Green Thumb - How to No-Dig a Veggie Patch

Earlier this year, I travelled down to Tasmania, to the beautiful city of Hobart, to spend 2 weeks immersed in all things Permaculture. If you've not heard of Permaculture (it's abit of a buzz word at the moment in sustainability circles), it's basically a style of living that focuses on looking after the environment and people in equal parts - the word is derived from 'permanent agriculture', and promotes looking at things like food production and housing from the point of view of mimicking the systems in nature, with the idea that nature can organise itself much more seamlessly and in balance than us humans can. Personally, everything I learnt just seemed like common sense - go with nature, work with the natural progression of things, and it will all be so much more productive and easy. I LOVED it.

The course I did {with Milkwood Permaculture} was focused on Urban Permaculture (which is a topic near to my heart and a whole other post), and really honed in on systems in urban environments like backyards, courtyards and community spaces. One of the techniques we learnt was 'sheet mulching' or No Dig Gardening. A no dig garden allows you to build your garden without having to dig up whatever is there by layering 'green' layers (things with a high nitrogen content like plants or animal manure) with 'brown' layers (things with a high carbon content, like cardboard, paper, dried leaf litter or straw). It's really easy, and provides a turbo charged soil environment for the microbes and worms to thrive in, in turn providing a really, really good environment for plants.

A month or so ago as the days started to stir into feeling more like spring, I decided it was time to get my veggie patch ready for some summer action. We'd been growing in it without much addition of nutrients for the past couple of years, and I could tell it was getting tired. I'd let the patch go nuts over winter, and stuff had gone to seed, attracted pests and basically turned into a jungle.

This jungle provided me with plenty of green stuff to add as the first layer to my no dig garden, and had kept the soil covered during winter. The photos below show the other resources I used - I had alot of stuff already on hand, and got the others pretty cheaply from the local rural supply place and nursery. The white bags are bags of stable manure from the local racecourse, the pellets in the second photo are organic chicken manure and the tub at the back ismolasses.

First step was to soak the newspaper in the wheelbarrow with a scoop of molasses (molasses is abit of a treat for the soil microbes - they have a sweet tooth apparently!). Soaking the newspaper means you aren't creating a dry barrier between the rest of your no dig additions and your current soil. Next I attacked the veggie patch with my secateurs, chopping all the plants up into smaller pieces (leaving the roots in the ground, and cutting them off at soil level). I left a couple of cauliflower plants and a few silverbeet plants as they were, but everything else got the chop and was scattered around evenly on the soil. Then I laid the soaked newspaper a few sheets thick all over the surface, overlapping the edges. This initial layer works to prevent any weeds making their way up through the layers - if you are creating a new garden bed, say on top of lawn, you'd be better off using thick cardboard to smother the grass. In my case the paper was fine.

Once that was done, it was time for some layers. I started with a scattering of stable manure, and then sugar cane mulch. On top of this, I scattered a few handfuls of blood and bone fertiliser, which adds lots of trace elements that aren't likely to be supplied by the other ingredients. You could also use crusher dust or rock minerals. It's important to either water the dry layers like the mulch in as you go, or soak it prior to putting it on. I soaked it in a mix of molasses and liquid fertiliser. Then on went another layer of stable manure, and a sprinkling of chicken manure over the top too.

I repeated this layering again, and finished with a top layer of straw. In total, I used a bag of sugar cane mulch and a bale of wheat stubble straw, as well as 3 bags of horse manure, which cost around $25 all in, significantly less than bags of compost or a ute-load of garden soil from the landscaping place. I also placed some old paving stones we had strategically throughout the garden bed. This means I can get in and around the patch without stepping on the layers and compressing them.

I let this sit for a couple of weeks before planting into it, just because I didn't have anything I wanted to plant out...but I know garden guru Nicola Chatham (you should check out her excellent online garden courses - Nic goes into great detail about all things veggie gardening, including no dig gardens) plants right away into hers, with no problems at all. The key to planting out a no dig bed is to make a little hole in the mulch, fill it with compost or a mix of good potting mix and mushroom compost or worm castings and planting your seedlings or seeds in that.

My no dig veggie patch is still sitting with only a few seedlings in it, waiting for tomatoes to go in very soon. It'll be breaking down under all that mulch with lots of happy microbes and worms creating beautiful soil for my summer crops. As the layers break down, the height of the garden will drop - which means that this time next year, it'll be ready for another layer or two to replenish it. As an added bonus, I've hardly needed to water those little seedlings, because the capacity of the garden to hold water is really high - hopefully this means our hot summer won't take too much of a toll on the veggies this year. Perfect!

So, what do you think? Will you be No Digging in your garden this spring?