How to Start a No-Till Garden from Scratch

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Hi Friends! It is my absolute favorite time of year. Grass is growing, trees are budding, and the garden is waking up. Just this week our perennial artichoke began coming back to life to my surprise. We’ve been enjoying Egyptian Walking Onions, Chives, and Kale fresh from the garden, and I am so excited for all of the harvests to come.

This marks the third season of our no-till garden. The first year we went no-till, we had some mild success, but it wasn’t until last season that we truly saw the biggest benefits of using these methods for growing food. from our experience with over 5 different no-till methods of gardening, I want to share with you some lessons learned for starting a no-till garden from scratch.

No-till garden infographic step by step

First, select your garden location

You will want a spot that gets a lot of direct sunlight, although some areas of partial shade are ok, especially if you want to grow some heat sensitive crops in the middle of summer, such as greens and root vegetables. You want to pick a spot that is relatively flat, so that each spot receives a consistent amount of water.

Then, select which method or methods you want to use

We have used 5 different no-till methods, the four below, and raised beds. I personally love having all of the different methods to choose from. We have at least one garden bed for each. Some people find that one works better than others. I have found that garlic loves Ruth Stout, brassicas seem to thrive in No Dig, and cherry tomatoes seem to really like Hugelkultur. I continue to play around with different methods and different crops to see which ones are just right, depending on what I am growing.

Unsure of where to start? Check out the blog post where I compare the four different methods below, with pros and cons of each, Comparing No-Till Gardening Methods: Back to Eden, Ruth Stout, No Dig, Hugelkultur.

Comparing No-Till Methods Back to eden, ruth stout, hugelkultur, no dig

When selecting a no-till method, consider the following:

  • Your unique climate
  • What you want to grow
  • Weed control
  • Moisture retention
  • Cost
  • Goals in the short term and long term
  • Aesthetic

Plan out your space

Map out your beds and your walkways. Don’t forget about the walkways, trust me! You will need somewhere to walk during all of the garden maintenance and harvests. YOU get to decide how big to make your beds (length, width, height) and how much space you want for walking. We personally went with 5-6ft wide beds that are 50 ft. long. We have 4 of these. I decided I wanted to maximize growing space and have fewer walkways. Our walkways are about 3ft. wide, which allows us to get our gorilla cart up and down the isles for all of the garden maintenance that is required.

You can choose big beds, small beds, long beds, short beds, so many options to choose from! My advice would be to consider maximizing your growing space while also making sure you don’t make things so wide that it is impossible to get to your plants. If you decide to do raised beds, 4ft. wide is about the max you will want to go since you can’t walk across the bed easily to access plants in the middle.

One way to map out where you are going to be planting crops is by following the square foot garden method. I have a complete guide to square foot gardening, which you can find for free, here.

square foot gardening method guide free printables

If you are looking for more space and guidance for planning your garden, I have a garden planner and journal to help you document your plans, dreams, goals, and vision for your space. Everything from seed starting, to your garden layout, to planning how much of each crop to start. Get your garden journal and planner, here.

Next, make sure you have all of the supplies you need

Depending on the method you have selected, the supplies will differ. For no-till gardening you really only need a few supplies. A barrier between the grass and compost/mulch, your compost, and your mulching material. If you decide to go the hugelkultur route, you will need access to some rotted logs or large sticks to lay down first.

A rule of thumb with compost and mulching material is always get more than you think! Pick out a good organic compost, either bagged or by the yard. The important thing is to make sure the compost is properly broken down. If it is still “hot” it will burn your plants and you will end up very disappointed. It can be a good idea to fill a container with the compost first and test plant in it with some flowers or vegetables to ensure it is not hot. Bagged compost is generally a safer option, although more expensive. My favorite bagged compost is Bumper Crop by the company Coast of Maine, all of their products have been amazing for us.

We used bumper crop to top off all of our mini berms last season

Now, you’re going to need to find a way to kill the grass and weeds that currently exist in that space

As I mentioned above, you’re going to need a barrier material between the grass/weeds and the compost/mulch. An easy option is to use cardboard. Break down cardboard boxes and remove any tape or other materials. You can use rocks to hold it in place before you get your compost on. You can also use corrugated cardboard, which I have seen as a popular option for the no-dig method. You can also use a thick layer of newspaper if you have access to it. Another option is to pick up a roll of contractor paper from a local hardware store.

We used a mix of cardboard and contractor paper beneath the mulch in our garden

Trust me, you do not want to skip this step! If you do, you will end up with a much bigger weed problem and a lot of regrets. I recommend putting a barrier down for your garden beds AND your walkways. You can then lay compost down for your beds and lay down woodchips or pea gravel for your walkways. It is very difficult to regularly maintain grass or weedy walkways, so unless you really desire grass paths, I highly recommend mulching those.

Next, build your beds with organic matter, depending on the method you selected

Once you have your barrier down, it is time to lay down the organic matter to build your no-till beds. Here is where the method you choose really comes in to play. If you’re going with no-dig, it is time to lay down a thick layer of compost. If you choose the back to eden method, you will want to lay down a couple inches of compost and soil before the woodchips.

If you go with the ruth stout method, you may not need to lay down any compost or soil at all. If you prep your beds in the fall, you can go ahead and lay down rotted hay directly on the barrier. By the time you go to plant in the spring the barrier will have broken down, and you should have some nice rich soil beneath. If you are prepping your beds in the spring, you will likely want to put down some compost or soil between your barrier and the rotted hay, since it can take some time for the hay to really improve your native soil.

Most of our garden beds use the Ruth Stout method

if you are going with the ruth stout method or the back to eden method, you will want to add your mulch after laying down the compost. For ruth stout, this means a thick layer of rotted hay. For back to eden, it will mean a thick layer of wood chips. How deep of a layer? Around 10″+ of rotted hay, and at least 4-6 inches of woodchips. If you have access to wood chips that have already begun breaking down, that is ideal!

To prep a Hugelkutur bed, head on over to my post all about Hugelkultur, for a step by step detailed description of building a Hugelkultur bed.

You can also use the lasagna method for no-till gardening. This means laying down a mix of organic matter. This can include compost, leaf mulch, grass clippings, composted manures, and other organic matter. This is a great method for using diverse organic matter you may have access to.

We also have a large hugelkultur mound, which we started 2 years ago

Finally, it’s time to plant your seeds and starts!

Once you have added your organic matter and your mulch (if necessary), it is time to begin planting! Keep in mind that planting can take a while, especially with methods that involve thick mulch. One of the reasons we brought the no-dig method into our garden is due to the ease of planting quickly. We use no-dig for early spring planting as well as crops like onions that can be incredibly time intensive when trying to plant in a thick layer of mulch.

When it comes to peppers and tomatoes, we love the ruth stout method, because the thick mulch adds so many nutrients to the plants throughout the season, and helps so much with water retention. The benefits far outweigh the time it takes to plant early in the season.

Planting starts

When planting starts in your no-till garden beds, make sure you loosen the roots of your seed starts so that you avoid plants being root bound. Next, plant your starts right at the level they are at in their current containers, If you plant them too deep, they can rot. The exception to this is tomatoes, which benefit from being planted very deep.

Water starts directly after planting, so they do not dry out, and their roots can begin to establish themselves as soon as possible. You can then move mulch back around the plant, but avoid getting mulch on the leaves themselves. I prefer to keep mulch a couple inches away from the plants until they are established, to avoid slugs and snails having easy access to young seedlings.

Planting seeds

When planting seeds in your no-till garden beds, you will want to make sure that mulch is moved aside temporarily, so that the seeds germinate and come up easily. This is crucial for small seeds like carrots, which can be tricky to germinate, and especially difficult in a mulched garden bed. I have had years where I did not move aside the mulch well enough and I ended up with zero germination for my carrots.

In a no-dig bed, the biggest issue you will run into with planting seeds, is keeping the ground nice and moist to aid in germination. Check on the moisture levels of the soil daily to ensure the soil stays adequately moist while seeds are germinating in your garden bed.

Choose seeds from local companies when possible! That way they will be varieties best adapted to your region

Finally, enjoy your newly planted space! While you may have a thriving garden your first season, expect to have some losses and challenges. In my experience, no-till methods really shine after a few years of working to enrich the soil. Our first year no-till garden had some nutrient deficiencies, while our second year garden was thriving and abundant! I cannot wait to see what the third year of our no-till garden holds.

That’s all for now my friends. As always, all my best,

Jenn

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Starting a no-till garden step by step
Starting a no-till garden step by step

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