To dig or not to dig?

This is a subject that gets so much press on the internet and, in my experience, there is no right or wrong way. It often comes down to whether you have raised beds, soil or are an urban gardener growing in a smaller confined space. 


As with all of my blogs, this advice is based on my own personal growing experience. 


What is a no dig garden? 


As the name suggests it means no digging. Instead of turning the soil over between crops, you just pull out the spent crop without turning.  


What are the benefits of a no dig garden? 
A no dig garden doesn’t disturb the microorganisms or the earthworms. When left to themselves, the earthworms will continue to improve the drainage and structure of the soil.  


The other organisms naturally break down organic matter that the earthworms have created, which in turn forms good humus in the soil, releasing food for the plants. 


Of course, there will be some soil disturbance when pulling weeds, removing plants and creating space for new plants. The upside to this is that the soil structure will stay intact and you will retain more moisture which, these days, is very important due to drastic climatic changes. 


It is also more effective in maintaining the balance of nutrient requirement. A good mulch (top layer) creates less surface weeds too, keeping the soil warmer in winter and protecting from the intense heat of the sun in summer. 


What are the drawbacks of a no dig garden? 
The soil can easily be compacted, which can stunt the growth of your plants and the water retention of the soil. Pests and disease that linger below the soil aren’t exposed to their natural predators and also drainage can become an issue. 


What are the top tips to make a no dig garden? 
I have found the best way to do a no dig garden is to layer it like a compost and use some soil with structure to start with. This will enable water to be suspended and available to your plants.  


A good layer of scoria or stones in the bottom can help with drainage and also can help prevent compaction. 


I found that if you are making your no dig beds on top of the soil, it is always best to do a one-time dig to remove troublesome weeds and wake up the biological life below the soil. I then tend to layer with thick cardboard to start, as this will promote worm activity.  


I spray each layer with EM (effective microorganisms) to enhance the microbial life and to stimulate the soil activity. You can build them solely with layers of carbon (leaves, paper) and Bokashi, finishing with a layer of carbon or old spent soil.  


It is advisable with any new bed you make to let it sit for two weeks to enable it to start working in unison below the soil. 



What is the digging method in your garden? 


This is the traditional way of preparing soil and, in the days of my grandfather, a no dig garden would have seemed a ludicrous idea, due to the ritual and tradition of gardening in that era. 


What are the benefits of digging? 
One of the benefits of digging out your top soil is that the organic matter is introduced right where the subsoil begins. It can increase the depth of the top soil, as the worm activity begins high as they work to bring the organic matter lower into the subsoil, thus creating more new topsoil.  


These days with lots of development, the top soil is stripped away and most people are left with clay as a base to start, and the only way is up. 


Digging and breaking up the soil into a crumb allows much higher levels of oxygen for the plants and easier water absorption, creating better drainage. 


Hard pans of soil that are inhospitable to growing can be broken up by digging to create usable soil. 


Other benefits of digging and getting your hands in the soil and crumbling it between your fingers is that it is therapeutic for the mind and good endorphins are released, making for a happy gardener. 


What are the drawbacks of digging? 
By disturbing the soil, it is enabling germination of weed seeds and, in the blink of an eye, the weeds in your garden can take over the new plantings. 


It is also true that all the top soil layer microorganisms can become unstable and have to regroup. 


I have found over my years of growing plants in both of the above ways that my root crops have grown much better in the ground of a dug garden as opposed to a raised bed.  


My advice would be to do what suits you best and what you most enjoy and have time for. Remember that if you have a raised bed these will need replenishing every season because, as the organic matter breaks down, your garden will lose a third of its capacity. A raised bed garden will need more access to nutrients, as these are depleted easier in this type of growing. 


To dig or not to dig?  
What is your answer to that question? 


Happy gardening 


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