How to Start a No-Dig "Plant Positive" Garden.



I've been growing gardens in one shape or another for as long as I can remember. In my youth, I had the annual task of turning the family garden over by hand with a garden fork in the spring and pulling weeds all summer long.  Since then, I have tried many different ways of establishing gardens and the one method that I am the most excited about and have used with great success is called the no-dig or no-till method.  This method allows people to get a new garden bed established and planted in as little as a couple of hours and has the added benefit of being part of a "plant positive" approach where the focus is on creating an environment where plants can thrive.


There's no need for complicated soil tests or fertilizing schedules. I have spent an incredible amount of time reading, researching, experimenting, taking soil science classes and farming courses. The no-dig/no-till approach is quickly replacing the traditional approach to home gardening and small scale farming and I think it has many advantages. Primarily the frame of reference changes from feeding the plants directly, to feeding the soil and letting the plants and soil work together in a "plant positive" way as they have evolved to do.  This is an approach that resonates with me and that the well known and respected author/farmer/scientist Elliot Coleman has named "plant positive". I see so many opportunities for the use of the no-dig, "plant positive" approach, from ease of use to not needing any specialized inputs and the ability to acquire needed resources at little or no expense depending on your creativity.


The process of starting a no-dig, "plant positive" garden is simple, first you'll need a few basic hand tools and a helper.


Next, you need to source materials, such as some type of paper based weed blocker like newspaper, plain cardboard or brown Kraft paper.  Also you're going to need a good quantity of mature compost or top soil, the last component is optional but I love to use wood chips around the borders and in between rows.


Step One: Decide on the placement of your no-dig garden, you want an area that gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day and is on reasonably level ground. It could even be close to your front or back door so you always have easy access.


Step Two: Lay out the cardboard, being sure to overlap all edges by at least 4 inches, and wet the cardboard down a bit with water. On this step, if you are using newspaper or Kraft paper be sure to lay down multiple thicknesses to have a good strong layer that will block out sunlight and stop the grass and weeds from coming up. If you have a good supply of soil or compost you can skip this step but you will get more weeds coming up as a result.


Step Three: Spread a thick layer of compost or top soil directly on top of the cardboard, you want this layer to be 4-6 inches thick.  If you skipped Step Two the compost needs to be at least 6-7 inches thick, this second approach works best in the late fall.


Step Four is optional:  I like to use wood chips to define the edges and pathways.  This helps to keep the compost in place and keeps your feet clean and out of the mud.


Step Five: Let the fun begin... time to plant! Whether you are using seedlings or seeds or a combination of the two to get a nice and intensive use of space, the sky is the limit.  You can grow an incredible amount of produce in a relatively small space.


Where to source materials, the Cornwall municipal waste disposal site has a yard waste compost program and the resulting compost is available free of charge.  Also the city of Cornwall has wood chips available for free from several sites within the city limits. Visit and search for compost in waste management and wood chips in forestry services. Other cities may have similar resources, so it may be worth it to check out your city's websites.


Cardboard can be saved up from home, recuperated from local shops or scavenged from all over the place.  If you prefer to use craft paper you can order large rolls from websites like Uline, Staples or Amazon.


Once the no-dig bed has been built, it is immediately ready to be planted.  The roots of transplants have plenty of room to spread out and allows the plant to get established and put on a growth spurt. At the same time, you can sow some seeds like radishes, lettuce, spinach or carrots in between the transplants in a process called interplanting.


Now that it's spring, the base layer of cardboard will do the job of blocking the initial push of spring growth from the grass and weeds that have been covered up to die. In a few weeks, the cardboard will have begun breaking down and worms and soil life will be coming up and exploring the compost.  The roots from grasses and weeds will be dead allowing the roots of your crops to take advantage of the empty space in the soil structure and allow rapid root development and plant growth for your vegetables.


Maintenance of your new "plant positive" garden is very simple, once a week make a detailed inspection and pinch off any weeds or grasses that have poked their heads up. Do not dig them up as this will disturb the soil structure and signal additional weeds to germinate. Removing the green portion of any plant regularly will kill it over time. In the fall, cover up the soil with about 2 inches of mulch that will protect and help to feed the soil life over the winter. Mulches like homemade compost, fall leaves, rotted wood chips and mulch hay are all excellent options and can be sourced for free.  Once spring rolls around next year the garden is ready to be planted as soon as the ground thaws. Every year the soil will improve and your plants will thrive.


 In our next instalment well talk about sowing seeds and getting great transplants ready for your new garden. In the mean time why no visit our spring plant sale.


  • Matt this was very informative. I see I didn’t need to give up gardening at all. I just need to go about it in a different way. I’m going to give this a try!

    Heather. Flaro
  • Thanks Matt! I’m really excited about this method. I’m also going to use it in my flower bed to try to kill off an invasive plant that’s been driving me crazy. I love what you’re doing:)


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