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No Dig, Light Dig Vegetable Garden Preparation

There is an alternative to turning the soil with a tiller or spade. The no-dig or light-dig garden preparation method calls for spreading soil amendments across planting beds and allowing rain, wind, and soil organisms to naturally carry the amendments and their nutrients down into the soil.

Using the no-dig method, an inch or two of aged compost or organic commercial planting mix is spread across the soil once or twice a year. This is called sheet composting. Sheet composting will save your back from the work of deep digging. Sheet composting does not disturb the habitat of garden worms and soil microorganisms–which are essential to good garden soil. Worms and microorganisms are left to do the work of soil improvement, naturally turning the compost you spread on top of the soil into humus and improving soil structure and moisture retention.

Using a garden fork to loosen the soil in spring

The benefits of no digging and mulching can be slow in gardens where there is little topsoil or where the soil is compacted or heavy with clay. Lean, heavy, and compacted soils may need forking or spading once to simply break the soil surface. After that, the addition of an inch or two of aged compost and manure two or three times will be enough to improve the soil.

If you use the no-dig sheet composting process, begin preparing last season’s planting beds a month or two or more before you plan to plant. Prepare the vegetable garden for planting by breaking up lumps of soil then adding compost and manure leaving enough time for snow or rain or irrigation and wind to work the amendments into the ground.

Layers of aged compost added to planting beds in spring and autumn

Simple vegetable planting bed preparation and improvement

Follow these steps to prepare planting beds for the new season without much digging:

  1. Use a garden fork–not a spade or rototiller–to loosen compacted soil in planting beds or to break up surface clods. You can do this in the fall, late winter, or very early spring. Avoid working in planting beds when they are too wet; you will inadvertently compact the soil; plant roots can’t thrive in compacted soil.
  2. Spread 2 to 4 inches (5-10cm) of aged compost across the planting bed; or spread 1 inch (2.5cm) of well-rotted manure and 1 or 2 inches of aged compost across the bed. Let wind and rain work the soil amendments into the bed for a few weeks or even month or two. Let worms and soil microorganisms break down the compost and manure.
  3. If you use a garden fork just lightly turn the compost and manure under after it has sat a couple of weeks. Do not over-turn planting beds; too much digging can harm the microenvironment where soil organisms live.
  4. If you use a tiller, run the blades slowly so that the soil life is not overly disturbed or harmed.
  5. Mulch: Once the planting bed has been prepared, add another inch or two of aged compost or organic mulch across the bed. This will prevent the soil from losing moisture and protect the bed from air temperatures too cold or too warm until you plant.

Related articles of interest:

Making Compost for Your Vegetable Garden

Improving Garden Soil with Organic Amendments

Your Vegetable Garden Soil

Plant Nutrients

Vegetable Plant Nutrients: Sources and Deficiencies

How to Improve Clay Soil

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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