Gardening: No-till gardening can prepare your soil for spring

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News
In a no-till or no-dig garden, the soil is covered with a layer of newspapers and a combination of organic materials that will break down over the winter.

Jack Frost may soon bring the growing season to an end, but don’t pack your tools away just yet. A big secret to successful gardening is planning and working ahead of the next growing season, and fall is prime time to get the jump on next year. .

Should you be thinking about extending or starting a new bed, get it ready this fall and you can hit the ground running at planting time Also, you’ll give Mother Nature time to work on the organic amendments and begin converting them into a form the plants and beneficial soil dwellers can use.

If you’re unable to do heavy digging consider installing a no-dig garden, also called a no-till garden.  That’s where the sod or soil is covered with a layer of newspapers and a combination of organic materials. In spring flowers, shrubs or even vegetables are planted by making slits in the newsprint. Traditionally, when building a new garden bed, sod is removed and thrown away, but those clumps of green are loaded with valuable organic material that will help to enrich the soil as it decomposes.

Begin by using a garden fork to punch holes in the ground as deeply as possible.  This allows air and nutrients to get to the root of things in spring. Work backwards so as not to step on the openings and compress them. 

Next cover the area with newsprint six sheets thick, making sure to overlap all the edges. The newspapers act as a shield, keeping light out so grass and weeds beneath it die and seeds are prevented from sprouting. Today most newspapers are printed with non-toxic soy-based inks and quickly break down in the soil.  Also, newsprint is made of wood pulp which is a good source of organic matter.  Be sure to use only newsprint, not the glossy advertising inserts. If you have no source for newspapers, brown cardboard will also work. 

Then layer on organic materials to a depth of 6 inches.  Shredded leaves, pine needles, well-aged manure, compost and even shredded newspaper used in any combination are all welcome additions. The final and most important layer is a good quality compost. It’s filled with microbes that will help break down the other organic materials and helps to anchor them in place.  

If you have an established garden bed that’s covered in weeds, this is also an easy way to take care of the problem and enrich the soil at the same time.   

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at