No Dig Backyard Mattress: Good ground with much less work

As an avid YouTube gardening video binge watcher, imagine my absolute surprise and delight when I saw Kevin Espiritu of Epic Gardening and the legendary Charles Dowding collaborate on how to make a garden bed without digging in December. This video came at the perfect time for me because I had just decided to expand beyond my apartment terrace and rent a garden plot through my local park district. I think many city dwellers like me will experience a time when we venture beyond our tried and tested containers into the wild and wonderful world of gardening in the ground. Gardening without digging is one way to get started.

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

The next consideration was which property to rent. My local park district offered "seasonal lots," where the park district farms the lot each March to prepare tenants who will occupy the lots from April to October. I chose the “year-round property” option, where tenants inherit a property from a previous tenant and are responsible for all preparations, including the choice of building or non-building. This lease runs from January 1st to December 31st. After seeing almost all of Charles Dowding's videos, I knew I wanted to try the no-dig or no-till approach and see where that leads me. I also wanted to try out some season extension techniques since I live in Illinois, Zone 5b, where we have an almost excruciatingly long winter and short growing season.

How to plan a garden without a dig

This no-dig garden bed method is a quick way to convert space without back pain. Source: Huan Song

I am currently renting a 20 by 40 foot garden lot that costs $ 80 a year and comes with free city water. My property is between other properties and faces north to south. Some of my main considerations when designing this garden are how to prevent deer, rabbits, and other wildlife from eating my vegetables and how to maximize my production by using vertical space.

To begin with, I decided to anchor 7-foot T-posts at every corner of this property and run horticultural nets around the perimeter, which would serve both as a physical barrier against deer and as a trellis for climbing plants that I wanted to grow like peas and Malabar -Spinach. The previous tenant had a similar idea and already had two feet of chicken wire installed around the perimeter to prevent smaller rodents and rabbits from entering the garden. Since I wanted to use the net as a trellis, I also created a two-foot-long border bed around the garden as a starting point. I also knew I wanted a compost heap on this property to compost my own garden waste on, and I needed some space to navigate the compost to turn and manage over the year.

I decided that the best way to style my yard and create paths to navigate between beds is to have six large beds running north to south in addition to the two foot edge bed. My main beds are three feet wide with about 18-24 inches between the beds. I'm not a very tall person so my reach is quite limited. I found that three-foot beds were pretty much my limit on how comfortable I can be.

I used Google Sheets to plan my chart, where each cell represents one square foot. The green cells stand for garden beds, the gray for paths and the red for my compost heap. I have a total of 800 square feet of land and ended up with 417 square feet of growing beds and 383 square feet of paths, compost, and storage space. Knowing the dimensions of your paths and beds is very important in order to source and purchase materials such as compost and mulch.

Google Sheets layoutThe Google Sheet garden layout. Source: Huan Song

What materials are needed for a garden without a ditch?

The essential components of no-dig beds are:

  • Compost or soil for your beds
  • Mulching to create paths between beds
  • Cardboard to create a weed barrier between the soil and your new bed that will eventually decompose

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

  • An arch rake to level the beds and paths (inspired by Kevin's tool video!)
  • A long tape measure to make sure the beds are the correct spacing
  • Cedar wood fences as temporary side walls for the beds
  • Wood stumps or bricks to hold the temporary pages in place
  • Containers for transporting compost and mulch
  • A large stiff board or cardboard to stuff the raised beds
  • A helper!

I am fortunate to live in a community with a landscape recycling center that picks up municipal waste and turns it into compost and mulch. Residents of the community can purchase them at a discounted price. Unfortunately, our facility didn't make deliveries due to COVID-19 restrictions, which meant I had to haul the mulch and compost myself with my little limo, seven five-gallon buckets, and four potato grow bags! Our facility sold items in either 35 gallons or cubic meters. Compost costs $ 6.25 per 35 gallons ($ 25 per cubic yard) and shredded wood chips were half as expensive at the time at $ 2.50 per 35 gallons ($ 10 per cubic yard). Costs and transportation vary depending on the location.

Car with compostCompost in the trunk. Source: Huan Song

I made my raised beds with a mix of Kevins and Charles & # 39; Methods created by buying cedar fences that will serve as temporary sides for my flower beds. I was really inspired by Dowding's comment that a raised bed doesn't have to have sides! Unlike Charles’s method, I didn't keep my temporary wooden pages for a few weeks or months and instead removed them almost immediately to make more beds once I pounded the compost on. I used mulch for my pathways as reinforcement to hold the sides of the non-digging garden beds.

A major concern many gardeners without a method of digging have is obtaining enough cardboard to cover the surface of the garden. You want to use brown card stock so as not to get ink into your bottom when the cardboard crumbles. I took up this challenge too and started rescuing boxes from my own shipments, reaching out to friends, and looting the Costco stack of boxes! I finally hit the jackpot by speaking to the manager of a store I pass on my way to the garden property after noticing that he has a huge dumpster full of broken cardboard boxes. It only took me a few trips in my car, which was filled to the brim with cardboard, to get enough to cover the whole property.

How to make a garden bed without digging

This is the plot I inherited in January:

Weed-filled chaosIt's a weed-filled mess! Source: Huan Song

My goal was to turn this overgrown and overgrown property into a highly productive garden without digging. 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 that grass and garden debris. What may look scary here is actually a ton of organic matter that needs to be added to the compost. Some no-dig instructions say to put the cardboard directly over the grass. For me the grass had grown so high that I couldn't walk through it. I had to cut everything off first to even be able to judge whether I had a flat surface to work with.

After removing all of the grass and organic matter from the previous garden onto my compost heap, I started building my trenchless flower beds in earnest. The process is very simple:

Frame at the beginning of the bedTo start, place your frame on top of the cardboard and fill it with compost. Source: Huan Song

  • Put a layer or an overlapping layer of brown cardboard. Make sure there are no gaps between the cardboard for future weeds to grow through. Lay out enough cardboard to include an overlap for your walkway.
  • Create a temporary bed frame with cedar fencing. For my beds, I had a pair of two-meter-high fences, a pair of three-meter-long fences, and a pair of two-meter-long fences.
  • Secure the bed frames with stone, brick, or wood.
  • Add a 3-4 inch layer of compost to the bed frames and use a rake to level the compost.

Stuff compost with cardboardUse a sheet of cardboard and your feet to tamp the compost. Source: Huan Song

  • Place a large sheet of cardboard over your bed and tamp the compost in place with your feet. This will prevent too much erosion of your beds, but it will not compact your soil because it is completely organic material. This process is not like working with clay soil.
  • Move the fence material a few feet 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 to add seedlings or to sow directly. You don't have to wait for your whole garden to be ready before planting. Since I started this process in early March, I covered my beds with floating row blankets after planting to aid germination. I planted radishes, peas, and vegetables straight into these beds without digging in the second week of March, about six weeks before my average last frost date.

Pull-out bedWhen the first part is done, continue sliding the boards forward to further extend the bed. Source: Huan Song
In progressA border bed is in the works with one of the other beds. You can see the mulch path in between. Source: Huan Song

Surprises and realizations from the garden without digging

By the end of May, I was able to harvest over 11kg of produce from my vegetable garden without digging, using a combination of seasonal extension methods such as winter sowing and row coverings and growing directly into compost. My high intensity bed of lettuce produced so much that I am giving away vegetables to everyone I know!

Unlike container horticulture, I didn't add perlite or coconut fiber to help with ventilation and drainage. One of my biggest surprises and joys of digging no gardening is that I inherited an asparagus field from previous tenants! Asparagus takes years to make and I'm so happy that these delicious spring vegetables are showing up in my no-dig beds.

One of the challenges I'm dealing with right now is the appearance of some weeds despite the cardboard barrier. I know it won't be possible to have a completely weed-free organic garden and I can accept that. If I look at my neighboring plots on both sides and the seasonal plots, I see that my weed pressure is significantly lower. Weed seeds can come to the surface when plowing, which is a major disadvantage of this garden preparation method. However, I was unable to put cardboard in the neighboring parcels at the edges of my parcel and some of their weeds invaded my area. I plan to spend a little more effort and time weeding the edges, pruning flowers before they can drop weed seeds, and heavily mulching my not-to-be-dig beds with straw.

I also have some rhizomatic weeds in my no-dig beds. These stubborn plants spread through underground stems and have likely spread or already established under my cardboard layer. Canadian thistle and mint are my two primary weeds right now, but I can still keep track of things with relatively little effort.

When I look at my garden, I see that the ground is teeming with life. There are worms everywhere and my wood chip paths are covered in mycelium. I know that even if I'm a temporary tenant, I still covered that 20 × 40 space with organic material that can still feed the soil for years to come. I look forward to seeing how the rest of the growing season develops and look forward to learning from my first year of not digging in the garden.

High intensity bed of lettuceTons of lettuce greens pack in a confined space. Source: Huan Song

frequently asked Questions

Q: How can I improve my soil without digging?

A: There are billions of soil microorganisms that make up the soil's food web, or network, to carry water and nutrients through the soil. Digging or plowing disrupts this soil structure and can lead to poor drainage. People who live with heavy clay soils, like Charles Dowding, have seen dramatic improvements in their soil health from the no-dig method.

Q: Do raised beds need a floor?

A: No, raised beds don't need soil as the organic matter on the bed should help prevent weeds from getting enough light to germinate. Even if a cardboard layer is used in the no-dig gardening process, the cardboard decomposes in less than a year and is worked into the ground. Large root crops such as carrots and parsnips should still be able to reach through the cardboard layer to allow their long tap roots to grow.

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