of last year
This year my mistakes became obvious.  We are having a terrible year of drought.  Not only are we getting no rain but the heat is relentless.  If we do get a break from the heat, it's in the form of horrible, soil drying wind!

a bed that I had to let go due to the poor soil
Now it has become quite clear that I should have either rebuilt my no-dig garden beds year after year (not very sustainable because the straw is not produced on our property) or I should have put more effort into improving the soil that had begun to form.  Because I only had a shallow layer of 'good garden soil' the extreme conditions have quickly dried it out.  It looks dry and dead and is completely unproductive.

So if you like to learn from other people's mistakes, rather than go through the disaster of proving it to yourself through your own mistakes, this would be my advice:- Either make a no-dig garden and rebuild it each season or make a well dug garden bed and incorporate lots of compost, manure etc.  If you have a deep layer of well structured soil and keep it covered with mulch, it will be able to retain much more moisture.
a bed that is doing better, but still not as good as I would like
Keep in mind that the above is just a realisation I have come to.  It is not tried and tested yet because I am still madly building my soil.  I won't be able to really prove myself correct until I grow a good crop of veggies next summer.  But I reckon I'm onto something!  ;-)

If you've never made a no-dig garden, they are pretty amazing and so simple! They are a good option if you are not up to the task of digging a bed and probably a good start for a beginning gardener if you're excitedly impatient to have your own veggie garden and want to see it done in one day!
my own coriander seeds
Just cover the area where you want to make a bed with thick layers of newpaper.  At least a half a paper thick.  I just ask at the newsagent and they are happy to give them to me.  Wet them down well and put a 15cm layer of straw.  Spread a layer of manure over the straw and sprinkle a couple of handfuls of blood and bone on top.  Add another layer of straw and more manure and blood and bone.  Water the whole garden thoroughly.  Part the straw to make a little hole, add some compost and plant a seedling!  Water it well.

That's it!  It's that easy!  The better the quality of your straw, the more nutrition your veggies will get.  I tend to use plain straw for the bottom layer because it's cheaper and then I use lucerne or pea straw for the top layer that the plants grow in.  If you have good soil around or some compost you could put it in your little hole in the straw and plant straight into that instead of buying potting mix. 

Don't forget to fertilise with an organic liquid fertiliser or add some blood and bone every couple of weeks.

In my next post I will tell you about the efforts I've made this week to improve the soil in my garden beds.

So to the wonderful people who read here - do you dig............. or not?

12 comments:

Joy Belle said...

Hi Linda, I don't dig and have done for the past 2 years. So easy and instantly gratifying but not cheap - at least for me (no one to get suplies from but bunnings). I live on the outskirts of Melbournes north and have 4 1.2m square beds in my front yard. Last year we had good (to my way of thinking) success with zucchini, mediocre success with mini tomatoes and not much success with pumpkins, broccoli. This year I have corn and tomatoes and 1 pumpkin in. So far s good....

Evi said...

Hi Linda, great post! Yes, I dig. We have lovely, deep, rich soil here in Tassie and all I did was add loads of mushroom compost and a layer of seaweed compost and dug it in. I must say that I hate cutting up earthworms and would give up digging for that reason alone!!! Although I use a fork to dig rather than a spade.
This year it's very dry (last year was wet) but I don't mulch the veggie garden, the main reason being that we have a blackbird problem and they love scratching in the mulch and covering every seedling. I mulch under fruit trees and ornamentals though. We mostly get enough rain but also get a lot of wind....sigh....

Christine said...

Hmmm, a good lesson to learn. I think of this as 'lasagne' gardening! Definitely a great way to build soil, but a person needs access to a lot of organic matter. Is it crazy to ponder over acquiring a large(r) animal for the sole purpose of providing manure?

But back to your question, I do prefer the layering technique and find the worms do, too. Just need to get my hands on more 'ingredients'....

Dani said...

LOL I dig what you did...

But, no - don't dig. Also have rock hard, sun-baked hard soil in summer, and wet, clingy, squelching, clay mud in winter.

Busy mum of 3 said...

I don't dig yet, but plan to very soon. I have recently been researcing no dig gargens, and I am very keen to try it.

I haven't had a summer veggie garden at all this year. My instincts told me it was going to be a very hot, dry summer, so I didn't plant, I'm so pleased I didn't, I will be turning my thoughts back to planting in a month or so.

purplepear said...

No we don't dig either, but continually build up the soil with more and more organic matter, weeds and all, use the chooks to scratch and poo and eat the weed seeds and then add more mulch. After 5 years our market gardens soil is looking great and has come through the heat so far surprisingly well. We ar on solid clay and have been built this way.

Energiser Bunny said...

We don't dig either, but I do hear your pain Linda. Because it doesn't take much to take your eye off the ball and go backwards, especially in this ridiculous heat. We let the chickens in after the crop in that patch has finished. We let them do their work and add cow manure for them to work as well. We also throw in some mulch. Then after a couple of months, we lock the girls back out and prepare the patch. We don't dig at this point but we do pile it up into rows with a small hoe, add a bit of blood and bone and lime, put the irrigation lines down and mulch on top, then we're ready to go again. That seems to work pretty well for us. But it does require constant attention.

Energiser Bunny said...

We don't dig either, but I do hear your pain Linda. Because it doesn't take much to take your eye off the ball and go backwards, especially in this ridiculous heat. We let the chickens in after the crop in that patch has finished. We let them do their work and add cow manure for them to work as well. We also throw in some mulch. Then after a couple of months, we lock the girls back out and prepare the patch. We don't dig at this point but we do pile it up into rows with a small hoe, add a bit of blood and bone and lime, put the irrigation lines down and mulch on top, then we're ready to go again. That seems to work pretty well for us. But it does require constant attention.

farmer_liz said...

out soil isn't great, but as we had previously bought a roto-tiller (second hand) it was an easy option to dig. And then add all the manure and mulch on top. I thought I had improved the soil, but it is really drying out, this weather is impossible!

Tania said...

We have an unusual red river soil that tends to compact like concrete. But it does hold moisture well. So we did dig and brought soil in initially. Since then I have worked with compost to build the soil up and it is getting pretty good. Unfortunately nothing short of a shade would have saved my vegies this year. It has been a very harsh season hasn't it?

Linda said...

Well I'm amazed at the number of people who don't dig! I hope I'm back on track as far as the garden is concerned now. It's been a week of heavy duty work to repair it and I hope to post about it today. Thanks for your input. There is so much to be learned by listening to others.

Linda said...

Oh, and Evi. That's your kale in the photo! The only thing growing well in this harsh heat.