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No Dig Garden Bed: Good Soil With Less Work

As an avid YouTube gardening video binge-watcher, imagine my absolute surprise and delight when I saw the collaboration between Epic Gardening’s Kevin Espiritu and the legendary Charles Dowding on how to make a no-dig garden bed back in December. This video came out at the perfect time for me because I had just decided to expand beyond my apartment patio and rent a garden plot through my local park district. I think many city dwellers like myself may come across a time when we venture beyond our tried and true containers into the wild and wonderful world of in-ground gardening. The no-dig gardening method is one way of getting started. 

One of my most important considerations for renting a garden plot was how accessible it would be for me. I had two options, one plot was about a three-minute drive from my house and the other was twenty. I knew if going to the gym was any indication, the closer the better!

The next consideration was which plot to rent. My local park district offered “seasonal plots” where the plot is tilled by the park district every March in preparation for tenants who occupy the plots from April through October. I decided to go with the “year-round plot” option where renters inherit a plot from a previous renter and are responsible for all preparations including the choice to till or not to till. This tenancy runs from January 1st through December 31st. Having watched just about all of Charles Dowding’s videos, I knew I wanted to try my hands at the no-dig or no-till approach and see where that takes me. I also wanted to try some season extension techniques since I live in Illinois, Zone 5b, where we have an almost unbearably long winter and a short growing season.

How to plan a no-dig garden

No dig garden bed
This no-dig garden bed method is a fast way to convert space without backaches. Source: Huan Song

I am currently renting a 20 feet by 40 feet garden plot that costs $80 per year to rent and comes with free water from the city. My plot is sandwiched between other plots and is oriented north to south. Some of my main considerations when designing this garden space include how to prevent deer, rabbits, and other wildlife from eating my vegetables and how to maximize my production through the use of vertical space. 

To start, I decided to anchor 7-foot T posts at each corner of this plot and run horticultural netting around the perimeter to serve both as a physical barrier against deer and also as a trellis for climbing plants that I wanted to grow like peas and Malabar spinach. The previous renter had a similar idea and had already installed two feet of chicken wire around the perimeter which prevents smaller rodents and rabbits from coming into the garden. Because I wanted to use the netting as my trellis, I also created a two-foot border bed all the way around the garden as a starting point. I also knew that I wanted to have a compost pile in this plot where I can compost my own garden waste and I needed some room to navigate around the compost to turn it and manage it over the course of the year. 

I decided the best way to layout my garden and create paths to navigate between beds is to have six large beds running north to south in addition to the two-foot border bed. My main beds are three feet wide with roughly 18 -24 inches between beds. I’m not a very tall person so my reach is pretty limited. I found three-foot beds were pretty much my limit to how comfortably I can reach. 

I used Google Sheets to plan out my plot where each cell represents one square foot. The green cells represent garden beds, the grey cells are for paths and the red cells represent my compost pile. I have a total plot area of 800 square feet and ended up with 417 square feet of growing beds and 383 square feet of paths, compost, and storage areas. Knowing the dimensions for your paths and beds is very important for sourcing and purchasing materials like compost and mulch. 

Google sheets layout
The Google Sheet garden layout. Source: Huan Song

What materials are needed for a no-dig garden

The essential components of no-dig beds are:

  • Compost or soil for your beds 
  • Mulch to create paths between beds 
  • Cardboard to form a weed barrier between the ground and your new bed which will eventually decompose

In addition, I also found the following supplies very helpful:

  • A bow rake to help level out the beds and the paths (inspired by Kevin’s tools video!)
  • A long tape measure to make sure the beds are properly spaced
  • Cedar fencing to serve as temporary sides for the beds 
  • Wooden stumps or bricks to hold the temporary sides in place
  • Containers to transport compost and mulch 
  • A large stiff board or cardboard to help with tamping down the raised beds
  • A helper! 

I’m fortunate enough to live in a community with a landscape recycling center that takes municipal yard waste and transforms them into compost and mulch. Residents of the community can purchase them at a discounted rate. Unfortunately due to COVID-19 restrictions, our facility did not do any deliveries which meant that I had to haul the mulch and compost myself using my small sedan, seven five-gallon buckets, and four potato grow bags! Our facility sold items either by 35 gallons or by the cubic yard. Compost costs $6.25 per 35 gallons ($25 per cubic yard) and shredded wood chips were half off at the time at $2.50 per 35 gallons ($10 per cubic yard).  Costs and transport will vary depending on your location.

Car with compost
Pails of compost in the back of the car. Source: Huan Song

I created my raised beds using a mix between Kevin and Charles’s methods by purchasing some cedar fences to serve as temporary sides to my beds. I was really inspired by Dowding’s comment that a raised bed does not need to have sides! Unlike Charles’ method, I did not keep my temporary wooden sides for a few weeks or months and instead, removed them almost immediately to create more beds as soon as I tamped down the compost. I used mulch for my pathways as a reinforcement to hold the sides of the no-dig garden beds. 

A big concern that many no-dig method gardeners have is how to source enough cardboard to cover the surface of the garden. You want to use brown cardboard boxes to not add any ink into your soil as the boxes break down. I also grappled with this challenge and started by saving boxes from my own deliveries, reaching out to friends, and raiding the Costco box pile! Eventually, I hit the jackpot by speaking with the manager of a store I pass by on my way to the garden plot after I noticed that he had a huge recycling dumpster filled with broken-down cardboard boxes. It only took a few trips with my car filled to the brim with cardboard to get enough to cover the whole plot. 

How do you make a no-dig garden bed?

This is the plot that I inherited back in January:

Weed filled mess
It’s a weed-filled mess! Source: Huan Song

My goal was to transform this weedy and overgrown plot into a highly productive no-dig garden. The first thing I bought was a GEOBIN, which is a large compost bin that I can install in the corner of this garden to hold all of this grass and garden waste. What might look scary here is actually a lot of organic matter to add to the compost. Some no-dig instructions say to lay the cardboard directly over the grass. For me, the grass had grown so tall, I couldn’t walk my way through it. I had to first cut everything down to even assess if I had a flat surface to work with. 

Once I removed all of the grass and organic matter from the previous garden into my compost pile, I started in earnest to create my no-dig beds. The process is very straightforward:

Frame at start of bed
At the start, set your frame in place on top of the cardboard and fill with compost. Source: Huan Song
  • Lay down a layer or an overlapping layer of brown cardboard. Make sure that there are no gaps between the cardboard for future weeds to grow through. Lay down enough cardboard to include an overlap for your path. 
  • Create a temporary bed frame using cedar fences. For my beds, I had a pair of six-foot fences, a pair of three-foot fences, and a pair of two-foot fences. 
  • Secure the bed frames using rocks, bricks, or wood. 
  • Add a 3-4 inch layer of compost to the bed frames and use a rake to level the compost. 
Tamping down compost with cardboard
Use a sheet of cardboard and your feet to tamp down the compost. Source: Huan Song
  • Place a large cardboard sheet over your bed and tamp down the compost with your feet. This will prevent too much erosion of your beds but won’t compact your soil since it’s completely organic matter. This process is not like working with clay soil. 
  • Shift the fence material a few feet along and repeat steps 3-5. 
  • Remove the fence and add a layer of mulch in your paths to reinforce the sides of the bed. 
  • Plant! Your bed is ready for you to add seedlings or sow directly at this point. You don’t need to wait for your whole garden to be completed before planting. Since I started this process in early March, I covered my beds with floating row covers after planting to help with germination. I sowed radishes, peas, and greens the second week of March directly into these no-dig beds, about six weeks before my average last frost date.
Extending bed
Once the first part is done, slide the boards further forward to keep extending the bed. Source: Huan Song
Work in progress
One border bed in with one of the other beds in progress. You can see the mulch pathway between. Source: Huan Song

Surprises and learnings from the no-dig garden

As of the end of May, I was able to harvest over 25 pounds (11 kg) of produce from my no-dig vegetable garden by using a combination of season extension methods like winter sowing and row covers and by growing directly in compost. My high intensive salad bed has been producing so much that I’ve been giving away greens to everyone I know!

Unlike container gardening, I did not add any perlite or coco coir to help with aeration and drainage.  One of my biggest surprises and delights of no-dig gardening is that I have inherited an asparagus patch from the previous tenants! Asparagus takes years to produce and I feel so lucky to have this delicious spring vegetable pop up in my no-dig beds. 

One of the challenges that I am grappling with right now is the appearance of some weeds despite the cardboard barrier. I know that it is not going to be possible to have a completely weed-free organic garden and I can accept that fact. Looking at my neighboring plots on either side of me and at the seasonal plots, I see that my weed pressure is significantly less. Tilling can bring weed seeds up to the surface which is a big drawback for this garden preparation method. However, I was not able to lay down cardboard along the edges of my plot into the neighboring plots and some of their weeds are encroaching into my area. I plan to spend a bit more effort and time on weeding the edges, cutting flowers before they can drop weed seeds, and heavily mulching my no-dig beds with straw. 

I also have some rhizomatic weeds in my no-dig beds. These persistent plants spread by underground stems and likely have spread or were already established under my cardboard layer. Canada thistle and mint are my two primary weeds at this time, but I’m still able to stay on top of them with relatively little effort. 

Examining my garden, I can see that the soil is teeming with life. There are worms everywhere and my wood chip pathways are covered in mycelium. I know that even if I’m a temporary renter, I’ve still covered this 20×40 space in organic matter that can continue to feed the soil for years to come. I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of the growing season pans out and excited to learn from my first year of no-dig gardening. 

High intensive salad bed
Tons of salad greens pack into a tight space. Source: Huan Song

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How can I make my soil better without digging?

A: There are billions of soil microorganisms that make up the soil food web or a network to help transport water and nutrients throughout the soil. Digging or tilling disrupts this soil structure and can lead to poor drainage. People who live with heavy clay soils, like Charles Dowding, have seen a drastic improvement in their soil health by using the no-dig method. 

Q: Do raised garden beds need a bottom?

A: No, raised garden beds do not need a bottom because the organic matter on top of the bed should be able to help prevent weeds from getting enough light to germinate. Even with using a cardboard layer in the no-dig gardening method, the cardboard breaks down in less than a year and becomes incorporated into the soil. Large rooting crops like carrots and parsnips should still be able to reach through the cardboard layer to grow their long taproots.


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