No Dig Gardening

No-dig gardening has been written about since the mid 1940’s.  I mean just take a look at Albert Guests’ “Gardening Without Digging” (below).  Kinda reminds me a little of myself, standing there in my double breasted suit, smoking a pipe while admiring my garden.

But is was wonderful Esther Dean, who took the concept to the mainstream in the 1970s with her book “No Dig Gardening”, which has sold over 100,000 copies to date.

More recently it’s been promoted as “A new layering system…” or Lasagne Gardening with Patricia Lanza’s book.

 

How to get started?

Firstly you’ll need to assemble some ingredients:

Materials for a border: Straw bales, timber, bricks.  NB: If you’re building a garden over concrete or bitumen you will need boarders at least 30cm high.

Newspaper or cardboard boxes.

Bales of hay- ideally lucerne but straw will do (pea straw is great)

Manure – chicken, cow, pig – I’m not a huge fan of horse manure as it tends to include more weeds.  Would be fine for a deeper bed.

Compost

Potting mix

Water

Step by Step

1. Place your newspaper and/or cardboard in a sturdy wheelbarrow  right where you’re working and fill with water.

2. Mark out the edge of your new garden with your border material

3. Take the now soaked newspaper and place down thickly (the tougher the grass/weeds, the thicker it needs to be)

4. Throw some veggie scraps over the newspaper to encourage worm activity

5. Place down a thick layer of straw (if the straw breaks off into ‘biscuits’ go one layer deep)  approximately 20cm

8. Water well

6. Cover with a good layer of manure – use the ‘hottest’ first e.g. chicken.  Again water well.

7. Cover with another straw layer and follow with with manure, watering between each layer.  Continue until you’ve reached the height of your border.

8. Finish with a final layer of pea straw or sugarcane mulch.

9. Pull aside holes in the top layer of mulch and put in a few handfuls of potting mix.

10. Plant directly into the potting mix and water well.

Here’s a time-lapse clip showing how it’s done.  Maybe turn the volume down though…

 

 

Important Tips!

If you’re planting directly over lawn, mow the law on a very low setting just before starting the newspaper layer

Make sure you remove plastic tape from any cardboard boxes and plastic wrap from magazines.  Staples are fine.

Don’t use waxed vegetable boxes as in most cases it will be a petroleum based wax.

Some permaculture books suggest using old clothing, jeans, bed linen etc. as a sheet mulch for the bottom layer.  In my experience this is no longer the best idea as many of these now contain polyester which won’t break down.

The more thoroughly you can water whilst building the no-dig bed, the less is will sink down afterwards.  It also helps to speed up the composition of all your ingredients.

No dig gardens are better suited to well established seedlings – not seeds or root vegetables.

Now get (no) digging!

Crop Rotation 101

Why bother?

When starting a kitchen garden, we focus a lot on plants and yields.  What do I like to eat?  What do I want to grow?  As time with dirt up your nails increases you tend to get more focused on the soil and its needs – then the plants take care of themselves.  Part of this acknowledgement is realising it’s actually a pretty amazing thing to grow such high nutrient food year after year in plain old ‘dirt’.  But it’s not all a oneway street.  Soil gets depleted of elements and especially the three majors: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.  We can work around this natural cycle though, by planting in tune with the soil’s fertility.  Additionally, by moving plant families around, you’re less likely to have problems with soil borne diseases and other pests.

We are family

To effectively use crop rotation we have to understand the different plant families.  Some of our veggies are fairly obviously related e.g. carrot and parsnip.  Some are less so…think potatoes and tomatoes or beetroot and spinach.

Here is a quick run down:

Onion Family (Alliaceae)

Garlic, Leeks, Onions, Shallots

Cabbage Family (Brassicaceae)

Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Kale, Kohlrabi, Mustard, Bok Choy and other asian greens, Radish, Swede and Turnips

Carrot Family (Apiaceae)

Carrot, Celeriac, Celery, Fennel, Dill, Parsley, Parsnip

Potato Family (Solanaceae)

Eggplant, Capsicum, Chillies, Potato, Tomato

Marrow Family (Curcubitaceae)

Cucumber, Zucchini, Melons, Pumpkin, Squash

Bean and Pea Family (Leguminosae/Fabaceae)

Alfalfa, Beans, Clover, Fenugreek, Lupin, Peas

Daisy Family (Compositae/Asteraceae)

Lettuce, Chicory, Endive, Jerusalem Artichoke, Salsify

Now we categorise our veggies according to the parts we eat (basically).

Legume

Bean and Pea Family

Root

Onion Family

Carrot Family

Leaf

Cabbage Family

Daisy Family

Fruit

Potato Family

Marrow Family

Let’s get started

Know we’re armed with all this knowledge we can start to plan our beds.  To start with a four-bed system is a good idea and if you don’t have separate garden beds you can simply divide a large patch into four.  It’s also a good idea to throw a little lime on the soil after the ‘fruit’ season as this will sweeten the soil for root crops.

 

  Season One Season Two Season Three Season Four
Bed One Peas or Beans Leaf Fruit Root
Bed Two Leaf Fruit Root Peas or Beans
Bed Three Root Peas or Beans Leaf Fruit
Bed Four Fruit Root Peas or Beans Leaf

We sow the seeds!

A little about seeds

Seeds are made up of two major parts.  Firstly the embryo which includes the roots and the shoots.  Secondly the food source.  Seeds are so bloody clever they pack their own lunches!

It also explains why seeds and grains are energy-dense sources of food for us big brained mammals.  To grow, seeds need to absorb around 60% of their body weight in water.  Additionally they also need access to air. So when growing seeds it’s a balance between moisture holding growing mediums while also having excellent drainage.  You can assist the water absorbing process by pre-soaking your seeds before planting for a day or so.  Soaking below are some purple king climbing beans.

I tend to only pre-soak large seeds as smaller seeds are too fiddly.

Direct in garden or seed raising mix?

For root vegetables (carrots, beetroot, parsnips etc.) I’ll always sow directly as the large tap root is susceptible to damage when transplanting.  Peas,  beans and corn I’ll also usually sow direct – the large seeds making it a straight forward process.  Most other herbs, brassicas (think cabbages, broccoli asian greens) tomatoes, capsicums, cucumbers…well pretty much everything else, I grow into seedlings before transplanting.

How deep to plant?

It is very tempting to plant seeds deeper than they need to be.  While working for the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, I found kids always wanted to plant the seeds far too deeply.  It certainly seems to be our default setting.  Generally speaking seeds are planted to the depth of their width.  So broad beans around 1cm while lettuce and cabbage seeds barely need covering.  I dare you to simply spread some lettuce seed across the surface of some seed raising mix and just water without covering.  In around 10 days they’ll germinate and anchor themselves nicely.  We all know how wonderfully weeds grow, and nobody is sowing them at a specific depth.

Caring for seedlings and feeding

Seeds germinate well in dappled light (especially in summer) and this will also prevent the seed raising mix drying out too much.  You will know it’s too shady if seedlings grow ‘leggy’ i.e. thin and tall.  Temperature is the other necessary factor in germination, with most seeds only coming to life when the soil temp is close to 20 degrees.  Professional seedling producers use heat pads to artificially raise the temperature of the soil, leading to subtropical growth in temperate climates.

Use a fine spray of water initially as you don’t want to move the seeds with large drops of water while they’re trying to take root.  A hand-held pump sprayer is perfect.  As mentioned above the seed provides the required nutrition to germinate but once growing a weak liquid feed is a good idea every 10 days using worm juice or a seaweed concentrate.

Where to source seeds

Here are some links to seed providers who specialise in heirloom or old variety open pollinated varieties.  This means you can save the seed year to year and your plants will turn out true to type – something not always possible when saving seed from hybrid plants common in nurseries.

www.diggers.com.au

www.thelostseed.com.au

www.edenseeds.com.au

www.greenpatchseeds.com.au

www.theitaliangardener.com.au

Seed raising mix recipe

Most of these ingredients are readily available at good nurseries or landscaping suppliers (river sand and loam) and will save you lots of money if you’re propagating a lot of your own seeds.

One part river sand

1/2 part vermiculite (this is a naturally forming mineral that is a great insulator and holds moisture)

1/2 part weed free garden loam

1/2 part compost

Handful of blood and bone fertiliser

Mix together and keep in a sealed bucket.  Moisten before use.

Remember you can re-use this seed raising mix after planting out your seedlings by adding it to your next batch – don’t throw it out!