The No-Dig Garden Experiment

– Posted in: Book reviews, Garden chores, Hardscaping and Projects, How-to

It all started when Jenn said my new bird bath needed some phlox. “Gosh, she’s right,” I mused. “And I have some bright pink phlox in the front bed that I want to move out before I dig out the goldenrod infestation. Those pink phlox would look perfect by the bird bath.”

In 2006, the birdbath seemed stuck in the middle of nowhere

In 2006, the birdbath seemed stuck in the middle of nowhere

Bird bath transforms septic lid

The bird bath rests on the lid to our septic tank. The septic lid was a level and stable place to put the bird bath. But it also disguises the septic lid, and incorporates it into the garden. When you look at it, you don’t think, “Oh, look, they put a bird bath on their septic lid.” Instead, your mind sees a bird bath resting on a concrete base. But without plants around it, the bird bath still looked like it was just plopped down.

Shape of bed determined by mowing path

The shape of the bed was determined by another design problem. We use a DR Brush Mower with a lawn attachment to cut the grass. The mower operator runs the machine along the chicken yard fence until he approaches the septic lid. Then he must turn away from the fence in order to go around the lid. This leaves a crescent shaped patch of grass that the operator must retrace his steps to mow. (You might be able to see that unmown grass shape in the photo above.) I used that crescent shape to determine the shape of the bed.

Plant choice informed by practical considerations

Plant choice was also affected by the septic lid. Our septic tank is pumped every year in early spring. That means foot traffic around the lid. Any plants growing in the immediate area either have to be slow to emerge or able to tolerate some foot traffic at that time. Furthermore, I had to accept that in the event of problems, the area might need to be dug up at any time. No sense planting anything precious or irreplaceable there, only to have grief later.

Too late to dig

It was already October when I realized it would be best to move the phlox that autumn if I wanted to dig goldenrod next spring. There was no time to dig a bed in the usual manner, removing sod, forking the soil to loosen clay and remove rocks, adding organic matter and forking it in. If I was going to make the bed before the ground froze solid, it would have to be without digging.

Proceeding without research

When I was in high school, someone had given me a copy of The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book, but sometime in the period after college but before gardening I got rid of it. Neither Lasagna Gardening nor Weedless Gardening were in my local library, and it would take too long for them to come from another library. I was forced to rely on my vague memories of Stout’s book and other reading I had done on the topic, plus an article in the April 1995 issue of Garden Gate (issue 2).

Now, I’m the kind of person who reads Consumer Reports before shopping for kitchen appliances. I don’t care if it’s a Cracker Jack prize, I read the instructions before attempting to put anything together. So, if I’d had my druthers, I would have read all three of the above mentioned books plus spent the summer calculating how many square feet of newspaper I needed and how many cubic yards of compost and mulch I needed to stockpile. But, I realized it was now or never. So I winged it, big time.

Follow along in this photo essay to see if starting this project without adequate research was a good idea.

Tell the truth, the whole truth

This fall I checked out Lasagna Gardening and Weedless Gardening and flipped through them. They both sound like miracle cures, and if you do everything right, maybe they are. But to summarize, here are some problems I had:

  • Not enough cardboard/paper available
  • Not enough organic material on hand
  • No edging to keep grass out
  • Truly pernicious weeds to battle

All of these problems could have been eliminated with better planning and a willingness to wait another year. But I find it disturbing that neither Lanza nor Reich address problematic plants such as bindweed or Japanese knotweed. Have they never had to deal with them?

Neither author addresses the price you must pay for the organic materials you can’t scavenge from your own property. They love to talk about free leaves or manure for the hauling, neglecting to mention that you need to have the use of a truck, or figure out a way to package manure so it won’t stink up your trunk. And no one was too concerned about the price of gas when either of those books were written. And where are you going to store all that stuff before you have time to build your bed?

This method does work. Colleen of In the Garden Online used it with great success. Margaret Roach has made her beds this way for years. And I have used a modified form of it for the beds I have reclaimed. I remove the garden plants I want to save and I dig out all the perennial weeds. Then I shovel at least three inches municipal compost on top–but I don’t dig it in. The compost is semi-decomposed wood chips, and functions as soil amendment and mulch. I just wish these books would tell the whole truth, and not just the part that’s pleasant to hear.

How to fix this mess?

I’m going to collect a bunch of newspapers, cut down the weeds in that one end, and start all over again. On the better maintained end, I’m going to cut the dianthus off at ground level and put more organic matter over the bed. I would love to cover the whole thing with mulch, but frigid weather may arrive before I get to that. As for the bindweed, I will continue to work on eradicating that, but I’m in it for the long haul.

How About You?

Have you tried a version of no-dig or weedless bed making? How did it work for you? I’d like to know. Or have you ever been frustrated by a gardening project that was supposed to be simple and easy–and turned out to be anything but? Tell us about it in the comments.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow. . . . Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

~Adrian Higgins in The Washington Post, November 6, 2013

Comments on this entry are closed.

eliz October 14, 2008, 10:48 pm

I remember the mulch/compost forum on gardenweb used to have fascinating discussions of this. There were passionate arguments between the double-diggers and the layerers. And arguments about the term lasagna gardening. I have never tried it, and probably won’t but I like the concept. Of course, nothing works like a book says it will.

Daizy October 12, 2008, 11:48 pm

Great post! I’ve always used the lasagna method to start new beds on an area of lawn. I remove the lawn for a width of about a foot along the edge. Then I lay down 6-8 sheets of newspaper and cover the area with 4-6 inches of quality topsoil/compost. Works like a charm for me!

To find enough newspaper, I scavenge my neighbourhood on paper recycling day.

Garden Girl October 11, 2008, 10:27 pm

I love this idea! I have a concrete septic tank lid that is exposed too, and I’ve been trying to think what I might do to make it less obvious. A bird bath with a surrounding flowers is great idea.

Karen October 5, 2008, 3:14 pm

I don’t know about no-dig – especially if you have clay. I am sort of trying this out in my parking strip garden, to varied success. Short-lived annual plants that don’t require a huge amount of water or wonderful soil do okay, the perennials and thirsty plants less so. Soil health is so crucial for so many plants (except the weeds, as you well know). I think you made a valiant effort but if it’s not working, maybe a different method next time will make everything happier.

Dee/reddirtramblings October 5, 2008, 2:56 pm

Most of my garden experiments result in frustration before success. You’ve done everyone a favor by showing weedless gardening worked or didn’t for you and how to remedy it.~~Dee

Shady Gardener October 3, 2008, 11:52 pm

I am used to creating “berms.” We have good heavy clay soils around here… the type you have to jump onto your shovel in order to dig. Anyway, I just lay down layers of newspaper onto the grass/weeds, etc. and top it with inches of soil. I plant into this soil and mulch.

In my shady beds, my Fall system consists of loosening the soil around the plants with my garden fork, adding a thin layer of composted soil and mulching thinly with hardwood mulch. Then I’ll shred my oak leaves for Winter mulch which is removed in the Spring. I often rake in a bit more dirt and sparse layer of mulch in the Spring, and I hardly see weeds. πŸ™‚

I do nearly the same with all my other beds as well. Don’t know that this helps anyone, but… I appreciate your post!! Thank you for sharing your experiences as well as the evolution of your flower bed. πŸ™‚

Lynn October 3, 2008, 3:36 pm

Hi Kathy,
I’m grateful for this post, too, since I smothered a big patch of grass this summer but ended up needing to dig out all the dead roots underneath because it seemed dangerous to leave them in there (the evil creepers!). I don’t have enough compost to pile on a 12′ x 6′ bed, either. So I was thinking back to those “cardboard as mulch” posts and wondering why I was working so hard! My question is this: what about when you want to plant something that needs a decent-sized hole? Just dig through the cardboard? Is it supposed to eventually decompose and become part of the soil?
Having seen it up close, I think it’s a darned nice bed, and lovely for a pretty accent like the birdbath–great idea. My favorites might be those chipmunk-planted sunflowers though πŸ™‚
Thanks as always for sharing your knowledge.

Anna October 3, 2008, 1:56 am

I used newspaper just this past spring in my new beds. It was a disaster. The termites loved it. My husband panicked and got rid of the whole mess. So I guess it shouldn’t be used up next to the house.

TC October 2, 2008, 10:47 am

I used the “cover with newspaper and mulch” method some time ago for a small zinnia bed. I did no digging and just put it down right on top of sod and all the grass and weeds that happened to be growing there. The next spring, it was ready for planting and we sowed zinnias which did marvelous. I no longer use that spot and the area has been reclaimed with all the grass and weeds that were there before.

My point: no matter which method you use, it will still require upkeep and maintenance because that’s just the way it is. But I’m sure you already know this. ;~)

Jenny Patterson October 1, 2008, 7:54 pm

I have used this method for a few years now. I collect cardboard from where ever I can, boxes from the grocery store, from behind the appliance store etc. I actually lucked out in the last couple of years, a friend works at a place that puts tires on rims for 4 wheelers. When they get the tires in they are packed with 4 x 8 sheets of cardboard in between them. He now brings the cardboard home for me!!
Anyway, I outline my bed, dig a 4″ deep trench for the border, toss the sod I have dug out into the bed, level it a bit, and put 2 or 3 layers of cardboard over the top. On top of this I pile all the organics I can, usually lawn clippings and leaves from the yard. I keep piling it up all through the fall, right now I have 2 new beds going, the pile is about 12″ and next spring I plant in it.
I have a number of beds in my yard that I started like this. After the original planting, I maintain the beds by piling the mulch on, between the plants.
IMHO it’s the best way to garden!
Jenny p

Cindy October 1, 2008, 6:42 pm

I quibble with the term “weedless gardening”. I think it promises something that can’t be delivered, at least in my climate. Here in the burbs, where lawn services with blowers are everywhere, it’s inevitable that weed seeds are going to be blown about. There are numerous weeds here that have no difficulty whatsoever generating in mulch. You can start out weed free but you don’t stay that way for long!

Ottawa Gardener October 1, 2008, 6:34 pm

Oops, I didn’t mean to appear all evangelical about the no dig technique but then again I am a total convert. I admit to buying topsoil and manure to lay on top of the sod. I never have enough organic material around to build a bed, just to mulch it.


Robin Wedewer October 1, 2008, 6:23 pm

Like Carol, I appreciate real-world examples, particularly from gardeners I know and trust. This is a great example of a method I’ve been working up to for some time. Excellent article!

I read Lasagna Gardening as well as Dowding’s Organic Gardening the No-Dig Way. Seems to make sense. But I also had my doubts about how well it would work.

In Lasagna gardening Lanza instructs us to pile on 18″ of layers of organic matter. You’re right. That’s a lot of material to acquire and haul around!

Still, I weigh this against the back-breaking work of digging in my hardpan Maryland clay. I’m saving my newspapers and planning on buying a truckload of leaf mulch just for the big ideas I have in mind for next year. I’ll report in.

Robin Wedewer
National Gardening Examiner

Gail October 1, 2008, 4:00 pm

Excellent post Kathy…I have always used the smother the grass add 6 inches of topsoil + amendments and plant, then mulch with soil conditioner. All my beds are edged with stone. I do have to deal with occasional Bermuda grass eruptions!

Ottawa Gardener October 1, 2008, 3:06 pm

I almost exclusively use these methods with great results. It’s a good idea to remove perennial weeds before putting on the dirt, or lay cardboard down over top. though I don’t always follow this advice and have to pluck a few struggling dandelions after the fact.

I made a 40 by 20 foot vegetable garden this way by adding about 4 inches of soil on top of weed littered sod. I had no problems but I had to weed well each spring. The other thing is that I have to edge my gardens twice a year to prevent encroaching grasses, especially ones with rhizomes. I also try to keep a good 2 inches of mulch on at all times too. Around my reseeders, I wait until spring to mulch.

Since I have kids, I almost NEVER dig because I don’t have time.

dlyn October 1, 2008, 9:35 am

I am working on expanding an exsiting bed to encompass an crabapple tree so that we don’t have to mow around it. I am using heavy cardboard [my addiction keeps plenty of that around] and covering it with a combo of our own soil [dug from another area] rotted manure, chopped oat straw and leaves, etc. I was actually thinking of covering it with black plastic until spring, to get things broken down a bit faster and supress weeds. In the spring, I will decide what to plant.

I don’t know of any place to get oat straw around here. Farmers just cut hay.–Kathy

Annie in Austin October 1, 2008, 9:27 am

Your new garden may not have evolved to perfection yet, Kathy, but the idea of making a Birdbath bed to incorporate the concrete as a useful element sure seems like a good one.

I haven’t done actual lasagna-beds but in both IL & Texas did the thing where you mow the turf close, cover in layers of newspapers, top with a really thick layer of shredded wood mulch then use it as staging area for container plants for a couple of seasons.
That way the area gets watered regularly and the moisture gets down to the earth under the papers so it all decomposes after a while. Then you turn it all over and add an edging.

This didn’t work too well when Bermuda grass was present – like bindweed it’s a pig of a plant.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

I like the idea of using the newly made bed as a staging area for container plants.–Kathy

Les October 1, 2008, 7:28 am

I have never tried these methods. I guess I am old school in that I double dig any new bed. Since I work at a garden center, I always scrounge up broken bags of compost, soil, manure, etc… for a really good price. Most garden centers will be glad to sell you torn bagged goods at a discount. I have no formula, I just dump it all in and mix it up. I try to let it sit and settle for a time prior to planting, and put a good layer of mulch on top. I like to use pine needles that my neighbors are kind enough to rake up and put in clear plastic bags out by the street where they are easy to get to. This seems to work for me.

I never intend to double dig beds, but in my zeal to remove large rocks, that is often what I wind up doing. Thanks for the tip about torn bags sold at a discount.–Kathy

entangled October 1, 2008, 6:47 am

I had good results establishing some perennials in the woodland garden using the Lasagna Gardening method. I had just read the book and was tired of fighting the tree roots every time I wanted to plant something in the woods.

I used half-finished compost layered with grass clippings on a base of newspapers. However, these were not large areas and even so I didn’t have enough (free) organic materials to keep the beds replenished. The beds that were deep in the woods are still there, but the compost in the beds at the edge of the woods disappeared within a couple of years. It lasted long enough to get the perennials started, but without replenishing the beds, the plants at the edge of the woods started to decline.

I think both books say that you have to keep replenishing the beds. Stands to reason, doesn’t it? Less weeds doesn’t translate into no maintenance.–Kathy

mss @ Zanthan Gardens October 1, 2008, 4:09 am

Another note: on the “clay cake with organic frosting”.

I’ve read so often how those helpful earthworms will pull all the amendments down into the soil. But my experience has been just like your photograph. The good stuff stays on the surface until (in our heat and humidity) it rots away.

PS. The “finished” garden at 7/26/2008 looks lovely. But gardens don’t stay finished do they? They just keep developing…and then the cycle of life seems to bring you back to where you started.

As God gives me strength, I hope to continue to work on this bed. But we all know the garden will return to a more natural state as soon as we leave off tending it. I think with better soil and a thicker organic layer, the stuff on top will become more incorporated, but it often takes longer than one gardening season.–Kathy

mss @ Zanthan Gardens October 1, 2008, 4:05 am

I have tried a modified version of this approach. My yard is covered with large trees (cedar elms and pecans) and the biggest problem I have is tree roots sucking up the manures and composts and turning the bed into a tangled mess of fine roots. I also have trouble with bindweed.

Just recently (and not yet blogged), I’ve given up trying to enrich my soil with amendments. I made a raised vegetable bed, lined the bottom with weed-blocking cloth, and bought a cubic yard of good organic gardening soil from the Natural Gardener.

I realize that what I’ve done, in effect, is created a giant “pot” for my fall veggies: lettuce, chard, and peas. It feels less like gardening and more like an experiment in controlled environments. But if it helps me home grow some veggies, I’ll embrace it.

It’s great that you have a good source of garden soil and the funds to purchase it. Of course, the bigger the garden, the more expensive that approach is.–Kathy

Carol, May Dreams Gardens September 30, 2008, 11:23 pm

Excellent post. Real life examples are always the best. I think the reason I haven’t tried this method in a big way is because I don’t know where / how to get all the compost without a lot of work.

I did use this method to create the raised beds in my vegetable garden, more or less. I set a wooden frame on the ground, lined the bottom with newspaper, topped it with any disease free plant debris/half cooked compost I had, and then topped that with garden soil and let it go for the winter. I don’t have bad weed problems in those beds, but because I don’t mulch in the vegetable garden, I fight a lot of purslane.

By the way, that Ruth Stout book used on Amazon is about $95, last time I checked. I sure wish you still had it!

Of course, it doesn’t all have to be compost. If you are going to leave it over the winter, you can compost in place. And if I still had the book, I wouldn’t sell it. It’s a piece of gardening history!–Kathy