I’ve been a professional gardener for 30 years – here’s why I no longer dig my soil 

I’ve taken the backache out of vegetable growing with no-dig gardening.

In the gentle world of vegetable gardening, digging (or to be more accurate, not digging) turns out to be a bit of a hot potato – who would have thought it? I recently mentioned on social media that I no longer dig over my vegetable beds and I was deluged with comments, some as spicy as the Carolina Reaper chilli I’ve been cultivating.  

Gardeners seem to be divided into two warring factions over no-dig gardening, and it’s becoming something that you either swear by or swear about. 

Digging the soil with a spadeCredit: Shutterstock / Ground Picture
To dig or not to dig. That is the question. But what is the answer?

Traditional digging of vegetable beds

Like many others of my generation, I was brought up to turn over the soil in the garden. 

I was taught it was healthy to break up the clods of earth (and very satisfying too) and then rake it to a fine tilth. If you weren’t sweating with the exhilaration of double digging your plot, you weren’t gardening properly. 

Digging the soil was supposed to help aerate it, allowing the earth to breathe. It was also considered to be the most effective way of digging up perennial weeds.

A change of tactic 

About 10 years ago, my back started to play up and I wondered whether there might be an alternative to all this intense digging.  

I noticed that no matter how much cultivation of the soil I did to remove weeds, they came back with a vengeance just days after.  

Around this time, I spotted a lot of gardeners talking about a new technique called no-dig” gardening – growing plants without having to dig the soil.   

I say “new”, but exponents such as Charles Dowding have been extolling the virtues of no-dig for decades. What started off as a bit of a quirky, underground gardening movement is now firmly in the mainstream, with many people practising it. 

A few years ago, I experimented with no-dig with some of my smaller raised beds in my back garden and was amazed at the results: bigger crops, less digging and fewer weeds. And best of all, I had less back pain!  

I now wholeheartedly embrace no-dig gardening, and these are the reasons why. 

1. You’ll avoid backache

No-dig is not a strenuous activity

Sadly, I’m not getting any younger, and not having to dig the soil is certainly helping me avoid any additional back and knee problems.  

Gardening is generally great exercise and with the no-dig technique you certainly still get your fair share of it.  

But direct digging can have a heavy impact on your body, particularly your back and knees. It’s far better for me to garden in a less strenuous way using the no-dig technique.

2. No-dig helps on heavy clay soil

You won’t get yourself into a sticky mess

I have heavy clay soil in my garden, and this means that when it gets wet, it becomes sticky underfoot. For anybody who’s experienced this, it’s not pleasant.  

The clay sticks to your welly boots, making them feel as if your feet have been set in concrete.  

But by adding layers of compost (or indeed any mulch) over the soil’s surface, the clay doesn’t stick as much. It means I can work on the veggie beds for longer throughout the year.  

And compaction issues are reduced because you’re adding more compost as your work, protecting what lies beneath.

What is no-dig? 

Instead of digging over the soil, first, a layer of cardboard is put down. This is then covered with an organic mulch to a depth of about 8cm (3.1in). A mulch can be anything from compost to decomposed fallen leaves, grass clippings and kitchen waste (vegetables and fruit).

The plants or seeds are then grown or sown directly into this.  

The organic material on the surface is then slowly taken downwards via gravity, rainfall, worms and micro-organisms into the root zone.  

Although it is a more common practice among vegetable growers, no-dig can also be used for ornamental plants in areas, such as herbaceous borders or mixed borders. 

3. No-dig is good for water conservation

The soil requires less watering

Most gardeners are aware of the benefits of applying mulch to the surface to suppress weeds and retain moisture.  

With the no-dig method, the gradual accumulation of layers of mulch over the months or years diminishes the need for watering even more, as the organic material absorbs and holds onto moisture for longer. 

Conversely, I’ve found that digging over the soil damages the natural drainage system, and instead creates puddling and run-off on the surface.  

4. Extended growing seasons

A longer season to grow vegetables

The extra warmth and insulation provided by the layers of mulch results in earlier crops than if the soil had been dug over. Being an impatient gardener, this is an enormous benefit to me.  

A warmer soil also means I can extend my season into autumn and winter for longer.  

This means I can grow crops that will benefit from a few extra weeks to be ready, such as sweet potatoes or lentils. For vegetables with shorter seasons, it gives me the opportunity to sow successional crops for longer.  

The drawbacks of no-dig gardening

Of course, no-dig isn’t the perfect solution, and there are experienced gardeners who recognise it has its pros and cons.

Peter Adams, edibles team leader from RHS Rosemoor says:  

“As an RHS garden, we ought to be showing people many ways of gardening and letting them decide which is best for their own circumstances and conditions. 

I don’t always see how practical it is for the home gardener; not always being able to produce large enough volumes of compost at home can be a problem.”  

Adams continues: “We do a bit of no-dig here at RHS Rosemoor. We started in 2021, and it works well for us with some crops, especially the alliums.” 

However, he points out not all crops do well with no-dig, in his experience. “I have found other crops can struggle, particularly the root crops, and some of the brassicas. Admittedly, our no-dig plots are only in their third season, and so there’s still a lot of work to go.”  

He adds: “My observations so far are that the crops tend to stay growing in the compost at the top and the soil level below is effectively not used. 

This means plants can end up not attaining their full size, because the nutrients are on the surface – in the form of the mulch – so roots don’t grow downward.

5. No-dig is a time- saving technique

It gives you more time for other garden tasks

Digging and weeding takes up a lot of time – time that could be spent achieving other things in the garden.  

As Dowding says:No-dig reduces weeding, so you have time to harvest, clear and replant – and continue sowing all summer.” 

I remember double digging an allotmentsized area during my training at RHS Wisley back in the early Nineties.  

It took me a few weeks of hard graft, and despite being in my early twenties and reasonably fit, I had an aching back for a good few weeks more.

6. No-dig creates a healthier soil

It doesn’t disturb micro-organisms

Digging the soil can destroy its natural structure, disturb microorganisms and damage the overall eco system.  

The benefit of the no-dig gardening method is it’s richer in organic matter, which is essential for plant growth, and encourages the development of the beneficial bacteria and fungi that are necessary for healthy soil and plants.  

As Dowding comments: “All the soil fauna and fungi that are not damaged by digging can become more abundant and help plants to grow more healthily.” 

Digging also disturbs the worms that are essential for aerating the soil. By laying organic matter on the surface, it allow the worms to do all the hard work for me and gradually move the material downwards into the root area.

7. It’s better for weed prevention

There’s no need to dig out weeds

I’ve also found that since practising no-dig gardening, my beds have fewer weeds in them.  

Turning over the soil seems to encourage more weeds to grow. This is because any existing perennial roots can be inadvertently chopped up by a spade or fork and end up spreading among the beds.  

Weed seeds lying dormant in the soil become exposed to the light with digging, so they germinate rather than being left undisturbed.  

Instead, I just smother out most weeds with layers of cardboard, blocking sunlight from reaching the dormant seeds and perennial roots. 

There are other ways to get rid of weeds, too. 

8. Bindweed is easier to control

No-dig helps control invasive weeds

I’ve spent years trying to dig bindweed out of my borders and beds. But with roots that can stretch down more than 1m (3.3ft), it’s not always possible to reach them, resulting in their shoots appearing above ground every spring.  

However, since I’ve stopped digging and instead use mulch with cardboard and compost, I’ve managed to suppress the worst of it. I used three layers of cardboard, and when the occasional shoot manages to pop through, it’s easy to pull it out from the loose compost on top.  

9. The exceptions to no-dig

Occasionally digging is still required

There are occasions when I will still dig, though. This includes planting a hole for a tree or breaking up a compacted soil.

If there is a serious infestation of a weed, such as bramble or horsetail, I may have an initial stab at digging out the worst of the roots before laying down my mulch. 

Sometimes it needs a more substantial layer for pernicious weeds, such as a carpet made from natural fibres, free from colour chemicals and having removed the underlay. 

Other than that, I will persevere with my no-dig beds and hopefully my vegetables (and my poor back) will be happier for it.

Simon Akeroyd

Written by Simon Akeroyd he/him

Updated:

Simon Akeroyd was previously a Head Gardener for the National Trust and RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) and has written more than 30 gardening books during his career. He also writes regularly for national newspapers as well as garden and lifestyle magazines.

Simon has presented and been featured in TV gardening programmes and worked as a horticultural researcher, writer and producer for the BBC.

During his career, he’s also managed many gardens including RHS Wisley, RHS Harlow Carr,  Sheffield Park, Polesden Lacey, Coleton Fishacre, Compton Castle and Agatha Christie’s Greenway.

He believes passionately in encouraging everyone to grow plants. Not only do plants make our surrounding space look more beautiful, but they help the wildlife and the planet too.

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