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This Is The Smartest Gardening Tip I’ve Learned In Years

no dig garden

Spring has sprung, and while the weather is still predictably unpredictable for the time being, it has me anxiously awaiting the day I can get out and do some gardening! To tide myself over until then, I’ve been perusing the internet to brush up on gardening tips and tricks, and that’s how I stumbled on the idea I’ll be sharing with you in today’s post!

It’s called “no-dig gardening,” and while it’s an idea that’s new to me, the concept is thought to be hundreds of years old. It’s a system of gardening rooted in the belief that the common practice of tilling does more harm to the soil than it does good.

Practitioners of no-dig gardening believe that keeping your garden’s soil undisturbed is better for all of the microorganisms and living creatures living in it that make it fertile and keep plants happy. It’s supposed to have some other nice benefits too, so let’s explore four of the most compelling ones, shall we? :-)

no dig garden

4 Good Reasons To Try No-Dig Gardening

1. It Saves Time

At the very least, tilling your garden to prepare for planting takes time. But unless you own your own tiller and have it at the ready, it can also take a lot of effort!

For many of us, tilling either requires a trip to go rent one and bring it back home, or a lot of manual labor in the form of shoveling. Either way, the fact that no-dig gardening requires zero tilling can save you a lot of time and back-breaking labor!

2. It Requires Less Weeding

One of the major issues with tilling and digging is that you can inadvertently end up bringing weed seeds and roots to the surface, where they can germinate and take over. By not digging, you’ll leave these unwanted garden additions undisturbed beneath the dirt.

The no-dig gardening method also utilizes layers of organic matter like compost and mulch, which also help suppress weeds by making it much more difficult for unwanted plants to come to the surface. So while no gardening method can eliminate the threat of weeds entirely, embracing the no-dig method can make a big difference!

no dig garden

3. The Potential For Bigger Harvests

As I mentioned previously, proponents of the no-dig method believe that leaving the ground alone results in higher quality soil for gardening. Many also believe that because of this, no-dig gardening can yield larger harvests than traditional gardening methods.

4. It Uses Less Water

Mulch plays a big role in no-dig gardening, and mulch can go a long way when it comes to moisture retention. So adopting the no-dig gardening can not only save you water in the long run, but it may make it so that you don’t have to water your garden as often or for as much time as you normally would.

How To Start A No-Dig Garden

You’ll need:

  • Cardboard or newspaper
  • Compost
  • Mulch
  • Tape measure

*Note: If you use cardboard, use the standard, non-shiny stuff and make sure there’s no tape on it. If you use newspaper, make sure that it’s regular newsprint and not any of the glossy ads that sometimes come with it.

no dig garden


Step 1 – Measure And Calculate

Start by using a tape measure to measure the area where you want your new garden to go. Once you have your measurements, you can use a gardening materials calculator to figure out how much cardboard, compost, and mulch you’ll need. (I used this calculator from LawnToGarden.org.)

Step 2 – Gather Supplies And Tidy Up

Once you know how much cardboard, compost, and mulch you’ll need, it’s time to go shopping! Your local nursery or garden center is a great resource, but you can also find these items at places like Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walmart, etc.

Before you start setting up your garden, it’s a good idea to tidy up the area a little bit. Remove any big plants, weeds, rocks, dirt clods, etc. from the space, but don’t worry about grass and other small things.

Step 3 – Plant The Big Stuff

Now that your garden area is nice and tidy, you can start the planting process—but only if you have any big plants like shrubs and trees you want to put in your garden. So go ahead and plant those right right into the grass.

Keep in mind that you’ll be adding other layers on top of the ground, so plant your trees and shrubs a little more shallowly than you might do normally. Once your trees and/or shrubs are planted, water them in and water the entire garden area as well.

no dig garden

Step 4 – Cardboard, Compost, And Mulch

It’s time for your garden to take shape! Start by arranging a layer of cardboard that covers the entire garden area. (You can use a single layer of sturdy cardboard, but if you’ll be using newspaper instead of cardboard, you’ll want several layers of newspaper that overlap at the edges.)

Once the first player is in place, grab your hose and water it down. (This starts the decomposition process and will help keep the cardboard or paper from flying off in the breeze.

Next comes the compost. Spread out a 1-2” layer of compost evenly over the base later, then water it. And lastly, arrange a 2” layer of mulch evenly atop the compost layer, then (you guessed it) water it thoroughly.

Step 5 – Plant Everything Else

Your garden is officially ready for planting! You can plant smaller plants right into the compost layer, because as they grow, they’ll break through the decomposing base layer on their own.

For bigger plants, you may need to break through the base layer in order to make a big enough hole to plant them in. Toss some compost into the hole before nestling the plant inside and filling in around it.

Once you’ve planted your plants and watered them in, you’re done! Sit back, relax, and enjoy watching your no-dig garden take shape. :-)

no dig garden

The Takeaway

After learning about the simple brilliance of the no-dig gardening method, I couldn’t wait to share it here with all of you. It’s by far the easiest way I’ve heard of throughout my many years of gardening to start a new garden bed from scratch!

No need to tear out grass, till the soil, add compost, till again, or spend all season long fighting a losing battle against the litany of weeds you accidentally brought to the surface! With a method that’s as easy as layering a few things on the ground, you can actually enjoy gardening again.

If you’ve always wanted to start your own garden but felt intimidated by the idea of starting one from scratch, I would absolutely recommend giving this method a try! With a little bit of effort now, you’ll be able to reap the rewards of a beautiful and fertile garden all summer long.

What kind of garden do you have? If you don’t have one, what would your dream garden be like?

Jill Nystul Photo

Jill Nystul (aka Jillee)

Jill Nystul is an accomplished writer and author who founded the blog One Good Thing by Jillee in 2011. With over 30 years of experience in homemaking, she has become a trusted resource for contemporary homemakers by offering practical solutions to everyday household challenges.
I share creative homemaking and lifestyle solutions that make your life easier and more enjoyable!

About Jillee

Jill Nystul

Jill’s 30 years of homemaking experience, make her the trusted source for practical household solutions.

About Jillee

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  • I have been gardening this way for many years and it isn’t quite this simple. First, cardboard actually hangs around a long time. It usually lasts me about 2 years before it starts to breakdown.

    Second, a single layer of cardboard on top of established grass, is not enough to kill off the grass. It will grow right on up and around the pieces. This type of gardening must be done like a lasagne. There must be multiple layers of cardboard over lapping each other. Compost on top, doesn’t seem to do much good. It should really go under the cardboard. Mulch or straw on top is fine. Just be prepared, weeds will grow on top of the cardboard, in the mulch. Compost on top of the cardboard would make it even worse.

    Then we come to the issue of watering. Water does not, in any significant way, seep thru cardboard. That leaves you to water each individual plant. Forget about a sprinkler.

    Additionally, one can argue the pros and cons of not disturbing the soil but the reality is that rarely does a person have good soil. Typically it must be amended. Digging it up in the beginning, to add wood or compost, a few feet into the ground, will produce far healthier plants than a few inches of compost on the top. Also, compost that close to the surface doesn’t encourage plants to set deep roots, which are very important.

    Oh, and cardboard can also cause water to pool on top, thus creating an environment that is too wet and encourages bad mold/fungus growth.

    Hope this helps anyone interested in this method of gardening.

  • I wonder where Nicole lives … that is very important information in assessing the usefulness of her assertions. Here in the PNW, I find that this method works well… the cardboard/newspaper stays moist until our hottest weather around August dries out the paper surface, possibly. And I can water it periodically to keep it (and re-) moist. Plus, you’ll find the most, and the happiest, worms under paper. (where it stays moist all year)…. they love it!! (and coffee grounds :) If one is worried about ‘poor soil’, one can always put some ‘liquid’ nutrient in each hole over the initial season…. DILUTED fish emulsion, milk, cooking liquids, compost tea (just soak weeds, scraps, etc in water til ‘smelly’), etc. The soil will be becoming richer and richer as the paper/mulches/compost are turned into ‘top soil’ by the happy microbes. I have been doing this for 30 years… works great… thanks, Jillee! (More info online, including YT Dowd’s ‘no til’ series, et al) (BTW, my cardboard/newspaper is breaking down and disappearing by the next year.)

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