With Claire Bickle I Photography by Annie Spratt

To Dig or Not to Dig?

THE HISTORY AND WHY
Origins of the no-dig garden are generally unclear but it was made popular by a lady in Australia named Ester Dean in the late 1970’s. The no-dig gardening method has now become very popular today amongst organic gardeners across the globe. No-dig gardens are ideal for areas where your soil type maybe poor draining (clay), too free draining (sandy) or even just too hard to dig (shale). Trust me starting a garden, as an adult on hard soil is difficult enough without being a little person eager to create his or her own patch of edible goodies.

If you have your no-dig as a raised bed they are not only fantastic for children to reach easily but also great for the elderly, handicapped and anyone with a bad back, due to the ease in which one can access the top soil layer and plant, tend and harvest.

HOW TO:
No-dig means just that, no digging and this can be achieved or completed by creating a traditional layered garden (lasagne garden), using one of the new corrugated iron style raised garden beds or even just using large containers such disused wheelbarrows and so on. Really you are only limited by your imagination. I suppose you could call all container growing no-dig. But that’s another article for a later date.

You can even create a no-dig garden on concrete or pavers if you wish.

It is basically where layers of organic material are placed on top of the soil rather than dug into it. They are sometimes called composting gardens which, is quite fitting as the mix of materials used are very similar to that of creating a successful compost heap. This mix of materials is basically nitrogen rich materials and carbon rich materials. For little people and big people alike these can be referred to as green and brown materials; much easier I think.

The traditional no-dig garden is generally 2mx3m, any bigger and you and your children will have trouble reaching the centre to plant and harvest.

What are green materials?

Anything that is high in nitrogen such as:
Lucerne, fresh green lawn clippings, old vegetable crops, manures, compost, blood bone, manure pelletised fertiliser, green leaves, green plant clippings and pruning’s.

What are brown materials?
Anything that is high in carbon such as:
Sugarcane, dry grass clippings, dried leaves, straw, dried prunings and twigs.
N.B If any of the items you are using are dusty either use a white dust mask or wet them down before use.

BUILDING A TRADITIONAL NO-DIG GARDEN
Ingredients
You will need the following ingredients:
1. Wet newspaper
2. 3 bags of compost or manure
3. Organic manure pellets or organic blood and bone
4. Liquid seaweed or fish fertiliser
5. Seedlings of choice. Approx 6 punnets depending on what is chosen.
6. 3 lucerne bales + a mix of green materials:
7. 1 sugarcane bale + a mix of brown materials
8. Tools: garden fork, shovel, trowel, watering can, hose, gloves

Method:
No Dig Garden
1.
Lay down a thick layer of wet newspaper at least 6-10 sheets thick. Either on mown grass or a hard surface. Make sure that the sheets over lap, this will ensure no light gets through and that the grass and weeds below die. Then sprinkle with blood bone or manure pellets.

2.
Now place layer of course brown materials such as dried leaves, fine twigs and dried plant clippings. This can help with drainage.

3.
Now alternate layers of your green materials, lucerne, manure, green plant waste and compost. The greater your mix of green materials the better. Wet each layer as you go, but not so that it is sodden. Build up your layers to at least 50cm high, the higher the better.

4.
Once all the materials are used, place a layer of sugarcane on top as mulch. This will prevent moisture loss and stop weeds from germinating.
Now leave this for two weeks to settle down. Be aware that being a composting garden it will shrink down to about half its original height in this time period.

5.
Planting – pull the sugarcane back and create small pockets within the lucerne and compost layers and fill with extra compost or potting mix. Plant your seedlings into these pockets and water in well with a seaweed solution. Pull your sugarcane back into place.

6.
Once you have had your first successful crop all you have to do is repeat steps 3, 4 & 5. This will ensure the successful continuity of your no-dig garden. Here you will need to choose a reasonable size container as potato plants will grow to around 60-100cm high and will need space to spread their roots out and produce potato tubers.

TOP TIPS AND TROUBLESHOOTING

Plant leafy crops such as, silverbeet, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, cucurbits and brassicas, eggplants, snowpeas, beans, tomatoes and capsicums. Potatoes do well also once the garden has been going for a while and the middle has composted down well.

Avoid planting root crops and seeds directly in newly created no-dig gardens. Wait a few seasons until a good, composted layer of lucerne has accumulated.

Remember this is a composting garden, so you will need to add more materials as the garden breaks down. I usually top up mine between crops and seasons.

Edging a traditional no-dig garden is recommended, as they can tend to spread out and lose shape as they break down. I use sugarcane bales as surrounds or you can use old phone books, bricks, pieces of untreated wood and so on.

Fertilise weekly with a seaweed or fish liquid fertiliser for best results.

Check your garden after the first week by checking to see whether the middle layer is warm and moist, if dry add more water, if it is cold add more green materials. To do this, pull the mulch layer back and check with your hand.
Children just love being involved in the creating of a lasagne layer garden. It’s easy to create and maintain and you can do it on a tight budget just resourcing green and brown waste from around your or your neighbours yard. It helps if you have a few chooks too as you can not only eat their eggs but collect their droppings and bedding for such gardening projects.
Fab Idea: I actually plant into the top of my sugarcane bale surrounds and once they have broken down and the plants harvested I can use them as a brown material product in the top up process of the no-dig. Win win all round!
Claire Bickle is a qualified Brisbane based horticulturalist, educator and writer, with 20 years experience. She holds a Diploma in Horticulture and an Advanced Permaculture Design Certificate.
For more great gardening ideas check out www.plantlifebalance.com.au

As published in nurtureparentingmagazine.com.au