Sunday, 3 January 2016

Morag's Simple & Successful No-Dig Garden Method

Low maintenance, low water needs, abundant, resilient. We all want to be able describe our vegetable garden efforts this way. However, the joy of growing fresh chemical-free food at home is regularly thwarted by our time- poor lives and often poor soils. 

Over the past 20 years, I've developed a method of no-dig gardening that has proved again and again to be simple, affordable, time-saving, soil-replenishing and the maker of super-productive garden beds. 

My No-Dig Garden Method is Different.

I make my no-dig gardens differently from the methods described in most gardening books - just a little twist, but it turns it on it’s head. 

Simply, the newspaper is the last layer before the mulch, rather than laid on the ground under the compost layer.  This little change does many things. 
  • The compost layer integrates more rapidly with the existing soil. 
  • Soil flora and fauna quickly get to work without the barrier in between. 
  • The compost layer stays a more moist and stable temperature under the paper layer. 
  • The newspaper layer prevents weeds from growing in your garden, including the unwanted seeds from your compost. (Unless you are a master composter, there will be seeds in your compost). 
  • Less nutrients from the compost are evaporated and lost. 
  • Roots of plants can penetrate directly into the soil so stay hydrated longer, can access minerals and have increased resilience and stability. 
If you'd like to give it a try, here's my step by step guide:


  • Select garden site - close to the kitchen with 6-8 hours sun/day. 
  • Start small. Keep adding later as you gather more resources. 
  • Mark out garden edges and pathways.Cut grasses and weeds, and leave them on top. The leaves and roots add organic matter. When the roots die channels open up for air and water. 
  • Water the area well - or preferably construct after a good rain. 
Identify a good site for your garden and gather the resources.

  • Open soil with a garden fork, but do not turn. Push the fork into the ground as far as it will go and pull back gently to open and raise the soil. With the increased activity of soil life, the fork will go much deeper next year. 
  • Sprinkle high nitrogen materials such as chicken manure and fresh non-meat kitchen scraps. 
  • Water in with diluted liquid manure. 
Opening the soil.


  • Add 10-15 cms of compost and water in. This becomes the new topsoil. 
  • Use what you can find locally and preferably recycled from your own on- site waste materials. Homemade compost mixed with worm castings are excellent for the soil and plants. Aged manure and mushroom compost are also good. 
  • Bulk the compost layer by adding ripped leaves of comfrey, canna, pigeon pea or any abundant leafy green available - but not pine, eucalyptus or other oily leaves. If using lots of fresh leaves or manure, wait a couple of weeks before planting because the heat generated may burn seedlings. 
Adding organic matter, compost, manure, liquid fertiliser, comfrey leaves... materials for the new topsoil. Note the little keyhole pathways that are designed to collect water and direct it into the garden.

Water this all in well before adding the newspaper layer.

  • Add a biodegradable weed barrier to prevent weeds from coming up in your garden. 
  • Use moist newspaper about 10-15 sheets thick. Cardboard is too thick. Soak paper thoroughly in wheelbarrow or tub of water before laying. Dry paper is hard to lay well and absorbs moisture from the soil. 
  • Overlap the paper 10 cms in each direction allowing for movement when planting through the weed barrier layer. 
  • Before mulching, check for gaps and cover them up. If there’s a hole, the weeds will find it - they’ll be searching for the light. 
  • Remember to paper your paths and edges too. 
Adding wet newspaper, making sure to overlap it well. It is a good idea to lay it so that water is directed under the paper (e.g.: the opposite of roof tiles which shed water).

Tuck it into the sides well to prevent weeds coming through here. Paper the pathways too.

  • Add a thick layer of SEED-FREE mulch (15 cms) over weed barrier - beds and paths. 
  • Place anything containing seeds (not wanted in your garden) under the weed barrier. 
  • The mulch will eventually become part of your new topsoil, but in the process will be providing soil protection and insulation and help to conserve water. 
Completely cover with a thick layer of seed-free mulch so that you cannot see any paper showing through.

  • Select a diversity of seasonal and perennial vegetables, herbs and flowers for a polycultural kitchen garden. 
  • Consider the size and growth form of each plant when planning where to place each seedling/seed. 
  • To plant, make a birds nest in the mulch to reveal the paper. Poke a hole through the paper with a transplanter and check that the soil is loose below. 
  • Add a handful of compost in the hole to the level of the weed barrier/paper. 
  • Plant the seedling or large seed into the compost. Press gently to make sure the seedling is firmly planted. 
  • Bring the mulch back around the seedling, but not touching it. The mulch provides protection for the young seedling until it emerges. 
  • Water into the individual holes and check once again that the seedlings are firmly in the compost. 
  • To plant small seeds (eg: carrots), open the mulch along a line, slice paper and lift back a little. Add compost and sprinkle the seeds. Mix seeds with coffee grounds to help spread, and give seeds a good start. 
Make little holes in the mulch and paper (like a nest). Plant through the paper into the new soil layer below - adding a good handful of compost to bed the seedling in.


  1. Water only when necessary. Feel under the mulch first. Overwatering causes shallow root growth and seeds from overwatered plants expect lots of water. 
  2. Mix herbs and flowers amongst the vegetables to assist with pest management. 
  3. Pull out emergent weeds before they seed or spread. 
  4. Prepare more compost, while the garden is growing 
  5. When a plant is removed, add a handful of compost in it’s hole and replace with a different plant - no need to redo the whole area. 
  6. Next growing season, observe and use your judgment. Maybe top up with a new layer of compost and mulch. Perhaps fork the soil a little more. Add another layer of newspaper only when needed. 
  7. Allow the perennials to remain - just mulch around them. 


My garden method is simple, easy, cheap and very rewarding. I hope you give it a try. Evolve it to your conditions and resource availability. Share it with others. It’s a fun activity to do with friends or family, community garden or school. 

This post has been adapted and extended from an article published in the Maleny Organic Food Cooperative News, Spring 2015.


  1. Thank you for these clear instructions for a no-dig garden. It would be particularly useful for folk with poor soil. veggies couldn't help but do well.

  2. What an excellent tip. I've always put cardboard/newsprint down first but your method makes way more sense. Thank you, Morag :)

  3. I have to star my garden on top of the ground at my place. We live on an old river bed which means I have tons of river rock very close to the surface. I think I will use the river rocks that have surfaced to build a rock planting bed, I will have to cement them together, but this should give me good drainage in the process.

  4. Good tips on design Morag. Interested in your comments on the toxins within newspaper.

  5. Great Morag - I have done this too and been very successful - I started doing this when I lived west of Toowoomba and we had about 4 years of rainfall under about 250mm and I was on tank water. This method just kept in more moisture and when I put newspaper on the bottom the whole system became dry so quickly. I use to plant directly in with a handful of compost too - mainly because I have not wanted to wait! I am enjoying these blogs - keep them coming :-) Chrissy

    1. Hi Chrissy, Happy New Year! Thanks for sharing your success story with doing gardening this way. I agree, it really does help get gardens through dry times. I always use big handfuls of compost too - at the beginning, but also when a gap emerges and I want fill it with something else. I loosen the soil a little with my transplanter, add another big handful of compost and plant another seedling (or seed).

  6. Nice and clear. going to give this a try. My back won't take the digging anymore.

    1. Good luck with this. I also find it helps to reduce bending over weeding later on too. Few weeds come through the newspaper layer if done well.

  7. Great article. I got some good ideas. Thank you.

  8. Re: someone's question about toxins in newspaper ~ here in the US lead has no longer been an ingredient in newsprint ink for many, many years. I'm not sure there are any other toxins, as the paper is something that people are constantly handling. Good question for a bit more research.

  9. I have been waiting and waiting for the "nip" of Autumn and it's finally here! Now, I can build up my veggie patch again and I'm going to try the newspaper on top as you suggest. I always have heaps of free little seedlings popping up from my compost (I am no master composter:) Do you plant into the pockets of compost straight away or do you let it sit couple of weeks before planting? I usually let it "cook" for a while before I plant but wouldn't mind planting a bit sooner if weather permits.

    1. I plant straight away, unless I have used lots of fresh manures and food scraps - but usually I like to compost these (at least partly) to being with. If you have a nice blend under the paper, adding a good handful of finished compost into the hole will let you plant immediately.

  10. Hi Morag. My daughters and I attended your edible spaces Workshop and are excited to get our no dig garden started. How do we prepare our chook manure to use in the garden? And is there a commercial compost/manure we can use to start now? Thanks, Ruth

    1. Hi Ruth, You can either sprinkle it on the ground as the first layer in the no-dig, or use it to make compost. There are commercial varieties available - check for an organic certification stamp on the bag. Happy Gardening!

  11. Hi Morag,
    I'm wondering what type of seed free mulch you use? Around here (Southeastern U.S.) there is a lot of spoiled hay, but I fear that even though it's spoiled, it may contain a lot of seeds. We've mostly used straw over the years, but lately it seems that there are tons of seeds even within the straw. Just looking for more ideas. Thanks!

  12. Makes so much sense. Thank you so much Morag, I am enjoying learning from you and ingenious young Hugh! :-)

  13. Thank you for this very informative article.

    Putting the newspaper on top of the new topsoil layer is a fabulous idea.

    Have you had any experience with swales? What are your thoughts on them?

    We have a sloping site in the Central West of NSW. Hot, dry summers with 600mm of rain per year. Brown clay soil.

    Kind regards


  14. Slugs? Slaters (woodlice)? How do you do this without them exploding and eating everything come spring? Do bulbous weeds give you trouble if present? (e.g. Oxalis, Guildford grass)

  15. Just found you on YouTube recently and you really got my attention when you were forking the ground barefoot.

    Just finished a new bed per your instructions except used straw bales instead of seedless hay. Looked pretty good until the chickens made little nests in the straw. They love it.

    I live in Oakland California on about 1/3 of an acre, so we call ourselves urban farmers. We have a fruit orchard with apples, plums, peaches, blueberries, cherries, figs, lemons and some olive trees. Our garden is a re-start every year except for the strawberries, kale, artichokes and asparagus, so hope to make that different soon using permaculture methods. We have 8 layer hens and bees to help us out.
    Thanks for all the information and the time you spend to share it with us.


  16. Hi Morag
    I am using many of your methods, thank you for sharing your knowledge. I have changed to your no dig method recently. We have had many weeks without rain and finding the soil is getting drier under the newspaper despite watering. Do you just water the plants at the base where they were planted or the whole mulched area. Its seems the water is not penetrating through the newspaper layer or have I done something wrong.

    1. Great question. When things get really dry, one way to get it nice and moist again is to stick the hose under the paper on the uphill side (highest point) and gently let it soak. Before things get that dry I usually try to do, as you suggest, water the plants at the base.

      Depending on how your pathways are set up, you could actually have an overhead sprinkler to give the garden a good soak. I do this sometimes because I have designed my little pathways to be water-collecting soaks.

      A good idea is to regularly stick your finger in under the paper to check moisture levels and then water if necessary.

      I hope that helps. Happy gardening