How to start a no-dig vegetable garden

Supercharge your soil’s health without the use of chemicals

Our gardens are full of healing potential. There are studies proving that spending time in the garden is linked to better health and wellbeing. And if you’re keen to squeeze a bit of exercise into your daily routine, it’s even possible to get fitter with just 30 minutes of regular gardening. 

But have you thought about how you can  boost the health and vitality of your own garden – and in particular its soil?  

woman gardener in straw hat and green apron working in garden with hoe, sitting against backdrop of greenhouse and looking down.Credit: Shutterstock / Sergio Photone
Would you consider putting your spade aside?

A no-dig garden can be an accessible way to supercharge your soil, and Charles Dowding’s experiments comparing dug and undug beds showed no-dig veggies grew stronger and more healthily. And we have even more good news: starting a no-dig garden from scratch doesn’t have to be back-breaking work.  

Your own no-dig project – whether you’re regenerating an existing veg patch or starting afresh – can be a simple process.  

In fact, you can kickstart your garden’s eco-friendly growing journey and create a no-dig garden during the time between lunch and dinner. 

Fancy a quick science lesson? Read our article on why a no-dig garden is better for the environment.

Before you begin

How long will it take?

No-dig is a quick way to recover the health of compacted, nutrient-poor land, according to Matthew Pennington, chef and founder of The Ethicurean restaurant. As well as being a wild food expert and self-confessed regenerative food systems (yep, that’s no-dig) nerd, his eatery uses ingredients from its own no-dig kitchen garden. 

He says that a neglected veg patch can begin its journey to repair within an afternoon, and certainly in less time than it would take to ‘dig it over’.  

How much will it cost?

Potentially nothing! But if you need to buy natural materials and equipment, the cost could be around £150.

Equipment

Make sure you have these essentials…

  • Well-rotted compost 
  • Mulch 
  • Wheelbarrow 
  • Pitchfork (or shovel)
  • Cardboard 
  • Wooden planks (not essential) 
Vegetable garden with pathway cutting through the middleCredit: Shutterstock / Nancy McAlary
You can create the foundations of your no-dig garden in just a few hours

Step 1: Choose your location

Transform a patch or find a new spot

If you’re starting your no-dig bed on a patch of ground that hasn’t been used before, you need to choose your spot. 

Mike Thurlow, a horticultural advisor and organic kitchen gardener, suggests opting for a sunny, open site away from overhanging trees and shade from buildings, in well-drained soil, free from roots. 

He adds that choosing a spot of virgin ground (that’s not been dug for plants before) can be better. This is because there will be no sinking or soil settlement to consider once you’ve crafted your beds. 

Of course, if you’d prefer to transform an existing plant bed, or a veg patch that’s been in a long-term relationship with your spade (and don’t have another suitable spot to start from scratch), then you’re all ready to go. 

Female holding soil in both handsCredit: Shutterstock / NIKS ADS
The type of soil your garden has may affect how well a no-dig approach works

No-dig is best for clay soils 

No-dig works particularly well on sticky clay soils that are hard to dig but can form good structure in no-dig regimes, says Guy Barter, chief horticulturalist at the Royal Horticulture Society.

He says that raised beds are also useful to enhance the drainage of clay soils, which are notoriously slow-draining.

Sandy soils are poor at forming a strong structure and are easy to dig, so it may not reap the benefits of a no-dig approach. Raised beds can also make sandy soils excessively well-drained, leading to drought stress in dry periods, he adds. 

Step 2: Decide your style of no-dig bed

A trio of choices

There are three main ways you can build a no-dig vegetable garden, depending on the materials you have to hand.  

If you have access to an abundance of tree debris (leaves, branches and cut trunks) then perhaps a hugelbed (pronounced ‘hoogle-bed’ – it’s German for ‘mounded bed’) will work for you. These beds are traditionally built using plant debris and logs, which form their central structure. Here’s a helpful explanation of how hugelkultur works and the steps to get set up. 

And those of you with straw bales within reach could try planting in compost-covered pockets created on their top surface. This straw bale method is particularly recommended if you’d rather not plant into soil (or have a hard base, such as a courtyard). 

Person Building Permaculture Hill Mound Using Pitchfork in the MeadowCredit: Shutterstock / NayaDadara
Rotten logs and decomposed plant debris forms the basis of a hugelbed

But perhaps the most accessible style of bed for the novice no-digger is based on the model of a lasagne. Imagine this: cardboard takes the place of pasta sheets, and rich, saucy fillings are made of green and brown organic materials (that’s your mulch and compost). 

We’ll explain how to create this “lasagne” style step-by-step – forming a simple, raised vegetable patch with no-dig garden layers. The task is achievable for most able-bodied gardeners to do by themselves in an afternoon. 

Step 3: Prepare the ground

Start with a clean slate

It’s time to get muddy and prepare the base that your no-dig beds will sit on properly. 

Thurlow suggests the following when clearing a space and marking out beds: 

  • Take the time to remove any perennial weeds from the site without disturbing too much of the soil.  
  • Remove any stones larger than 5cm (2in) in size. 
  • Don’t make the beds too long to avoid having to walk long distances to manage them (grow in strips or raised bedsno wider than 1.5m (5ft). That will be easier on our backs because the beds can be cultivated from the sides without over-reaching or having to walk on them. It’s also more economical with organic matter.
  • The beds can be edged with sleepers, boards, bricks or blocks, but this is not strictly necessary at first. 
  • The pathways in between the beds can be covered with cardboard as a short-term weed suppressant. In the longer term the paths can be covered in wood or bark chips. 

Step 4: Lay down cardboard

Block out the light

One of the ways no-dig beds work to naturally eradicate  weed problems, is by creating a base with thick cardboard. 

Cover all your growing areas with this cardboard. This is essential. If you can’t find thick cardboard, a couple of layers of thinner cardboard will do. We want to completely block out all light getting to the existing soil.  

Person kneeling on the ground rolling out cardboard onto the soil to block out light that allows weeds to growCredit: Shutterstock / NayaDadara
Blocking out the light with cardboard helps to eradicate weed growth

This cardboard is useful in more ways than one. It will not only block weed growth while allowing the roots of your crops to pass through, but it will also decompose during your first year of growing. This provides a snack for worms, which are vital for healthy soil composition. 

Step 5: Add your compost and mulch

Let’s create some healthy soil!

This is where any heavy lifting begins and ends. With the help of a wheelbarrow and your pitchfork/shovel, you’ll need to cover the cardboard with about 15cm (6in) of compost and mulch. This earthy recipe will be what you plant directly into. 

If you don’t already own a wheelbarrow, check out these options to make sure you’re protecting your back and moving bulky loads around with ease.  

Homemade compost, green waste compost and fully-rotted manure are all great options and can be used on their own or in a mix. But you could use bagged peat-free compost if you can’t source anything else. 

Using a pitchfork to add wood chips and shredded brush to a no-dig raised bed for permaculture gardeningCredit: Shutterstock / NayaDadara
Sourcing good quality compost will help bacteria and fungi in the soil thrive

Pennington uses a mixture of well-mulched compost, wood chip and manure. 

Unless you have access to a thriving compost heap and lots of woodchips, it can be hard to begin the first layer – much-needed mulch,” he says. 

“My tip to you is to contact local tree surgeons. Many of them are happy to drop off freshly chipped hedgerow and tree waste, which is usually a cost for them to dispose of.  

“Similarly, you may live within the delivery bounds of a mushroom farm with spent compost [the residual waste generated by mushroom production]. We are looking to get fungi into this soil, so, this type of compost is gold.” 

Step 6: You’re ready to plant

Sow seeds of change

You can now start planting seedlings directly into your beds as you usually would, observing the growing seasons for each crop. 

You shouldn’t need to use fertiliser, as the plants are fed by the nutrients in the compost, as well as the healthy bacteria within it.  

couple with grandaughter gardening in the backyard gardenCredit: Shutterstock / Ground Picture
Even the smallest gardeners visiting your home can get involved

Any crops can be grown in your new no-dig beds. But as with all new growing projects, allow a little wiggle room for trial and error to begin with.  

What vegetables grow best?

“Brassicas, courgette, beetroot and cabbages dive into this system brilliantly,” says Pennington. “Deep-rooted veg like carrots, celeriac and parsnip may be stunted in year one because of lower layer compaction in the soil.  

“Be patient with them; their long tap roots help excavate soil deep down and build the soil structure long-term.” 

Thurlow suggests it may be better to operate a mixed sowing and transplanting plan in the first few growing seasons as the soil gradually improves. This means mixing up the herbs, vegetables and fruit crops neighbours, rather than planting everything in uniform groups

“As the beds improve there is no limit on the length of root possible,” Thurlow says. “Potatoes are planted on the cardboard layer and grow conventionally, but they are much easier and cleaner to lift. Leafy greens positively flourish under the system.” 

He advises no-dig gardeners to use a crop rotation system and plant ahead, so that you can immediately replace a spent crop with the following crop.  

“The layers of soil and organic matter will slowly blend together to form a highly fertile and productive bed,” he says. “After year one, the organic matter layer has to be replenished as before.” 

A couple in their garden harvesting chardCredit: Shutterstock / Rocketclips, Inc.
Harvesting just the heads of many crops keeps the soil structure intact

Root systems are essential to enable soil to retain (and keep building) excellent structure, because they physically hold the soil in place. These roots can remain in the ground if you only cut the head from crops at soil level when harvesting. 

Caring for your no-dig garden

Long-term maintenance is easy

Nurturing your no-dig beds will become easier over time. That’s a win-win for gardeners with busy schedules or for people who like the idea of growing benefits that accumulate each year.   

That’s because any weeds that do manage to reach the surface can be easily plucked out, allowing your crops to thrive. Ideally, your plants will cover most of the soil when they’re in full growing mode.  

The only thing left to do to maintain your no-dig garden is to make sure it’s protected from the elements, such as frost. Often the easiest option here is to simply cover the beds with a sheet, some tarpaulin or horticultural fleece 

Vegetable bed protected from the frost with horticultural fleeceCredit: Shutterstock / Trevor Clark
Protecting your plants against frost is vital

“You will also have to get used to adapting your watering techniques as the roots of the crops will be drawing water up from the lower levels of the soil,” says Thurlow. “This makes surface irrigation less critical.” 

Thankfully, your entire kitchen garden can be grown using the no-dig method.  The raised beds created will only get better as the soil system improves each year.   

Ready to get going?

Ready to start your project but want to know more about starting a no-dig garden from scratch? Then watch the pioneer of modern method Charles Dowding in action.

Once you’re in the swing of things, be careful not to make these common mistakes.

Rosanna Spence

Written by Rosanna Spence she/her

Updated:

Rosanna Spence has been a journalist for nearly 10 years, reporting on a huge array of topics – from microwaves to cocktails, sustainable buildings, the Caribbean islands and beyond. She’s interviewed chefs at the helm of Michelin-starred restaurants and chatted to countless CEOs about their businesses, as well as created travel guides for experienced travellers seeking life-changing adventures. Throughout her career, she has created content for Business Traveller, i-escape.com, Pub & Bar, BRITA, Dine Out and many more leading titles and brands.

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