‘No dig’ gardening: how to clear weeds and prepare the soil

The soil food web

Healthy soils are teeming with life, including bacteria, fungi, and worms – to name just a few.  A teaspoon of soil can contain more organisms than there are humans living on Earth!

These organisms form part of a number of incredibly complex ecosystems in the soil. These play an important role in a number of cycles that make life on Earth possible, including nitrogen, carbon and phosphorus cycles. They also play a vital role in supporting plant health, by helping organisms to access the nutrients they need from the soil. More information here.

While it is common practice for gardeners to dig soils, doing so damages soil structure and threatens the ecosystems within the soil – which in turn threatens plant health.

In this post we outline how you can clear weeds and set up growing areas without digging the soil. While we do recommend using tools to remove tough weeds like brambles, we try to disturb the soil as little as possible.


Clearing weeds – the no dig way

Before we talk about clearing weeds, let’s remember that ‘weeds’ are not bad plants, they are just plants in the wrong place… and only once we decide they are in the wrong place!

What we think of as weeds are in fact the ultimate pioneer plants, rapidly covering bare soil and in doing so protecting the soil from erosion, replenishing organic matter, and feeding and restoring soil life.

If you have 6+ months before you want to start planting, the easiest way to clear weeds is to cover it with polypropylene or cardboard and leave it. This will starve the plants of light and remove all but the toughest of plants. Make sure to overlap the sections of cardboard so that weeds can’t grow through in between. It’s a good idea to remove difficult weeds like brambles, thistles and bindweed with a garden fork, as these tend to grow back. If weeds are very tall, you could cut them back with a strimmer or a scythe.

You could also cover it with add a few inches of animal manure, which will add lots of nutrients to the soil and help stop weeds growing. In 3-4 months, you will be able to plant directly into the decomposed manure.

If the growing season has already begun and you want to use plant into your bed immediately, you have a few options:

1) If you have access to compost and cardboard, you can cover the soil with 1-2 layers of cardboard to smother weeds. Just make sure to remove tough weeds first with as sharp spade. Then add a few inches of compost – you can plant directly into this. The cardboard will break down, allowing plants with deep roots to get through it into the soil beneath.

2) If you have compost but no cardboard, then remove weeds by hand and cover the bed with a few inches of compost. Plant directly into it. You will likely get some weeds growing through – weed regularly to keep them in check, using a hoe to remove them while they are small.

3) If you don’t have compost or cardboard, remove weeds using a hoe (for small weeds) and garden fork (for large weeds), while trying to disturb the soil as little as possible. Rake the first couple of inches of soil to break up clods of earth, and plant directly into this. When making holes in the soil to put your plants into, adding a small amount of compost will give them a good start.


Where to get compost, manure and cardboard?

Cardboard: Bike shops are great for getting huge cardboard boxes. Otherwise ask at a local supermarket… or wait until your neighbours put out their recycling!

Compost and manure: While you can buy this in bags from a local garden centre, if you’re covering a whole garden bed it’s cheaper to buy this in bulk from a local supplier. Buy organic if you can, to reduce the impact on the environment. If buying manure, it’s especially important to buy organic as non-organic manure can contain a herbicide called aminopyralid which can severely damage crops.

Making your own compost

It’s far cheaper to make your own compost from your food and garden waste. You can add this to garden beds and growing containers throughout the year, gradually improving the quality of your soil and making it easier to work.

To compost large quantities of food waste quickly, we would recommend using a ‘hot bin’ or a sealed tumbler (see below). These are hot composting methods, in which bacteria break down waste quickly to create compost in 1-2 months. For an overview of composting methods, see our guide.


Useful resources on no dig

If you want to find out more about the no dig method, check out this interview with Charles Dowding, an expert on organic growing and ‘no dig’. You can also listen to Dowding discuss no dig, composting and organic methods on the Garden Organic podcast series.

If you want to give it a go, have a look at this beginner’s guide to no dig. Dowding has also written a practical and accessible book on the topic, No Dig Organic Home and Garden’ 

Sources

  1. Soil degradation and how to fix them, Natural History Museum

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