Garden of Eatin' / How-To

The No-Dig Vegetable Garden

The no-dig vegetable garden

I started a new garden bed last fall, and I didn’t dig a thing. It actually would’ve been pretty challenging to dig anything, as I started the new bed in an old bathtub. A bathtub in my backyard!

Four months later, the first plants seeded are finally thriving, thanks to the longer days.

I inherited this vintage, enameled-steel clawfoot tub from the previous owners after I moved into my house a few years ago. They had it propped up under the feijoa tree on a stack of stones, and for many summers it was our repurposed party cooler, filled to the brim with ice and stuffed with cases of beer.

But having the tub sit empty the rest of the year seemed silly, especially since we weren’t using it as an actual tub to wash anything in the garden.

Enameled-steel clawfoot bathtub

I envisioned turning it into a planter (especially a future planter for potatoes and sweet potatoes, where the tubers could be contained), but the massive size made filling it with good-quality soil a little cost-prohibitive, considering we needed to top off all our existing beds as well.

I started looking into no-dig methods for building raised beds, which pile on layers of organic materials that decompose over a season to create humus-rich earth.

There are several styles of no-dig gardening, including straw bale gardening, lasagna gardening, and sheet mulching, but I was most intrigued with Esther Deans’ method, which appeared suspiciously simple.

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The Australian gardener and author promoted a style of no-dig gardening (you can still find her book online) that popularized no-dig gardens throughout the 70s and 80s, and inspired the ideas of permaculture designer Bill Mollison.

Deans’ method comprised a specific formula that started with newspaper and added fertilizer, alfalfa, straw, and finally compost. The layers could be built over a soft surface like grass or dirt—or even a hard surface like concrete, though the raised bed would have to be deep enough for deep-rooted vegetables to thrive.

No-dig gardening chart

I decided to try this method for filling my clawfoot tub, since straw and alfalfa are cheap and easy to come by at my local feed store, and I could use them to mulch and amend several other beds in the garden.

I started with about 10 sheets of newspaper layered in the bottom of the tub. In my case, they were less for weed suppression, and more for adding brown matter and providing food for the worms that will make their home in the tub.

Next came a generous dusting of fertilizer—I chose bone meal and blood meal, but animal manure or any high-nitrogen fertilizer would work. Rather than following the suggested application on the packages, I tossed in a few handfuls of each, then watered them in well.

(A few handfuls is much more than you would typically use if you were fertilizing a bed, but in this case, the extra bone meal and blood meal is added to accelerate the breakdown of the layers.)

Then came the alfalfa. Alfalfa (also called lucerne hay) is the same stuff used as horse feed. It comes in bales that pull apart in 3-inch pads and makes an excellent base for a no-dig garden.

Bale of alfalfa (lucerne hay)
Pad of alfalfa

With its super nutritious and high nitrogen content, it rots quickly, providing rich organic matter for plants and helping other materials decompose. I covered the bottom of my tub with two layers of alfalfa pads (about 6 inches), a few more handfuls of bone meal and blood meal, then soaked them thoroughly with a hose.

On top of the alfalfa, I added a thick layer of straw (about 12 inches, or double my alfalfa layer). Straw is basically hay without the grains; it’s the hollow stems and dried leaves left behind after all the grains and seeds have been harvested.

It’s not as nitrogen-rich as alfalfa, but breaks down quickly into compost and contains fewer seeds, meaning less weeds growing in your no-dig bed. Really pack in and pack down the straw in your raised bed (even building the layer up to the lip), as it will greatly compress after a couple of months.

Bales of straw

Following the straw was another generous dusting of bone meal and blood meal, and another soak with the hose.

Finally, the topmost layer was a healthy addition of compost (about 3 to 6 inches). Whatever you use, it should be well rotted and teeming with microbes. This is the layer you’ll be seeding and planting in, so don’t skimp on the compost. Wet it down, and you’re ready to plant!

In a standard-depth raised bed, the ratio of layers would more likely look like this from the bottom up:

  • 10 sheets of newspaper
  • 3 inches of alfalfa (one pad)
  • 6 inches of straw
  • 3 to 6 inches of compost (or well amended soil)

Scatter bone meal and blood meal over each layer and saturate with water before adding the next layer. It might seem like you’re piling on a mountain of materials, but the alfalfa and straw will compress under repeated watering and reduce to about half their height by the end of the season.

The no-dig method also works for reviving an old raised bed; just omit the straw layer and add the rest on top of the existing soil.

I had a bed sit empty and dry for a couple of months, and its soil had turned into heavy, compacted earth. I stacked on the newspaper, bone and blood meal, alfalfa, more bone and blood meal, then topped off with homemade compost, and sprayed each layer with water.

Neglected garden bed
No-dig garden method
Alfalfa pads spread across raised bed
Newly revived garden bed

I didn’t plant in the bed, but watered it with the rest of the garden through winter and now have lush, aerated soil to plant in spring.

Going back to the bathtub, this is what it looks like today, planted with kale, turnip, and lettuce.

Leafy greens in clawfoot tub
Portuguese kale
Red lettuce

I started everything from seed and they sprouted within a week. I watered like normal and did not fertilize the bed. (Though going into spring, I’ll be amending with fish emulsion or compost tea to replenish the nitrogen in the soil.)

I’ve read from a few sources that newly built no-dig beds work best with shallow-rooted plants until the layers break down into humus. But from the looks of it, my turnips (shown here in the foreground) are faring well so far.

Kale, turnips, and lettuce growing in bathtub planter

I probably wouldn’t plant, say, carrots or daikon in a first-season bed as they’re very deep-rooted. I’d avoid planting peas and beans as they can be sensitive to the salinity in high-nitrogen fertilizers. Excess nitrogen can also cause fruiting plants to produce lots of foliage but fewer flowers.

By the second season, however, all that alfalfa and straw will have turned into rich black soil that’s ideal for all of those varieties.

Like any raised bed, you should top off and amend your no-dig bed every season with soil and compost. But once it’s established, maintaining it requires no real effort and reviving it (if you’ve neglected to plant or amend) requires no back-breaking digging. Simply build upon the layers again and let nature do the work.

Vintage bathtub planter

This no-dig bed is now one of my favorite “lazy gardening” strategies that I’ve used and adapted in a few different gardens, as it’s easy to implement (even in small spaces) and doesn’t require me to stockpile a ton of organic matter to put into a bed.

Linda Ly About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

54 Comments

  • Avatar
    StanFL
    March 8, 2021 at 1:12 pm

    How to go cheaper: find a neighbor with horses, and take some wheelbarrows with aged manure. Plants love it. Find a disposal site for landscapers which grinds the vegetation into compost. Ours gives free mulch, which is vegetation after the first grind. They can’t sell all the compost,, so they only make as much as they can sell and dispose of the rest of the first grind at landfills – save them some pennies by taking a few trailer-fulls of mulch. Cut your lawn with a bag attached, and throw the clippings in the raised bed,, now you have green and brown mixed. Burn your tree clippings, and use the ash for the raised bed. Four free things, that make a paradise for plants.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Sharon
    February 11, 2021 at 5:44 pm

    Anything I can do where I could plants green beans the first year? What else may be a problem the first year?

    Reply
  • Avatar
    John Gabriel Arends
    June 28, 2014 at 1:21 am

    Do you have to let this sit for a whole season before planting in it? I have many chile plants (about 30) in small pots that I need to transplant into a larger growing area, and I am looking for a more cost effective way to make that happen then buying 30 large pots and all of the soil needed to fill them. Any ideas you have would be welcome!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      July 2, 2014 at 2:56 pm

      Yes, you can plant right away. I don’t know how the chile plants would respond to all the nitrogen in the bed, as I only planted greens and turnips in the first season, but it’s worth a try.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        John Gabriel Arends
        July 3, 2014 at 2:15 pm

        Okay. Thank you for taking the time to reply. I’ve been very inspired by your blog. I’m a web/graphic designer, and you’ve done an outstanding job.

        Reply
        • Linda Ly
          Linda Ly
          July 3, 2014 at 4:12 pm

          Thanks! 🙂

          Reply
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