Gardening: 'No-dig' plots a welcome alternative

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

I’m really excited about the new growing season. This year, I was able to get a small plot for growing vegetables at the senior citizens’ center in Rochester and I’m going to put in a “no dig garden” for tomatoes and basil.

Sadly, due to a back injury, my deep digging and bending to weed days are over, but that doesn’t mean I can no longer garden. My new no-dig garden will take care of most of the weeds,  the most laborsome part of gardening.

Actually, tilling the soil can do more damage than good.  It disturbs the microbial life below ground  that works in concert with roots to feed the plants as well as the soil and fights disease. Weed seeds in the soil can remain viable for years and tilling brings them to the soil surface. There, when kissed by the sun, they quickly sprout.                              

No-dig gardens can make growing vegetables easier, since there is less weeding.

The no-dig, also called the no-till garden, is easy to install, plant and care for, and it requires less watering and again little or no weeding!

If you’re establishing a new garden bed in a lawn, mow the grass as short as possible. Next, cover the area with newspaper (four sheets thick) or cardboard, being sure to overlap them so the grass does not sneak through the cracks. 

Wetting the material ahead of time will keep it from blowing away. When laying down the paper material, leave enough to tuck down into the edges of the bed to keep grass and weeds from sneaking out. Then cover the material with 4 inches of mulch. I’m using a mulch mix of quality compost, finely shredded pine bark and an assortment  of other organic soil amendments, including seaweed meal and Schultz Soil Conditioner.   To figure out how much you need use the following formula: To cover a  100-square-foot area 1-inch deep of mulch requires ⅓ cubic yard of material. After spreading the materials, water them in well using   fine spray.

When planting, using a pointed bladed trowel, hold it upright, plunge it into the soil and pull back. Tuck in the plant with a bit of compost and replace any disturbed mulch.

The following year after planting, cover the soil surface with another 2 inches of mulch. Tilling and turning the soil is a chore of the past.

Lee Reich, author of the best seller "The Weedless Garden" (Workman), reminds us “pay attention to the top few inches of soil and mother will do the rest.”   

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a 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