Stop Killing Yourself and Your Soil. Debunking Double Digging. Compost Myth-busting Returns!

Double Digging, Intensive Gardening, French Bio-intensive, whatever current buzzword is trotted out to sell the latest gardening book. The most sacred of sacred cows. And a complete waste of your time and effort. Compost Myth-busting returns!

Digging and especially Double Digging (turning the soil completely over) is a backbreaking waste of time. Digging destroys the delicate soil structure which exists even in badly abused soil such as that found in:

  • Weedy vacant lots
  • High traffic areas worn down to bare earth by human or animal traffic
  • Recently de-paved areas
  • Average round-up drenched american lawn
  • Narrow strips between a side walk and street or retaining wall or other gaps between paved areas.

What do I mean by soil structure? The delicate web of beneficial earthworms, fungi, insects and microbes existing beneath your feet no matter how abused the soil. Digging, tilling, cultivation and plowing all destroy this delicate natural web the way a tornado rips through a trailer park. Preserving this delicate structure and integrating with your new bed should be your number one goal.

Your soil structure goals should be from top down:

  • Top layer of mulch to protect the bare surface (straw or wood chips in my suggested method)
  • Decaying humus layer (finished compost in my suggested method)
  • Soil which is completely undisturbed
  • Subsoil (mineral rich but nuturient poor)

In nature these four layers exist automatically without digging and are what your plants expect. The top layer is undecomposed leaves or dead grass, the next humus in the form of partly decomposed leaves or grasses , then the soil, and finally the subsoil. Plants want these in the same order they exist naturally; burying compost or other organic material by digging disrupts nature.

Straw or wool chip mulch used as a covering blanket serves to protect the soil from erosion and helps suppress windblown weed seeds. The mulch emulates the fresh layer of undecomposed material on the surface. Compost belongs on top of the soil where it emulates the natural humus missing in abused areas. The two covering layers together hold water and stimulate the beneficial activity of the life process in natural soil structure below. They emulate what is missing in abused soil without disrupting the beneficial processes already present.

The misguided theory for digging in organic material or compost, is to distribute it where the plants roots will be. However, the shallow surface roots of plants are designed to extract water and nutrients from the soil surface structure where the most recently decomposed humus would be in nature as discussed above. Deep roots on plants serve to bring up minerals from the subsoil and hold the plant down in extreme conditions.

Please note that planters, self watering pots, and ultra raised beds (more than six inches) are not what I am discussing here. I have seen all of these work very well, but you will need to work to establish the soil structure in these pocket environments and you will need a lot of inputs to get the balance right. See future posts for discussion on some of these options which are appropriate in limited spaces such as a balcony, a rooftops, indoors, or if you have a microscopically sized backyard typical of the urban enviroment.

I can see the comments already:  But my conditions are special, I have crabgrass, bindweed, clay, sandy, dry, wet, toxic, fill in the blank soil.  I need to waste time and money and ruin my back. Everyone here in my city, town, desert island says so!

Everyone says so because everyone read the same damn articles in The Mother Earth News over the years and thought “If it is backbreaking it must be good, right?”.

Wrong. The old term for double digging is bastard trenching, because you have to convince some poor bastard to do it. If you feel the need to get some exercise, do something which will actually help your poor abused body like taking a walk or riding a bike.

You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake (sorry for the gratuitous Fight Club reference). I can assure you that what I am suggesting will work absolutely anywhere. The process I lay out is so easy, you can test it with half of one bed for comparison without killing yourself. I inadvertently split tested this three times over the years in three widely differing climates and soil conditions because I bought into the holy writ of double digging. Each time I double dug about half a bed before I got disgusted and quit.  The other half of the bed was done with some variation of the method described below and resulted in:

  • Nearly zero freshly sprouted weeds
  • No breakthrough weeds or grass
  • Better overall vegetable production especially in the first several years
  • Absorbed  rain and irrigation water better and stayed moist longer after watering

The double dug portion resulted in :

  • Massive fresh weed sprouting from disturbed weed seeds in the soil.
  • Soil surface which hardened under rain to near concrete crust conditions that would then flood and dry too rapidly.
  • Poor vegetable production for several years until the natural structure reestablished itself and additional compost applied to the surface restored the balance.

 

So what did I do instead? Simple:

  • Mow or simply trample down any weeds or grass.
  • Lay down four sheets of wetted newpaper.
  • Cover with at least two inches of compost (more is better).
  • Cover with one inch of mulch if you want to plant right away or two inches if you want to plant after a season has passed.
  • That is it, no digging!

Some tips:

Wetting the newspaper keeps it from blowing around while you are laying it out and gets the disintegration process started.

Using a soil knife or hori-hori to pierce the bed after six weeks or so will help the new layer reintegrate with the soil below without destroying the structure.  Don’t overdo it, just once every foot or so. If you plant the bed right away, using a soil knife to set out any seedlings will do this automatically.

Using homemade compost is better by far than anything you can bring in in a sack. I split tested this a couple of times as well when I wanted to get more beds going than I had compost to cover. Water absorption and retention was dramatically better with my own compost than the best commercial compost available. If you don’t have enough compost, then get one bed going now and start another when you have more finished compost. Worst case use the commercial compost for the bottom inch and your own superior compost for the top inch.

If you have lots of time before you need the bed, you can pre-prepare the bed by just mowing and covering with a foot of mulch. Wet well and ignore for a while.  Eight weeks to a year later (depending on your climate just check to make sure the weeds and grass underneath are completely dead) you can rake the partly decomposed mulch aside to cover your pathways and lay down the compost and fresh mulch to form the new bed.

And finally, disturb the soil as little as you can. Every time you start digging in the dirt, you’re disrupting all those dormant weed seeds just waiting to come to the surface of the soil and get a little sunlight.  The less you dig, the fewer weeds you’ll get. Note: completely weed filled, unmown lawn and weed free garden bed in photo.

Easy, simple, no expensive back surgery needed. You have protected soil structure and emulated natural fertile soil conditions. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start practicing the No-Dig Heresy!

Saving the world one (no-dig) garden bed at a time.

Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That's how we're gonna be -- cool. Critical is fine, but if you're rude, we'll delete your stuff. Please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name and do not put your website in the comment text, as both come off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch and Tim Ferris for the inspiration)
  • Ramsey Rimkeit

    Hi Kevin,
    Like the others before you I was quite relieved to read your article, although I had read about this method before and I was planning on covering with mulch. My plan for next year was to dig pits and place organic material (twigs, leaves, weeds, etc. at the bottom of the raised beds. Also, I had planned to mix the compost and pond dirt mix in to improve the sandy soil. Now, I’m questioning whether the raised beds are necessary at all. Do they even prevent slugs eating the leaves?
    My plan is to bury plastic bottles with holes in them to add compost tea later in the season if needed (after a soil test) and to water below the mulch. Also, my girlfriend’s mom says the former gardener buried garbage there, so I’m concerned of potential harmful substances.
    My question for you, if you know the answers, which substances should be avoided? Plastics? Ink in Cardboard or Newspapers?

  • shaun

    my only comment for this article: kevin are you fucking stupid? how does double digging kill the soil. in my opinion if microbiotic life is unable to go a few inches underneath the soil after being dug up to the surface then i dont want them in my garden. survival of the fittest. i recently dug up about 1000 sq ft and didnt plant anything, guess what happened… seeds from nearby trees sprouted and a thick bushy vine-like plant has thrived in those same places. they are not lacking any nutrients to grow healthily. they’ve in fact outcompeted the thick grass that is dominating my property. and how does double digging require expensive back surgery? my back feels great and i probably wont suffer any terrible injury from digging more, if you require back surgery from double digging you are probably digging like an old woman. use your legs and arms. double digging will remove the unnecessary roots of weeds you can compost and allow plants to grow bushy fruits. nothing else to be said, except that newspaper contains poisonous petrolchemicals and should be disregarded from any future theory including all the other poisonous elements modern agriculture incorporates into the earth.

  • PermieFarmer

    This neglects one of the main reasons for double digging, adding drainage to clay soils. We live in a place with high clay content where soils drain poorly. Your article fails to address drainage and speaks in absolutes. There are no absolutes in gardening!

  • John Carston

    I’m looking up info for a hardwood mulch installation and your site had a lot of great info. Thanks for posting so much mulch care tips, I’ll have to use this once I have my garden in place. The mulch advice was much appreciated!
    http://mulch-masters.com/product-list/

  • Antony Muga

    Shaun, do your research before expressing your opinion using vulgar language. Study any forest and you will notice Kevin’s approach is spot-on. I have personally done comparisons on untouched soils with mulch vs double, even triple digging controls. The weeds kept coming where there was intensive digging and yes, it is a complete waste of time.

  • Antony Muga

    Excellent article Kevin.

  • Sheri

    Great article! I just watched this video this morning: (Link)
    A sprinkle of compost helps range land lock up carbon

    http://www.sfgate.com/science/article/A-sprinkle-of-compost-helps-rangeland-lock-up-5832244.php#item-44548

  • Quinn Moran

    Kevin, I wanted to create a garden for my wife in a section of our overgrown backyard at our new house. I had to remove a Philodendron and Birds or Paradise plant. Back breaking work. I’m afraid both will come back with vengeance. Will the newspaper method work for me or am I doomed if I don’t somehow remove all the roots from the soil. I have disturbed so much of there area obsessively trying to get everything out. I’m extremely new to this so any advice would be welcomed

    Thanks

  • Bolas

    Well said Mr. Shaun…

    I was also thinking about the “back surgery and newspapers” comments. I think if you dig properly, you strengthen your back like any exercise. Posture must have been poor. The newspaper idea seems to be good, but it is also a good way to completely fail at having the organic perfection of a home-made garden. Isn’t that the point?

  • Metamech

    Why would you want to lock up carbon??? Carbon is better in the air where plants can use it. This whole global warming nonsense is destroying common sense with regards to how the environment works.

  • Luke Yancey

    Your idea to add soil on top of soil for a garden is a great idea. You are right too- digging and plowing through soil that is already rich in nutrients is not such a good idea, as it can break up a lot of the richness. Although I haven’t done it before, I will try it your way and see if I have any good results. http://www.aussierockmen.com.au/

  • Asaf Mazar

    I just grew cucumbers and melons using straw mulch. Had powdery mildew towards the end of the harvest. I raked away the mulch out of concern that it contains spores that will infect future plants. What are your thoughts on fungal spore or other disease contamination on the mulch? I can think of two options. 1: transfer the mulch to a hot compost pile, replace with new material. 2: leave the spore-laden mulch in place, cover with layer of compost and new mulch, then plant the next crop. In both cases, it seems wise to rotate the crop with one that is not susceptible to the same disease.

  • Asaf Mazar

    If we are basing this system on nature, how about placing red wigglers directly in the garden bed, in the compost layer under the mulch. New layers of compost and mulch can be added periodically to continue the process. Seems to save labor. A downside is that the worms will be easy prey for birds as opposed to a protected bin.

  • Kendall Everett

    I had no idea that straw could be used to protect against erosion. Using natural materials to help prevent soil erosion is beneficial to the soil. Asking a landscape expert what else they suggest in helping protect against soil erosion would be beneficial. http://www.shoresox.com/product—pricing.html

  • Luke Yancey

    I’ve never heard of wetting the newspaper to keep it from blowing around. I am going to have to try this next year when I am plowing my garden. I also like how the technique saves you from digging.
    http://www.springplowtech.com/services.html

  • Bike Garden

    This blog is horribly inaccurate for starters: Double Digging does not flip or turn over the soil if you do it properly – the goal is to keep the soil horizon in the same plane. What you are doing is adding air into the soil which facilitates having microbial action deeper in the soil, this allows 4X the nutrient cycling and allows one to hold on more minerals. Another inaccurate statement is the authors misunderstanding of what soil structure is. Soil Structure is the building blocks of your soil Sand Silt Clay, it is not earthworms, fungi, microbes etc. for that is what is known as the soil food web. For further education Soil Texture is how Soil Structure (sand, silt, and clay) is arranged – this is why we Double Dig, because we have little control over structure but can easily change the texture. Double Digging is not a life sentence, depending on the soil, over time you maybe able to use a broad-fork or U-bar. Some soils get to the point where they only need light surface cultivation. The Irish called their Double Dug beds Lazy Beds, and if Double Digging is hard for you than you are doing it wrong and do not have proper body mechanics and or awareness. The author is on point about compost being best made at home but remember that not all compost is created equal but this is a lengthy topic –

  • doug

    i would agree with you about the value of digging in some soils, however you are wrong about the value of newsprint as a weedblock. check it out as black and white newspaper (non-glossy) is pure wood fiber with either black organic ink or printed with a heat (non-ink) type press. double-dig or even dug raised bed between rows of paper/mulch works great for me and my heavy clay.

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  • Paul Ronco

    Cut it low with a chainsaw and then hack it out with a pickaxe. That is how I remove small trees and bushes.

  • Paul Ronco

    Climate change is real and overwhelmingly human-caused.

  • Metamech

    If that is true than we are doomed. Nothing you or I could ever fix it.

    Debbie Downer.

  • opinionated52

    and- so what?

  • Paul Ronco

    And we’re probably going to kill of of God’s life on the planet, and nullify all of human history for eternity.

  • Paul Ronco

    That statement is an abnegation of the very thing that makes us in God’s image: The ability to control our own destiny, and the one thing that separates us from all other life on the planet. If we wipe ourselves out then we won’t just have deserved it: We will have demanded it.

  • Metamech

    Well, sure, we could all give up our electricity and go back to an age where disease and plagues killed off half of the planet. Hey…you go first! Show the world how it can be done!

  • Paul Ronco

    Already am. I compost, recycle, grow my own food, use very little electricity, and barely even drive my car. And, that’s just the short list. It’s a nice and relaxing life.

  • Paul Ronco

    That argument doesn’t make particular sense when we’re deforesting the planet

  • Metamech

    Well now, we both have a lot in common. Except I burn my trash. You are talking on a micro level. I have land, I can do that…not entirely, but a lot of it, especially raising animals to slaughter.

    Keep trying, greenie. There are 3rd world countries that sit in poverty that dwarf all of the US and Europe. What do you think will happen when those civilizations become industrialized?

    I will reiterate: if our puny, insignificant species is responsible for a change in this planet’s climate, nothing can or will be able to be done to stop it unless you remove half the population and put limits on birth.

  • Metamech
  • Paul Ronco

    That is an absurd comment. To cite just one well-known example out of several hundred trillion, many strains of wildlife never returned after the Exxon Valdez spill, and that happened nearly thirty years ago.

  • Paul Ronco

    I disagree. The only reason we mostly do things a certain way in this country is because someone told us to do it for profit. Long ago when we had small communities people did things just because they were the smart and right thing to do. We can learn a lot from the poor. I think technology can also make their lives much better too, and sustainable. Everyone doing a little bit has a ripple effect. I burn some of my trash like soiled cardboard etc. The rest just going on compost pile. I actually find it more efficient than throwing things out to the curb in a bag. And yes the compost does add up slowly over time.

    Division is an illusion created by the powerful to maintain control. The differences between liberals and conservatives are actually quite small, that is, when everything else is working properly. The success of Bernie Sanders proved that.

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  • Jack Pope

    Kevin, I oversee a large piece of land that we decided to grown corn on, we cut the weeds 6 weeks ago and left them in place. I am in Togo very hot weather. I need to plant in April so do I remove the remaining weeds that’s not decomposed before I turn over the soil? Jack

  • Sally Ban Geoengineering Parke

    No geoengineering is doing that! CO2 levels are currently the lowest they have ever been at just under 400ppm and that is bad for the planet! Don’t believe the lies, we’re all being scammed!!

    http://humanevents.com/2014/03/24/the-carbon-dioxide-level-is-dangerously-low/

  • Dan Garner

    You don’t turn over the soil

  • Just mow and spread newspaper and compost.

  • Asaf, if you follow the instruction the worms will come. Trust in nature to do it for you.

  • I like it Asaf! See also the new post on making Weed Tea from weeds and diseased plants.

  • It will work. Get out there and rock and roll! Throw an extra layer of mulch on top if you are really worried.
    Tell us how it goes!

  • Skip the hack part. Just bury it in compost and mulch and rub off any new shoots before they get strong.

  • Try reading the post again. Especially the part about using a deep pile of mulch to recondition the soil.

  • Do the soil test first.
    If everything is fine than proceed as I have described!
    See the new post on Weed Tea for info on adding compost tea and get that plastic recycled and out of the soil!

  • Yes! Plant again in the spring with an appropriate next set of crops. No need for fallow soil.

  • Annie

    Wet newspaper? Earwigs… oh god the earwigs…

  • Patricia

    Greatly appreciate your article. One of my go-to sources over the last several years has been The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book. It’s full of wonderful knowledge and advice if you haven’t read it. Working with nature, and not against it, is key in our gardening and agricultural practices.

  • Chezron

    You are so right! Thank you for this article!

  • Susan J. Barretta

    Nice article, but making enough compost to cover our garden, or hauling it in by truck and shoveling it, is just as back breaking. So I wouldn’t agree that “no till” saves work.

  • cman

    You SHOULD till in some of the compost with the native soil below to promote integration and drainage before filling the raised garden bed. Piling newspaper on top of hard pan and then compost on top of that will create an artifical pot scenario (especially with heavy clay soils beneath). This will restrict root growth and result in poor drainage and plant performance.

    In fact compost is not really soil. It is 100% organics which is typically the top 1″ of most of the world’s native soil horizon profiles. If you import fresh compost you will most likely not be able to plant in it immediately due to the high heat of decomposition taking place.

who we are:

Backyard Ecosystem began as an expression of my determination to make a difference in our own backyard. Literally and metaphorically making a difference at the micro level of my yard and to operate at macro level of treating the entire planet as something I am an integral part of and whose destiny is shaped everyday by what I do in my corner of the world.

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