No Dig Gardening – How To Get Going From Scratch

Let’s get going! How do you start no-dig growing from scratch is the question I’m most often asked (after the one about why no-dig in the first place, see ‘To Dig or Not to Dig?’, last issue). Apologies to GGA members who’ve heard this all before – this is for the more recent readers.

The method described here is a permaculture inspired ‘sheet mulch’ technique, which has worked very effectively on my heavy Cheltenham clay. This method of ‘breaking in’ weedy or grassed areas, actually creates good soil above the original level, rather like nature does on the forest floor, without any disturbance to the soil.

Worms and micro-organisms are left to do their job, to create healthy living soil, and the electro-magnetic fields of the earth are left undisturbed by metal tools. What’s more, this is the perfect time to start planning your no-dig beds since you will need time to gather the following unused resources (otherwise considered ‘waste’ to the system) before you start planting about April.

What you will need is:

1) Thick sheets of cardboard eg. large brown cardboard boxes

2) Enough manure and home grown compost to cover your bed 6″- 8″ (Even half rotted manure or really rough compost will do as you’re not digging in. Whatever’s free or cheap and local!)

3) Enough straw, garden shreddings or lawn mowings to give at least 6″ layer.

4) Seed potatoes

5) Long sharp serrated knife (old bread carvers are perfect)

6) Bucket of good compost

Now before you turn the page, this is a lot easier to gather than you think. The amount of large brown cardboard boxes destined for landfill is criminal. Ask at any retailer, especially appliance shops, look out on dustbin day, put the word out to friends and neighbours, and in a few weeks you’ll be inundated!

Manure is cheap and plentiful. Riding stables usually let you have it free if you bag it yourself. You’ll need about a large bag or barrow load per metre square, so work out your beds first and guesstimate. If you can get compost, so much the better but that is usually in short supply and expensive. I have emptied my half decomposed heaps to make a sheet mulch bed to good end.

Straw is often for sale cheaply – I think the most I’ve paid is $5.00 for a large bale, but in the spring we’re coming to the end of the season. Alternatives are shredding’s and grass mowing’s, or I even cut the spring couch for hay (don’t let it seed though).

Method

Right, so you find all this stuff and select a suitable warm spring day (not too much wind is helpful when manhandling large sheets of cardboard!) and you make a start. First slash or squash down the weeds a bit if very high, and damp down if very dry.

Cover the area of your beds (any shape you like, just cut the cardboard to fit with your serrated knife) with a double thickness of card (ie, boxes folded flat) and at least eight inches overlap to stop the light. If starting on lawn, don’t remove the turf just lay cardboard on top. Cover this with compost or manure or mixture thereof to about six inches, eight if you have enough.

You then cut a criss-cross through the cardboard and lay a potato on the soil/weeds underneath, surround with a handful of good compost and cover over with the manure. Place potatoes about 18″ apart, there’s no need for spaces between rows (or even rows) as you will not be mounding up. The closer you space, the less your yield will be but the greater the light exclusion and weed suppression, which is the primary reason for this sheet mulch technique.

After you’ve sown all your spuds, cover the whole lot with a good clean layer of straw etc to stop summer weeds setting in the manure and to provide another light barrier to protect the potatoes from going green and allow the worms to do their job. You may want to keep adding fresh mulch in the summer I chuck on anything – weeds, kitchen green waste, mowings to ensure no light gets in.

Results

By end of July/August/September according to your potato variety, you can start pulling your spuds -literally. Pull the haulms and you will find the potatoes nestling in the layer of rich compost that has formed from the good nitrogen/carbon mix of the mulch.

Amazingly, I have found that any surviving perennial weeds (some will come through the card eventually, try not to worry but pull off any bind weed as it emerges) will have their roots running along this nutrient-rich layer and can easily be pulled up with the spuds. In my experience best results occur if you sheet mulch areas which have been previously covered in carpet for a whole growing season, but this isn’t essential.

Your yield may be smaller than normal (not always I’ve found) but you will have a lovely dark brown veggie bed ready for planting with winter crop seedlings such as brassicas or leeks, or sowing with autumn broad beans or an over-wintering green manure, rather than compacted lawn or weedy scrub.

Potatoes are perfect for breaking in new ground in this way as they love the acidy manure and the tubers help the worms break up the soil, but I have also grown jerusalem artichokes, broad beans, and sweetcorn and courgettes in this way. (Tip – very large transplanted plants help deter slugs which prefer the young fresh growth)

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About the Author

With the endless passion for organic living, I - Ann Sanders has come up with the idea of creating A Green Hand. Being the founder and editor of A Green Hand, my goal is to provide everyone with a wide range of tips about healthy lifestyle with multiform categories including gardening, health & beauty, food recipe,...