Updated: Feb 5, 2021
“No dig” is a method of gardening, and it sounds like a philosophy I can get behind! In case you’re wondering if it’s simply an excuse to skip the hard part of gardening (and we all know that skipping the hard parts in anything can lead to mediocre results), rest assured that “no dig” is based on ecology. The idea is that soil is an ecosystem that shouldn’t be disturbed. In its best and most natural form, soil is teeming with bacteria, fungi, countless types of worms, nematodes and other species that all work together to create an environment where plants thrive. Digging it up is thought to create problems, so the gardener should dig as little as possible.
No dig has been around for a long time; one of the pioneers of this method was Masanobu Fukuoka, who farmed in Japan and wrote about it in “The One Straw Revolution.” Since the 1990’s, Charles Dowding has become the main spokesman for no dig, and his website is packed with information, photos and videos.
“No dig” doesn’t mean you’ll never dig at all - you’ll still have to make a hole to plant a shrub or a bulb. But the more you rely on mulching instead of turning the soil, the more you will cut down on weeding. In fact, “no dig” is sometimes called “lasagna” gardening because you can layer mulch and compost instead of digging and turning. For years now I’ve been mulching regularly in my back yard, usually with fallen leaves, and it’s made a difference in how much I have to weed. Weeds love newly turned soil, so I try not to make it easy for them. Mulching doesn’t disturb the soil, and it keeps out sunlight that helps weed seedlings start growing.
When we started Tiny Footprint Flowers, we used our front parking strip for a large part of our growing space. We didn’t plan on “no dig” but we did use a method that was similar: Don covered the existing grass with black plastic for several weeks in winter, then removed it and layered compost on top. Next he installed drip irrigation lines and SunBelt landscape cloth over the top of the compost, then we started planting our seedlings. For info on using landscape cloth for cut flower farming, read this blog post on the Floret website. In retrospect, we should have done some digging and turning, because the compost we bought wasn’t optimal for holding water, and the first seedlings struggled. After turning in some of the garden soil that was underneath, our later plantings did better, and we had no problems with weeds. After ten months of growing flowers, we can say that the parking strip garden was a success.
For 2021 we’ll modify our parking strip bed slightly. In late November all the flowers were removed, we turned the soil once as we dug shallow trenches for planting ranunculus and tulips, then we added leaf mulch on top. The bulbs are starting to sprout now and they'll bloom in February through March. At that point, we’ll put back the drip irrigation and SunBelt cloth, then plant our seedlings and I hope we won’t have to dig ever again. Meanwhile, in our older garden beds, I’ll keep on doing what has worked well: digging only when necessary for planting new shrubs, adding compost and mulch a few times a year to keep down weeds and renew nutrients.