No-Dig Farming Series Part Two

Ways To Farm No-Dig

By JISKA HEALY

In the previous post I explained to you why we choose to grow our gardens without digging. Today I am going to expand a little about all the different ways of No-dig gardening.

As a family business we tend to use certain methods more than others. This is sometimes because of convenience and sometimes there is more labour at the start, but a more thorough reward at the end.

To give you a little recap: We garden without trying to dig the soil. This leaves the top layer of soil intact. In this top layer there are thousands of organisms and micro-organisms that keep the soil aerated, fed and able to contain high moisture levels. The perfect combination for growing plants. The balanced ecosystem also supresses weed growth.

No-dig gardening is started and maintained by covering the soil. The underlying vegetation will die off and start to decompose, increasing nutrient levels of the soil. Rain worms and smaller insects will dig down and distribute those nutrients throughout the entire plot without the need for a spade.

When seeds are sown, or plants are planted in the plot a small opening is made in the cover layer to allow for sunlight. Certain methods of No-dig are more suitable for sowing seeds and others are better for planting out young plants.

Below are a few methods of no-dig gardening. Three of which we have used ourselves.

The Lasagne Method

Otherwise also known as sheet mulching. A sheet mulch is a mulch or cover layer made up of several layers or sheets. First, all weeds or grass in the area are cut down. The cuttings are left in place. It is followed by the compostable weed barrier which in most cases consists out of newspaper or cardboard.

From this moment onward, you can start building up your future soil layer like you build up a compost heap: with green and brown material. On top of the cardboard you will put a green layer of compostables and on top of that either wood chips, straw or leaves and so on.

A sheet mulch can exist out of as twelve layers or as little as three. You can also add soil amendments such as wood ash if you feel the need to. There is really no wrong way of doing it. The top layer usually exists out of straw or hay. This keeps the underlying layers compacted and acts like a weed barrier once all layers are composted properly.

A big plus about sheet mulching is that you can build up your soil with extra nutrients fast. Since you are using material that you would normally see on a compost heap it is usually pretty cheap too.

A negative point about the lasagne method is that you need to start it well in advance. Depending on the number of layers it takes anywhere from six months up to two years before all layers are composted. And even though you are not digging the soil, building up the layers requires a considerable amount of time and work.

We have tried this method two years ago when we first started living in our house. The biggest problem we faced with the Lasagne Sheeting Method was the amount of labour involved and the fact that in the wet area we live in this method seems to harbour a lot of slugs.

The Ruth Stout Method

Ruth Stout was a writer known for her books on ‘no-work’ gardening. She started gardening at the age of 45 trying out traditional methods at first. Only to soon find out these methods were too labour intensive for her to keep a garden of her own. She had to depend on a neighbouring farmer to plough her fields before she could plant for several years.

At the age of 50 she decided to just plant seeds and cover them and see what happens. She soon found out she never had to plough, dig, water or weed ever again. As long as she just kept a steady cover over her vegetable and flower beds. The Ruth Method was born.

The Ruth Stout Method is perhaps one of the simplest No-Dig gardening methods known. Just cover your beds with a thick (at least 15 inches) layer of whatever mulch you can find. Ruth experimented with various kinds of mulches such as vegetables destined for the compost heap, uprooted weeds, leaves, straw and spoiled hay. But the old mouldy hay had her preference.

The green matter laid on top of the beds would choke the underlying weeds while decomposing and building up the soil layers. As the layer would get thinner over time, she would just add more mulch on top.   

The Ruth Stout Method is one that is tried and tested for several years and does appear to produce fruit. We tried to use uprooted weeds as a mulch layer on the paths next to the flower beds. However, our initial layer was not thick enough to choke all the weeds.

At the end of the season we still had to weed the paths. Though we did find that the new weeds were extremely easy to pull. Together with the mulch layer it would come off like a carpet which greatly reduced our labour.

We will try out Ruth’s Method on a larger scale this year on a patch of last that is in desperate need for new nutrients. A lot of hay or straw is needed for this project and we are busy gathering it up. I will keep you posted on the results.

Cover Crops

Using crops to cover up bare soil has been used for centuries even in conventional farming systems. You use a fast-growing crop to cover the land while at the same time nutrients are added to the soil. Good cover crops enrich the soil, suppress weed growth and improve soil structure.

One of the downfalls of cover crops is that it is often required to dig in the plants when cover is no longer needed in an effort to let none of the nutrients go to waste. This of course does not comply with the rules of No-Dig gardening.

At Singing Frogs Farm they do it different though. Once a crop has had its prime it is harvested by cutting it off at ground level, leaving roots in place. This keeps the integrity of the soil undisturbed.

The harvested plant parts that are not used for human consumption are composted and a little layer of this compost is added on top of the beds that are just harvested. Plug plants with new vegetables or specific cover crops are then added again with as little disturbance to the soils as possible.

This is a very smart way to never leave the ground uncovered. As a farm Singing frog farms have seen their production increase massively using this approach while continuing to add nutrients to the ground. The plants are hardier and better resistant against disease.

We have not tried out this method yet on our grounds since the approach asks for a very strict planting and harvesting scheme. The soil may never go bare. It is something to think about though for the future.

Plastics

When a plastic is left on a fully overgrown patch for long enough, it chokes the plants underneath while keeping the soil moist. Old carpets do the job as well. It is a quick method to reclaim a new piece of land and handy for keeping the ground covered and reducing weed growth.

When using black plastic, sunbeams get absorbed keeping the soil warmer, improving growth conditions at an earlier time of year. When planting you can either choose to remove the plastic to make holes in it. When making holes in the plastic it is advisable to use a burner rather than a knife.

Plastics are easy to use and relatively cheap, so it is a perfect combination for larger scale gardening. This method is advised by both Charles Dowding and Erin Benzakein, both experts in their fields of No-Dig vegetable gardening and Flower farming.

We use plastic a lot here at Yesca’s Flowers. It gives great results but there are things to consider regarding quality, placement, strimming, run-off, watering and wind protection. I will tell you more about it in the next post.

Compost

Last but not least there is the No-Dig gardening method recommended by Charles Dowding. This method is very appropriate to the temperate climate we are currently living in. By using compost as a ground cover, Charles claims to harvest better produce while having fewer weeds to pull and healthier soil. As a bonus because of its gritty structure you will have less slugs in your beds as well.

Turns out he is absolutely right. A minimum layer of six inches thick compost can choke all underlying vegetation. Since you are already working with compost you can plant or sow directly in the cover layer you have just put down.

The seeds will sprout and grow quickly in the nutrient rich top layer. They soon may be large enough to totally cover the soil to suppress weed growth.

If any weeds do decide to sprout you should get rid of them before they turn into flowers and set seeds. In this way less and less weeding is necessary. The weeding itself is done by either manual pulling or a light hoeing of the first two inches of soil.

It is a fantastic way of gardening that definitely yields results and we have used his method a lot in the past and still do in certain areas. We have indeed seen a big decrease in slug population using this method which is of utmost importance when you want to grow delicate seedlings outdoors such as Dahlias and Sunflowers.

One of the pitfalls of this method is the associated expense. Proper well-rotted compost is hard enough to get by. We have slightly over half an acre to grow our flowers in. That is more than 21,000 square foot of ground to cover.

For a six-inch-thick layer this would require well over 300 tonnes of compost. We can not generate this amount for our little farm. We simply do not have the space. Buying would be our next option. But to be honest: which starting business would have such funds available? I know we don’t. At least not for the moment.

This leaves me to the next down point. The quality of the imported compost. We like to keep everything free of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. When using compost from a wholesale provider this guarantee can often not be given.

Also, importing that amount of compost on a regular basis may leave a greater carbon footprint than trying to use what we have at hand and does not really fit our ideas of sustainable farming.

Another idea is going for the organic option. Depending on how this year fares out gardening and sales wise this idea is still on the table. At least, it will be if we can find a local producer nearby.

That was it for today. I hope you enjoyed the read. Please leave any comments in the section below. I am really interested in seeing your ideas and approaches on No-Dig farming.

Spread the word

Leave a Reply