Is a no-dig garden better for the environment?

Time to put your spade aside

If you’re struggling with all the bad news in the world right now – climate change, the food crisis and more – it can feel hard to know what to do. But a simple thing to help might be just outside your window and will offer a mental boost too. 

One activity that can help, and one which our plants and our backs will be grateful for, is the no-dig method of gardening. The importance of digging is well documented – from destroying weeds to helping to avoid soil compaction – so going big on no-dig can seem counterintuitive.  

Woman watering vegetable gardenCredit: Shutterstock / goodluz
Not digging helps your garden thrive naturally

This relatively modern way of growing by shedding the spade has its roots firmly planted in traditional methodology, echoing the way an ancient woodland takes care of itself naturally.  

Choosing to not dig could even reduce the carbon footprint of the garden, but there’s a whole compost heap of reasons why a no-dig garden is generally better for the environment you live on (and beyond). 

Curious to get going on your eco-friendly garden mission already? This no-dig gardening guide has some useful information to kick things off, but if you’re curious about how ‘realistic’ it is in your precious back yard first, we’ve spoken to a few experts (and converts) to give you the knowledge you need. 


What is no-dig gardening and how does it work?

Essentially, a no-dig garden is an approach to growing that sees gardeners work with raised beds enriched naturally with compost, which are not repeatedly dug over each year. The undisturbed soil is fed organically, with weeds handily kept at bay thanks to reduced light and less germination.  

The method can be applied to both vegetable and ornamental plots, and it’s possible to begin a patch’s transformation from dig to no-dig in as little as one afternoon, according to Matthew Pennington, chef and founder of The Ethicurean restaurant (which builds its menu using ingredients from its own no-dig kitchen garden), wild food expert and self-confessed regenerative food systems nerd, having appeared on expert panels discussing the future of food using these techniques.  

No-dig gardening focuses on building natural biological systems within the beds, says Pennington, which then do the hard work to improve soil health, rather than relying on fertilisers, fungicides and pesticides to control crop growth. 

To fully understand how not digging boosts a garden’s health and improves its environmental credentials from a microscopic level up (resulting in more nutrient-dense crops) Pennington outlines its scientific principles: 

  •  It helps microbes and organisms flourish in the soil 

“Within undisturbed soil, there is a web of interconnected natural processes which only require a food source to thrive. The best source for the soil is a combination of compost, mulch, leaf litter and wood chip,” he says. 

“There is growing evidence that we don’t need to turn the earth over to ‘dig in nutrients’. This hard work with a fork could be spent instead focusing on how we feed the worms, insects, mites, nematodes and protozoa (tiny, single-cell animals) in soil.  

“These, in turn, increase the microbe and organism count and provide better food sources for any plants grown there.” 

  • Microbes and organisms need food from above soil level, but digestion occurs best below ground  

“To begin, we add deep layers of compost and mulch to the soil’s existing surface. This deep layer drowns out weeds, insulates, retains moisture and provides a food source for its friendly inhabitants (worms, insects etc). 

“These inhabitants create nutrients and are passed to our plant’s roots by fungi. Fungi work within the soil to provide plant roots with nutrients and water. In return, they receive sugars. We are beginning to recognise that these fungi are best left undisturbed and why it is vital in this system to let the soil be.  

“Practice harvesting plants at the stem, leaving the root structure intact to decay below the soil”

“Practice harvesting plants at the stem, leaving the root structure intact to decay below the soil. Decaying roots of plants bring a pathway for oxygen through the ground for the microbes and organisms, which feeds digestion, generating heat, just like in the compost bin. A closed loop! Leaving all these biological processes underground allows the soil to behave like a stomach.” 

  • Plants are nourished best with nutrition brought by natural biological processes 

“Much like the human stomach, the soil will do its job of digestion far better when it has an expansive gut flora of bacteria, protozoa and fungi. Rather than introducing fertiliser, well-rotted mulch, compost, and lignin-rich wood chips are the best food sources. These foods support many more forms of life and allow a much more excellent transfer of nutrients to our vegetables.” 

A woman places her hand on garden soilCredit: Shutterstock/ TanaCh
Undug soil can better retain its nutrients

Does this mean digging is bad for the environment?

To understand how digging can impact the environment in your garden, it helps to consider the impact that regenerative farming has on soil health and carbon emissions. 

“It is now acknowledged by farmers and growers that far from improving it, constant ploughing and rotating actually contributes to soil destruction and CO2 release into the atmosphere,” says Mike Thurlow, a horticultural advisor and organic kitchen gardener 

Regular digging of any soil can not only lead to the disruption of its natural organisms, but also then causes carbon loss from the earth.  

Constant cultivation over centuries has destroyed this structure and created a subterranean ‘desert’.” 

Though your vegetable patch might not have felt the mighty force of an industrial plough, your soil is nevertheless a hidden carbon trap. Regular digging of any soil can not only lead to the disruption of its natural organisms, but also then causes carbon loss from the earth.  

Digging can also lead to a reliance on weedkillers and other chemicals due to its inefficiency at ridding soil of problematic plants for good.  

“Another drawback of digging is that weed seeds get buried and become dormant,” says Guy Barte, the Royal Horticultural Society’s chief horticulturist 

“When the soil is dug again the weeds – newly exposed to light – can germinate and become a nuisance. With no-dig, weed seeds are left on the surface where they may be eaten by birds or insects or germinate soon after shedding so no ‘seed bank’ of dormant weed seeds accumulates in the soil.” 

Though digging will have brought great success for many gardeners (and we salute those who will remain loyal to their spades) it could be useful to experiment with some no-dig beds alongside dug ones, to see which yield better results.  

Radishes growing in a raised bed in a vegetable plotCredit: Shutterstock / Stephen Barnes
Weeds are kept at bay with the help of a thick mulch layer

Ready to save the world (and your back, while you’re at it)?

As well as naturally improving the soil quality of a garden, another benefit of the no-dig approach to gardening is of course the reduced strain on our backs.  

“Apart from the wheelbarrowing of organic matter to create the beds, there is no heavy lifting and turning tons of soil,” says Thurlow.  

“Harvesting crops is cleaner and in most cases is simply a matter of pulling the crop out of the beds or cutting it down at soil level.” 

And no-dig gardening will be kinder to your bank balance too – a welcome plus considering the cost-of-living crisis. Pennington notes that gardeners will spend less on products such as fertiliser, and he’s noticed that the amount of water his no-dig beds need at the restaurant is reduced, even in times of drought.  

“Healthy soil produces better food and has a massive environmental benefit in that it captures vast amounts of carbon”

But the real saving, he says, can be felt way beyond your garden fence: “Healthy soil produces better food and has a massive environmental benefit in that it captures vast amounts of carbon”.  

Nurturing your no-dig beds will also become easier over time as soil quality continues to improve, which is a win-win for gardeners with busy schedules or who like the idea of growing benefits that accumulate each year.  

So, if you’re keen to organically improve soil health and plant quality, grow nutrient-rich food, and reduce your garden’s carbon emissions (all while protecting your back), choosing the no-dig gardening method is the horticultural gift to the environment that will keep giving.


Those of you wanting to be steered in the right direction to get started, look no further than Charles Dowding, who pioneered the modern no-dig movement.  

Rosanna Spence

Written by Rosanna Spence she/her


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,, Pub & Bar, BRITA, Dine Out and many more leading titles and brands.

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