If you’ve read our article “What is No-Dig Gardening?” and are ready to take the plunge, you’re in the right place. Now, there are a number of different ways to create a no-dig garden (people are ingenious, I tell you), but this is one of the easiest and most straightforward ways. So — and I never thought I’d write this — put your shovels and trowels down and get ready for a no-dig adventure.
Step 1: Choose a Location for Your No-Dig Garden
An ideal location would be fairly level and receive as much direct sunlight as possible (5 or more hours a day). This location can be within raised beds, over grass, or even on top of concrete.
Step 2: Gather Your Materials
• Newspaper or cardboard
• Animal manure
• Straw bales or lucerne (alfalfa hay), or both
• Watering can or water hose for watering
Optional materials include kitchen scraps and worm castings (my favorite; they’re magical), and if you’re building on concrete or rocky ground, collect small dry sticks/branches and dry leaves.
Step 3: Prepare the Ground
If you’re creating your no-dig garden over soil or an existing garden bed (raised or not), no additional prep is necessary. However, if you’re building on concrete or rocky ground, add a 3-4” layer of sticks, branches, and dry leaves which will aid in drainage. If you’re building over grass, mow your grass very low, then fertilize with blood/bone fertilizer and water that in — this helps rot the grass down more quickly.
Step 4: Lay Down Newspaper
Lay down a ¼” thick layer of newspaper, overlapping edges by 6”, and water it down. Do not use glossy printed paper (inserts/ads) or office paper as they contain toxic inks. If you’re using cardboard instead of newspaper, you’ll have to soak it in a large tub of water first — but honestly, cardboard glue has borax in it so, while you can use it, newspaper is preferable.
Step 5: Lay Down Lucerne
Now add a 4” thick layer of lucerne or alfalfa hay and water well. If you don’t have access to alfalfa for a no-dig garden, you can alternately use hay, straw, or sugar cane mulch. Alfalfa is simply preferred because it has a higher nitrogen content and breaks down more quickly.
Step 6: Lay Down Manure/Compost
Spread a thin layer of manure and/or compost, up to 2” thick, and water in. If you want to add some kitchen scraps or worm castings, here’s where you add a thin layer. And while worm castings can be added to the upper manure/compost layer, this is the only layer that can include kitchen scraps. Why? Vermin. Enough said.
Step 7: Lay Down Straw
Add another 3-4” layer of straw and water in.
Step 8: Lay Down Manure/Compost
Repeat Step 6 here, omitting the kitchen scraps.
Step 9: Lay Down Straw
Repeat Step 7 here.
Step 10: Plant it Up
Here’s where the fun starts. Gather your plants and make a hole in the top straw layer with your hands, just big enough for the plant’s rootball (about 4-6” wide). Fill the hole with compost, then plant seeds, seedlings, or small plants, and water in well. Moving forward, continue to water as you normally would, but consider adding seaweed extract to your watering routine to help your plants develop and thrive.
Tip: Your completed no-dig bed will be anywhere from 13-15” deep, and while edging is not necessary, you may find it more manageable to add some kind of wooden edging to contain all the materials. And remember, no-dig gardens are for gardening, never for walking upon! Walking and stepping disturbs layers and compresses the ecosystem you just carefully created.