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Frequently asked questions

My answers to questions I am asked a lot. And, like no dig, the answers are straightforward and make sense!

1. Leave soil undisturbed as much as is practical.

2. Feed the masses of soil life with organic matter on the surface, as happens in nature, to maintain drainage and aeration.

No dig works on all soils, including heavy clay.

Sometimes you need a spade, say, to cut out bramble roots, or make a hole for planting trees.

You can see this page in pdf format.

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Dig bed clay soil in the dry summer of 2010, Lower Farm, compost incorporated and parsnips growing
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No dig bed on the same day in 2010, same clay soil, but compost simply placed on top, parsnips growing, soil retains structure and moisture
Do I need to dig before starting no dig?

Apart from rare soils with pans, the answer is no. Often when starting you see plentiful growth of weeds, a sure sign of lively and fertile soil.

If you are starting with a building site, or field where tractors have smashed the soil, then you probably need to use a fork to loosen soil just once.

Does it matter if soil is hard/clay/seemingly compacted?

No, because usually when people ask this they are referring to soil that has a natural firmness, or sometimes just because it’s dry. Truly-compacted soil is rare and you will know it by a bad smell of sulphur, and water lying for a long time after rain. A one-off forking can help loosen this rare problem.

Clay soils grow fantastic plants with no dig, I know from long and happy experience.

  • In contrast, loose soil holds less moisture and results in plants falling over. Roots like firm soil.
How do I convert from dug soil to no dig?

If the surface is uneven, rake ro level it. You may even need to use a spade to level off the peaks, moving soil into the hollows.

Then spread organic matter as surface mulch, and soil organisms will multiply to the advantage of your plants. More on this forum post.

Does soil ‘need digging’ after say 4-5 years of no dig?

No this is a myth and completely untrue. For example my garden at Lower Farm had it’s best year in the horrible wet summer of 2012, when many growers and gardeners struggled even to get on their land, and that was its 15th consecutive year of no dig.

Homeacres in late 2022 after ten years of no dig, is more abundant than ever.

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Lower Farm bottom garden 3rdJune 2012, 15th year of no dig
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Same garden 7 weeks later in mid July, a wet summer!
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Same garden 29th September, mostly second plantings and they have thrived in the wet conditions
How do I plant a tree?

You dig a hole, just the size of the roots. Leave the adjacent soil undisturbed.

Do I need to fork to loosen the soil?

Another myth, from the misunderstanding that soil needs to be loose for plant roots to grow. It is manifestly untrue, yet it’s a deep rooted belief!

In a trial at Homeacres, the strip which we loosen every year with a fork (left in photos) has given 5% less crops (this page explains the trial) than the adjacent strip which is no dig. Both grow the same vegetables and have the same amount of compost on the surface.

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Three strip trial 30th July 2017, the forked strip is on left, same compost & no dig in middle, diff. compost & no dig on right
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Forked and no dig strips 1 & 2 of same trial 13th August 2018, also mostly same crops same beds for trial of no rotation
Can I hoe and use a trowel?

Light hoeing and raking is fine, usually the top 3cm/1in or less. This means you run the blade through your surface mulch of compost, and it’s almost effortless.

Use a dibber or trowel to create holes for new plants. Always a little deeper than the rootball you are planting, but without loosening any wider than the rootball.

Does no dig work to control marestail and other perennial weeds such as couch grass (Elymus repens) and stinging nettles (Urtica dioica)?

From the many reports I hear, gardeners who don’t disturb soil have more success for less effort in reducing marestail (equisetum), compared to gardeners who dig.

Couch/Twitch grass
In my experience, I have many times completely eradicated couch/twitch grass (Elymus repens) within a year. However it transpires that British couch grass is less vigorous than a few others, from what I am told by growers in New Zealand and parts of the USA, among others. The US Bermuda grass sounds more difficult, though still possible to eradicate by mulching.

Stinging nettles when well established are like a “woody weed”. First step is to cut everything to ground level. Cut right to soil level, and for a big patch, use a rotary mower to mow at the lowest setting to remove all stems and some surface roots.

Nettles are strong but not too persistent, unlike say bindweed.

When mulching a patch of strong nettle roots, use extra thick cardboard, even two layers on the ground and underneath compost. Or if you don’t need the ground immediately, cover with black polythene for six months before laying cardboard and compost.

Why so few weeds?

Whichever perennial (or annual) weed you have, mulching rather than attempting to dig out every root means a greater chance of complete eradication. Why? If only soil could talk… like all organisms that are alive, it’s happier when not disturbed and damaged. Any digging out of weed roots stimulates the remaining ones to grow more.

Weeds are part of soil’s recovery mechanism

Literally. I have heard farmers say how “chickweed follows the rotovator”. Probably because the tool has chopped soil into many small pieces and has broken its network of structure/aggregation. As well as biological (mycelial) filaments holding particles together. The chickweed has tenacious, wiry roots. They do such a good job of holding soil together again, while the biology can heal.
That’s just one example of what we are avoiding with no dig. It illustrates why we see few weeds, although there may be new seeds blowing in and many of those will germinate.

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In February 2013, my greenhouse soil was full of couch grass roots, this is a typical sod
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I laid first mulches early February, even before the greenhouse was assembled
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Five months later, fine crops and no couch grass
After cardboard degrades, do you lay more? Or use plastic?

It depends on the weeds. If they are annuals and non-persistent grasses, the 8-10 weeks of light deprivation (before cardboard degrades) sees them die and not regrow. But perennial weeds with strong root systems will push through the decaying cardboard after 8-10 weeks, depending on the time of year.

1 You need to keep removing the regrowth (not the deeper roots) with a trowel, every week if possible. Eventually the deeper roots run out of energy.

2 Or if you have really powerful perennial weeds, because the soil has been damaged on allotments, where digging has been continuous for years or decades, these weeds are more persistent, and it can be worth using black plastic (not woven polypropylene) to cover them for even a whole year. Spread organic matter before laying the plastic. You can plant summer crops through the plastic, such as squash and potatoes. See my ‘new area’ playlist for the whole sequence of a year in 2021 – by August the couch grass and dandelions were gone, and we removed the plastic after harvesting squash, did not use it again. Then by October 2022 the bindweed was almost finished, with just a little weak regrowth. It’s not invincible.

It’s enlightening to lift the polythene and check for growth of new weeds: there will probably be white or pale yellow stems. If you see lots of them, best leave the polythene in place because the deeper weed roots still have sufficient reserves to continue growing. Or if you see no pale stems and leaves, the plastic has done its job and you can lift it, to reuse.

  • The use in year one of light-excluding mulches such as cardboard and polythene, to kill perennial weeds in that first year only, saves much time.
Is cardboard safe to use?

Cardboard is not pollutant-free, but I have not observed problems when using it just occasionally. It is only necessary to use it if there are many weeds to mulch and, if this is the case, only in year one.

Most glues used to make cardboard are starched-based (see this link for more info: and any inks used are usually plant-based.

Avoid shiny cardboard, and remove any tape.

Fungi in soil and compost decompose many substances which are often called toxic – see the work of Paul Stamets and others:

Slugs? New weeds?

Fewer weeds germinate in undisturbed soil, and compost mulches on the surface make it easy to pull weeds or to run a hoe through the surface.

However cardboard and polythene also offer hiding places for slugs, which is why I recommend them only in year one – to kill any mass of weeds which it’s not feasible to pull or hoe.

After year one, in gardens where slugs are common:

  1. use compost as main mulch and not hay, straw or grass
  2. remove or do not install wooden sides around beds, to reduce slug hiding places, save money, and increase growing area
  3. keep your edges tidy, to make slugs find a home elsewhere.

No dig results in a balance of undisturbed soil organisms, such as slug-eating beetles and toads. They eat a lot of slug eggs too.

In contrast, dug soil has layers of compaction from the structure being damaged by fork or spade. In the resulting anaerobic layers, fermentation happens and creates alcohol. Slugs like alcohol, and this is another reason why digging causes problems.

  • No dig allotmenteers in the UK report how their lettuce are not eaten by slugs, while their digging neighbours are suffering damage to similar plantings, even while poisoning with slug pellets.
Does no dig need more organic matter than you need when digging?

Absolutely not, this is another myth and misunderstanding, perhaps because compost is visible on top, rather than dug in.

  • My two bed trial shows over ten years now no dig results in MORE FOOD for the same amount of compost. Plus with less time needed.

To grow healthy and abundant vegetables, soil needs feeding with organic matter, whether you dig or not. This is not a new finding, but has been often forgotten from a reliance on synthetic fertilisers, which feed plants yet harm soil organisms such as fungi.

New research bears me out on this, with the discovery that synthetic nitrogen, as used by most farmers, is depleting soil carbon and being a major contributor to CO2 in the atmosphere.

Can I add roots of perennial weeds to my compost heap?

Oh yes you can, and I know this contradicts much “official” advice, but these roots are not ever-living. Even in a cool compost heap, as long as new ingredients are added before any new shoots can find light, they run out of energy and expire. In a heap with some heat, they die more quickly.

At Homeacres when I arrived in winter of 2012/13, there were many roots of bindweed, couch, nettles, buttercups and docks going into the compost heap, where we had been clearing weeds off concrete paths etc. The heap never went above 40C/104F and all those roots disappeared.

Result: saving of time and more nutrients in the compost.

Likewise you can add diseased leaves to compost heaps. I add blighted plants, fruits and tubers of potatoes and tomatoes, mildewed squash leaves and rusty leek leaves. The disease spores die when the leaves they live on die. In 2018 I have super healthy leeks where I grew leeks in the past three years, with less rust this year than last.

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Homeacres first compost heap by April 2013, many roots of perennial weeds and a few growing through the removed pallet-side
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Charles happy in the garden May 2013 and adding roots of bindweed to his compost heap
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Same compost in September after a turn plus mix in July, when I found no living roots of perennial weeds
How do I stop weeds and grass invading my plot?

For most weeds, it suffices to cut edges say every 3-4 weeks in the growing season, with long handled shears and/or a half moon edger, helped by mowing the ground closes to your beds, weekly if possible in the growing season.

Grass and weeds will love to grow into your fertile ground. When starting with a lot of weeds, thick cardboard along an edge is a good first step in keeping it tidy. Be sure to use wide enough pieces of cardboard to have 15cm/6in overlaps on any joins, and over weedy edges to clean beds.

If weeds start to grow through the card, say after 8 weeks or so, simply lay more cardboard around the weedy edge.

Which organic matter is best?

Any kind of compost creates a productive mulch, and it’s worth buying if you can’t make enough, for the time it saves you and the extra harvests which result. The initial dose may be high, to suppress weeds and save a huge amount of time because of weeds growing less. If you count your time at minimum wage level, the compost will soon be paid for.

Suitable composts are many, preferably quite mature. Say 6-12 months for homemade compost, 1-2 years for animal manure. Compost from leaf mould and woody materials is good, and there is no requirement to use animal manures. Much depends on what is available locally. Woodchips make nice compost after 2-3 years, and then you can sieve them. Generally I do not sieve compost before applying.

  • Buy mushroom and green waste compost up to three months before you need them, so they can finish decomposing and maturing in a heap. Often these composts are still hot when delivered, say 50-60C (roughly 120-140F), and spreading them at that stage results in poor growth, especially if you had filled a whole bed with immature compost like that.
    If they are cool when delivered, they have probably aged in the seller’s yard, and can be used straightaway.

I had this question from an allotment, where the man who ran things there said

Someone put compost down and then it had to be watered every day or it just dried out.

That’s because the compost was still maturing. After 2-3 months, it behaves normally.

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2014, squash plants struggling to grow on green waste compost which is still fermenting and hot
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2016 – fast growth of Kuri squash plants on a heap of old cow manure, which we spread that autumn
Can beds be filled with soil?

I advise not, unless you are fortunate enough to have healthy and unneeded soil, which is rare.

Soils you can buy are often “dead”, from being stacked for long enough to kill all the microbes needed for growth. This was discovered by Professor Victor Stewart (Aberystwyth Uni) in the 1970s and ‘80s. He worked with the National Coal Board to discover why farms became so unproductive, after they had scraped off soil to extract coal, in opencast mines, and then replaced the same soil.

Is there a specific order adding materials when I make a no dig bed?

Spread the least decomposed first, so it’s at the bottom, and keep the finest compost for your top layer, to sow and plant into.

An example for a bed of 6in/15cm depth would be the first third of half-decomposed animal manure, second third of old but not perfect homemade compost, and the top third of multipurpose or mushroom or green waste compost. Firm the materials while adding them: if dry, walk on them.

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Cow manure with bedding of straw, 2 years old but the straw part is from an airless section of the heap
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Filling Homeacres no dig beds with old cow manure then other composts on top, November 2014
Is no dig good for growing flowers?

Yes for sure, in the UK there are now huge numbers of no dig flower growers. Sometimes it’s claimed that “compost is too rich for flower growing”, but that is another myth.

When I gave a talk to 150 flower growers, over half of whom are already no dig, I never heard a comment about beds being too rich for flowers, in fact it was praise all round. Adding compost is not akin to adding lots of fertiliser.

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Homeacres no dig front border 2014: 18 months earlier was a mass of weeds
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Same border 3 years later, mulched every autumn with 3cm green waste or mushroom compost