No Digging Required
One Bastrop gardener built her veggie beds from the ground up
By Pamela Price
Country Lifestyle magazine, February 2010
When Michelle Habeck moved from Illinois and purchased her first home in historic downtown Bastrop five years ago, she planned to raise fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, she discovered her dense Central Texas soil would not budge.
“I couldn’t even put a garden fork into the dirt,” says Habeck. “My parents kept a vegetable garden in Massachusetts. I remember they would go out with a tiller and some horse manure. That’s all they needed to get ready to plant.”
Habeck, part of the homestead movement that espouses self-sufficiency, wasn’t about to let a little dirt stand in the way of her goals. Drawing upon gardening techniques found in sustainability-themed magazines, books and blogs, Habeck built her vegetable beds by creating layers of organic, biodegradable materials above ground.
“Basically I put together my own plan using the local materials and resources,” she says.
Today Habeck’s largest garden measures approximately 50 feet long by 16 feet wide and is comprised of five 6 feet by 8 feet raised beds. There are vegetable beds in her front yard, too.
“I pretty much put a garden in every pocket of sunlight I could find in the yard,” she says. “Everything was built by layering natural materials. My neighbors give me their grass and leaf clippings. I’ve got an arrangement with a local arborist to bring me limbs to chip. I even use the manure from my chickens as compost.”
Habeck has successfully cultivated a variety of plants at her home over the last few years. She keeps a running inventory of what’s growing up on her popular blog.
Although Habeck customized her above-ground method to fit her circumstances, she notes that it’s similar to that of “lasagna gardening,” a technique popularized by American garden author Patricia Lanza in the late 1990s. While Lanza may have coined the term, Japanese microbiologist Masanobu Fukuoka and Australian writer Esther Dean developed similar “no dig” approaches decades earlier to much acclaim.
Whatever one prefers to call it, however, the basic method is the essentially same (see sidebar, below). By building several layers of compost, soil, hay, newspaper, organic nutrients, and other available biodegradable materials on top of untilled land, gardeners are able to create fertile raised beds with minimal physical effort in difficult climates. Ideally the beds are allowed to “cook” for a few weeks or months, giving the natural decay process time to break down the layers and form loose, rich soil.
It’s worth noting for Central Texas gardeners that our year-round warm temperatures, winds and sunlight dry the soil and break down the organic matter pretty rapidly, compacting the soil. While gardeners living in wetter, cloudier regions typically add additional nutrient-rich compost to their gardens only once a year, Habeck has found that she has to incorporate it two or three times a year.
“One other thing I think people new to gardening here should know,” notes Habeck speaking with the wisdom of a now-seasoned Central Texas gardener, “is that here we don’t have one long growing season. We really have two short ones.”
This means, of course, that if you want to give “no dig” gardening a whirl this spring, then it’s time to get started now.
You Can Do It, Too
To build a “no dig” garden bed a try at your house, select a patch of ground that receives a minimum of six hours sunlight daily. Using either a thick pad of newspaper (15 sheets) or thin cardboard, mark off your new garden’s dimensions. Make sure there are no gaps between the papers. (That’s an open invitation for weeds!)
Moisten the paper with water. Next, add a pad of alfalfa hay and moisten everything again. Then add a layer of compost. On top of that create another pad of hay followed by more compost. You can use grass or leaf clippings if available—assuming that you haven’t used any toxic chemicals on your lawn. You’ll want to repeat the layering process until your beds measure about 18” high. Top it all off with nutrient-rich bone meal and coffee grounds. Rake the meal and grounds gently into the uppermost part of the soil. Give everything a good, gentle soak with the hose, and let Mother Nature take over for a few months.
Can’t wait to plant something once your bed is made? Make sure you’ve got a solid four inches of compost on the top before adding seeds or starts. And remember: check your moisture levels frequently by inserting your finger into the soil. If it comes out dry and clean, add water.
Patricia Lanza, Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding! (Rodale Books)
H.C. Flores, Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community (Chelsea Green)
Explore More of My Work:
- My pro-victory garden blog has moved to RedWhiteAndGrew.com. I’m also brushing off my Facebook page, so feel free to fan me (lest I become, you know, faint).