Reducing lawn size and planting for birds and other creatures motivated us to create a new flowerbed last year. Digging up a patch lawn was an off-putting chore, and so I starting reading about using no-dig methods as a respectable easy option.

It turned out that no-dig gardening has variant methodologies, but the essentials of smothering or covering an area to be cultivated, rather than tilling or double digging is a constant. This method is also known as sheet mulching, with lasagne gardening being another no-dig variant.

Given that the method is adaptable to different climates, soils and circumstances, I decided to modify the method to fit in with what I thought I could manage, and use what I had available. Some practitioners recommend starting by double-digging to prepare a site, but then progressing to covering it in layers of mulches that might include compost, straw, leaves and newspaper, with no more digging.

Others say there is no need to dig first, and that was what I wanted to do, though I did cut an edge to the bed with a spade to mark the approximate shape and to sever grass “runners”. Then I layered sheets of newspaper directly onto the lawn covering the entire area of the bed. On top of the newspaper I spread thick cardboard sheets in the form of flattened cardboard cartons. 

Creating a no-dig flowerbed using layers of newspaper, cardboard and mulch

The first stage of making the bed: sheets of cardboard spread over sheets of newspaper and weighed down by the occasional brick or rock. If water is available, the paper and cardboard can be soaked or sprayed.  Next, I covered the cardboard with a thickish layer of partly decomposed compost, adding dry leaves and sticks that I gathered from around the garden

Many no-dig practitioners recommend using hay or straw as an important layer to smother weeds, but I did not have access to these –  other than buying very expensive hay intended to feed livestock, which would have made this project more expensive than made sense. So I used what I had or could find, even pilfering some flattened cardboard cartons from a recycling depot.

I started making this flowerbed in June last year during winter, our dry season, when the lawn is just about dormant. For water, we directed the hose connected to the bath and shower outlets, so we could use grey water from the bathroom to keep the newspaper and cardboard damp as the wetness accelerates the process of decomposition.

Thick organic mulch on a newly prepared no-dig bed that is watered with grey water

The cardboard and newspaper on top of the lawn is completely covered with a thick layer of organic material gathered from the compost heap and from around the garden. The hose in the photo directs grey water from the bathroom so as to keep the area moist during the dry season when we get no or only very little rain

For more detail and a description of a method quite similar to the one I adopted see this article on no-dig garden beds on the site named Permaculture Visions. And for a straightforward description of the variant known as lasagne gardening (because of the layering method used) see here.

Olive Thrush searching for food in mulch on a no-dig flowerbed in a suburban garden in South Africa

Several birds, including this Olive Thrush, enjoyed searching for food in the rich layer of mulch

Not being one to let the grass grow beneath my feet, so to speak, and with the advent of spring, I decided to insert some new plants into the area before the cardboard and newspaper underneath it had rotted down. As we wanted to increase the diversity of the plants in the garden, we planted some indigenous plants bought at a local nursery, in addition to transplanting self-seeded old favourites that I dug up from around the garden.

To plant them, I scooped aside the mulch, slit or lifted the cardboard and newspaper and inserted each plant with a spadeful of compost. I then covered the area around each plant, adding a bit more cardboard under the mulch where I thought it was needed.

New plants inserted into the layers in a no-dig garden

Here is the flowerbed in October last year, four months after the cardboard was first laid down. The new plants, planted a week or two before, are starting to get established

The soil beneath the layers of newspaper and cardboard in a new no-dig flowerbed

A year after it was first laid down on top of the lawn, I lifted the cardboard to reveal soil and fragments of newspaper, but no more lawn

Perhaps it is useful to note that no-dig gardening is not the same as no-till farming. No-till farming is done on a commercial scale and also avoids tilling or digging the soil. When I first heard of no-till farming, with benefits that include less soil erosion and water runoff, and reduced use of fuel-burning heavy machinery, I thought it sounded like a great innovation. But then I learned that no-till farming usually depends on the routine use of herbicides such as Roundup that include glyphosates, a controversial practice to say the least. Although dating from 1984, this article from Mother Earth News offers a useful discussion of pros and cons of no-till farming.

It was said that glyphosate herbicides degrade and do not accumulate in the soil, but there is increasing evidence that they can accumulate in agricultural soils more than previously thought and also run off to contaminate surface water, potentially affecting non-target species of plants.

Interestingly, some crops (including soy, corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton, and sorghum) have been genetically modified to be Roundup Ready, that is glyphosate tolerant. Unintentionally, however, with drift from spraying, runoff and the accumulation of herbicides in the soil, several species of targeted weeds have mutated to become resistant to glyphosate herbicides.

There is also research indicating that glyphosate herbicides can have a detrimental effect on soil structure and organisms, for example harming beneficial bacteria in the soil and at the same time promoting the growth of harmful fungi.

Hadeda Ibisis foraging in the mulch in a no-dig garden flowerbed in South Africa

A group of Hadeda ibises enjoying foraging in the mulch when the no-dig flowerbed was in its eighth month

By contrast, no-dig gardening does not use herbicides. Its origins are attributed to different sources including the Australian writer and conservationist, Esther Deans, who pioneered no-dig gardening in Australia in the 1970s, advocating using newspaper and mulch when preparing garden beds, and allowing for natural soil-making processes to develop.

In Japan, Masanobu Fukuoka, after formally studying plant pathology, pioneered natural farming. He wrote several books, including the best-selling The One-Straw Revolution, published in 1975, which outlined his life’s journey, philosophy and sustainable farming techniques, sometimes referred to as ‘do nothing farming’. Both he and Deans are acknowledged influences on the permaculture movement.

In the United States, the names of Ruth Stout and Patricia Lanza, among others, are cited as promoting no-dig methods, and in the United Kingdom, two books on gardening without digging were published in the 1940s, one by F.C. King and other by A. Guest.

No-dig flowerbed it new plants established

Eight months after the first cardboard was laid down, the flowerbed is coming on, even hosting its first kniphofia flower (Kniphofia linearifolia)

Because of illness in my family, for many months I gave this project almost no attention. The grass around the base of the middle Fever Tree in the photo above is testimony to that, but only one very stubborn and deep-rooted species of grass persisted and broke through the mulch that ideally I should have maintained and replenished. Despite this neglect, all the other grasses and weeds disappeared. In the end, I did resort to digging out with a small fork and trowel, the one type of grass that remained.

Flowers of the Aloe praecox and the Black-eyed Susan creeper in a suburban garden in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

A year after the bed was first started, the second knifophia plant produced flowers (Kniphofia praecox).Visible in the background is a self-seeded small creeper, the Black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata)

Cardboard and soil mulch in a new no-dig flowerbed

The no-dig bed at 15 months of age. The tree on the left has a replenished cardboard and soil mulch to keep down the grass that persisted in this corner, but the rest of the bed is entirely lawn-free. I intend introducing some more ground-covers while the shrubby plants are growing up

All-in-all, I found the no-dig method to be relatively easy and impressive. I have also mulched sections of the vegetable garden with newspaper and cardboard to suppress an explosion of weeds that followed us double-digging a bed! So now we know not to disturb the soil too much. When we plant, we just dig a hole for the plant or a clear the smallest places possible for seeds and seedlings.

In the veggie garden, I pull weeds out by hand when they are small and drop them as I go so that they contribute to the mulch. When parts of the veggie garden are neglected or dormant, I allow self-seeded plants such as lettuces and New Zealand spinach to cover such areas and they suppress the weeds, and pennyroyal growing between the small pavers used for paths does a similar job.

The thing is to experiment with no-dig methods and ideas, and find a balance and a mix to suit one’s own individual circumstances. Fundamentally though, it is helpful to respect the soil, and try to imitate how nature creates the soil naturally, from the top down.

A no-dig flowerbed that is established in place of a piece of lawn after 15 months


On natural and no-dig gardening

Christensen, Julie. [2014.] Lasagna Gardening 101: The Lazy, No-till Garden Method That Works.

Cole, Gloria. 2012. No-till Gardening: Sustainable Alternative to the Rototiller. Dave’s Garden.

The One Straw Revolution. [n.d.] Masanobu Fukuoka.

Permaculture Visions. [n.d.] How to Sheet Mulch a Garden Bed: No Pain, No Swearing, No Sweat, No-Dig Garden Beds! All You Need is Patience and Care.

Seaman, Greg. 2009. No-Till Gardening. Earth Easy.

On no-till farming and herbicides

BBC News. 2018. Weedkiller Cancer Ruling: What Do We Know About Glyphosate?

Cuhra, Marek, Bøhn, Thomas and Cuhra, Petr. 2016. Glyphosate: Too Much of a Good Thing? Frontiers in Environmental Science.

Dobberstein, John. 2017. Is Glyphosate Harming Your No-Tilled Soils? Researchers say the widely used herbicide is lingering longer than previously thought and could negatively impact soil and plant health.  Also posted on No-Till Farmer

Mother Earth News. 1984. No-Till Farming Pros and Cons. The agricultural industry is converting to this new and (on the surface, at least) better method.

Saunders, Lyndsay E and Pezeshki, Reza. 2015. Glyphosate in Runoff Waters and in the Root-Zone: A Review. Toxics, 3(4): 462–480.

Sullivan, Emily. 2018. Groundskeeper Accepts Reduced $78 Million Award In Monsanto Cancer Suit. National Public Radio.

Posted by Carol

Lily round crop blue small