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No-dig, ya dig?

Text by Mark Hillmer, OALA, CSLA

No-dig is a form of small-scale gardening growers in the United Kingdom have been practicing since the 1940s. At its core, the approach is a simple method using compost mulching to create a planting layer on top of the existing soil structure where seeds can be sown and whose nutrients can penetrate the subsoil eco-system. This style of gardening has been demonstrated to benefit soil quality, require less watering, and produce higher yields of crops with fewer weeds and pests.

According to the current expert, Charles Dowding, by following the no-dig method, the soil retains higher levels of carbon and conserves mycorrhizal fungi—tiny sprawling fungal networks benefiting plants by helping their roots to access more water and nutrients, making them more naturally resistant to drought, disease, or other stresses. By not tilling, existing soil structure is maintained, which allows improved drainage and aeration.

Robinson Creek wildflower planting in a no-dig garden. IMAGE/ Cathie Jeffery

To start your own no-dig garden, begin by carefully selecting a location in your yard with plenty of sunlight and existing, undisturbed soil that’s a manageable size (about 4 by 8 feet). Cover the area with a biodegradable weed-suppressing barrier (brown cardboard works great), this will kill perennial weeds over the first year. Add organic mulch to a depth of 15 cm on top of the cardboard—do not create raised edges to the bed with wood or other materials as these can be places where pests such as slugs can live. Finally, plant seeds—for the first year select shallow rooting options such as lettuces or other leafy greens with deeper rooting options possible in subsequent years.

Although no-dig is often discussed in the context of food-producing plants, the benefits can be felt for ornamental plants as well. With all its benefits, why not give no-dig gardening a try

BIO/ Mark Hillmer, OALA, CSLA, is a member of the Ground Editorial Board and a Landscape Architect working for a multi-disciplinary design firm in Toronto.

Illustration: how to create a no-dig garden. IMAGES/ Mark Hillmer