No-till Gardening: Sustainable Alternative to the Rototiller (Dave’s Garden)

Read at : Dave’s Garden Weekly Newsletter Febr. 25, 2008

No-till Gardening: Sustainable Alternative to the Rototiller

No-till or no-dig gardening is a method of preserving the natural integrity of the soil. It preserves soil structure, promotes biological activity, and preserves soil fertility. All of this is compromised by cultivation. Here I will explore the ‘Why’ and ‘How To’ of No-Dig gardening.

“If we throw mother nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.”  Masanobu Fukuoka [1]

What is No-Dig Gardening?

Origins. The origin of no-dig gardening is sometimes attributed to Australian writer and conservationist, Esther Deans [2] who outlined a method of piling mulch over newspaper to prepare garden beds for planting. The mulch suppresses weeds, conditions the soil, and invites natural soil making processes. Others attribute the invention of no-dig gardening to Japanese Microbiologist, Masanobu Fukuoka who advocated a method of natural soil building in this book, The One-Straw Revolution [1]. The Permaculture movement, a world-wide organization promoting natural gardening or no-dig techniques [3] embraces both Esther Deans and Masanobu Fukuoka’s work.

In the United States origins are more apt to be attributed to Ruth Stout [4] [5] [6] who advocated fighting weeds by piling on a mulch of straw, pine straw, leaves, and compost. The thicker the mulch, the greater was the deterrent to weeds. Updated versions are Patricia Lanza’s Lasagna Gardening [7] and Lee Reich’s Weedless Gardening. [8] No-Dig garden writers are profiled in Shapiro and Harrisson’s Gardening for the Future of the Earth. [9]

How To. Very little surface preparation is required to build a no dig garden, assuming of course that weedy shrubs and trees have been removed. A preliminary step could be to solarize [10a, 10b] the area to kill perennial weeds. The general method is to cut, flatten, or mow existing surface vegetation. Then, following a soaking rain or irrigation, the surface is covered with several thicknesses of wet newspaper (Deans) or cardboard. [11] After soaking again, a mulch of whatever organic materials are available is applied over the cardboard or newspaper foundation.  Typically the mulch would include straw, shredded wood chips, leaves, shredded junk mail, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, used tea leaves, animal manures, weeds, and used potting soil.  According to the Lasagna Method [7], equal volumes of “greens” and browns” are layered over the cardboard. More technically, the aim is to get a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30 to 1. [12]  After a few weeks to allow the mulch to settle in, planting begins directly into the mulch. Alternatively, the mulch may be allowed to over winter in preparation for spring planting. A recent innovation is the use of living mulches where the crop is planted together with a cover crop selected to surpress weeds.  [13]  No-dig gardening, as opposed to double digging, rototilling, or other forms of cultivation is intended to eliminate weeds, thereby eliminating the need for cultivation.

Raised beds, container gardening, and strawbale gardening [14] are all relevant methods of no-dig gardening.  Below (Figure 1) is a hedge of potato plants planted in whiskey barrels in a west coast of Alaska garden. The red potato Ididered has a pink blossom, but white and yellow potatoes have white blossoms (see Thumbnail).  Figure (3) is a coastal Alaskan raised bed garden.
Why. Cultivation disturbs soil life, causes soil compaction, exposes and depletes nutrients, and kills micro-organisms. The natural cohesion of soil particles is disturbed so that erosion is more likely. The broad spectrum nutrients lost to cultivation are usually replaced by only the essential nutrients in commercial fertilizers.  Not-digging, on the other hand, preserves the natural integrity of the soil. Not-digging improves soil health, and also protects against erosion, improves both the quality of garden plants and the environment. Environmental quality is enhanced when soil nutrients stay within the soil rather than eroding into rivers and streams or exposed where they contribute to atmospheric greenhouse gases.  Excessive fertilizers contaminate groundwater, rivers, and streams causing eutrophication – a condition of excessive nutrients [15] which can threaten the habitats of aquatic animals and wild life.

Soil Integrity

Soil integrity refers to its (1) biological constituents, (2) chemical characteristics or fertility, and (3) physical properties.  The soil’s biological components integrate the physical and chemical properties to produce over-all soil quality.


By Gloria Cole (gloria125)


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

2 thoughts on “No-till Gardening: Sustainable Alternative to the Rototiller (Dave’s Garden)”

  1. I have two types of gardens. One is the typical in ground type and the other is kinda like a lasagna garden. I have a couple of huge trees in my yard that drop a tremendous amount of leaves in the fall. I just gathered all of them into one designed place and spread them about. Come Spring I planted potatoes in the leaves. The plants have been growing wonderfully but it hasn’t come time to harvest yet.If you plan carefully you can work one of these gardens into your landscape very effectively and have a harvest to boot.

  2. I learned this method while living in New Zealand. I’m now developing a sustainable small farm in a remote First Nation’s village on the West Coast of British Columbia. We don’t have the drought conditions that you do, quite the opposite! So, I’ve found that the no dig actually encourages too many slugs sometimes. It’s an ongoing dance trying to work with mother nature.



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