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

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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 the 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 nutrient-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 wood 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 rooftop, indoors, or if you have a microscopically sized backyard typical of the urban environment.

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 layout 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 newspaper
  • 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 were 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.

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

  1. We seem to be on the same “backwards” wavelength.! Coincidentally I also have been thinking about the significance of Fight Club in the past few days. Weird how the universe works. Keep up the good work.

    • Always a pleasure to hear from you Erik. When I saw your post, I was admiring the calm reasonable style of your post as a direct contrast to my scenery chewing tirade.
      Fight Club is one of those things that just cycles back into the brain from time to time. One of the very few movies I can watch over and over. I notice something new every time.
      Regards- Kevin

    • Thank you Erik. As always a pleasure to see you here, and thank you for your kind words.

  2. thanks so much for posting this, it’s just stunning to me that anyone still clings to the idea that 12″ or 18″ of soil MUST be churned up and flipped about prior to planting “or your garden is doomedddd!!!!1!”. oy.

    i’m also SUPER-interested in the forthcoming posts you mentioned regarding deeper-bed methods! due to changed physical abilities, i’m trying out some 12″-deep raised beds this year, and i’m having some difficulty working out the best way to translate my usual method (essentially same as yours) to work with the extra inches.

    • Thank you for your kind comment Missy! I am always amazed at the elaborate justifications for the wasted labor. Not my style at all.

      Stay tuned for the Ultra Deep bed and containers post! I think you will like it a lot. As will anyone with very limited space or a bad back.

    • Thank you for your kind comments Missy.
      Some day I will have to write about deeper bed methods. These are especially useful for those with mobility limits, those working on top of a paved area, an area with contaminated soil, or for root crops (although I like a tub I can dump out for those).

  3. A lot of plants including the ones growing in your photo require more than “Two inches of compost” to grow in. Are you able to tell us how much compost you used. I made a garden using the technique you described and had at least 8 inches (20cm) of compost above the paper/card. Yes, the deeper the better. From experience, water logging will happen above the card/paper layer, plants don’t like water logging.

    • The water logging was caused by using store bought bulk compost/veggie mix which had a very sandy texture.

      • Not sure why you were having trouble. Sandy should help if you have heavy soil that holds water too well. May have been the cardboard, which I do not recommend using for the barrier layer.

        • I have a nyc lot about 5.5k in size and 4.4k is soil mixed with briks and other metals of a very old building and has been untouch for over 39 years it has several low dips not leveld land plus we got word we have contaminstion of lead at 600 reading. Plus we have some agresive weeds we started to put down cardboard over the weeds and had help from mother nature in the form of rain we pkan on geting som top fill dirt to level of most of the lower spots and then build rased beds on palets with reclamed 8 x 2 plank wood and start the beds with fresh new soil and home made compost to plant our vegetables in and then put lots of mulch in between our plant rased beds to prevent weeds and keep the contaminants at bay is this a good practice your input would be very much well recived. My name is Miguel and if you would like my email is [email protected] please feel free to coment. Thank you in advance.

          • Lots of mulch in areas that you want to remain weed free is always a good plan.

            Using raised beds with imported soil in areas with contaminated soil is also a good idea. Make sure your raised bed has a root proof barrier so that you plants are not pulling contaminates from the soil underneath.

            What you are doing is running a giant container garden. On a much smaller scale, this is what we have been doing on our balcony in Charlotte NC for the last four years.

            Our friends Erik and Kelly over at http://www.rootsimple.com also ran into some contaminated soil issues (including lead paint) you may want to check out their blog for more information.

            Let us know how it goes.

          • Just a little confused, here. With regard to not disturbing the soil, how would you deal with planting potatoes, which I normally bury at least six inches beneath the surface?

            By the way, this concept sounds great. I shall certainly be trying it.

          • Hi Eric,
            Welcome to Backyard Ecosystem. I typically grow root crops in a tub that I can just dump out to harvest.

            There is nothing wrong with digging into the bed to plant. You just want to minimize the amount of soil you are removing and replacing and realize you are creating an area for to weeds to break through as well. If you can use a bulb auger to create a seed potato sized hole then you are miles ahead verses the weeds over turning over a cubic foot of soil to plant that same potato. The key thing is to get away from the mind set of turning over large quanities of soil just to get a seed into the ground. I do ninety percent of planting with a soil knife or even just a pencil sized stake.

            Alternatively you can just plant in the compost layer, and just keep adding more wood chips as the plant comes up to hill up the potatoes. This gives you the added benefit of being able to just dig into the wood chips with your hands or a small garden fork to harvest without disturbing the plant too much. I have also heard of using straw the same way.

          • Hi Kevin, great article, I’m new to this and just wanted to know would you throw seed on the compost and then cover with mulch or put the seed on after. I’m thinking of growing creeping thyme from ungerminated seed.

          • Also it says here to mix the compost with 50% soil, do you think this is really necessary, as it would mean having to dig the sod up.

            Sowing Direct:
            Prepare the planting area by mixing generous quantities of organic humus into the soil. Peat moss, processed manure, and compost (if available) are excellent soil additives. Mix them about 50% with your existing soil. You only need to prepare the soil 15 to 25cm (6 to 10in) deep. Remove weeds and stones and rake to a fine tilth. Broadcast the seed over the planting area. It may help to mix the fine seed with sand to get more even distribution. Press the seeds lightly into the soil, but do not cover. Water well and continue to water especially through hot periods. Once seedlings are grown, thin out to 30cm (12in) apart. Replant the thinnings in any spaces.

    • Hi Gracy, thanks for your questions.

      -Cover with at least two inches of compost (more is better).

      The key words are “at least”. If I have more compost available, then I add more. I never grew root crops in a standard bed so two inches was always enough. Pictured above are a mix of summer squash varieties, so two inches would have been enough.

      I don’t recommend using cardboard. I recommend using 4 layers of wetted. newspaper.

  4. Interesting points about not disturbing the soil.
    But I don’t understand why you put down newspaper. Could you explain? Thanks!

  5. Old article–hope this comment gets read!

    I can understand about not wanting to disturb existing soil, but doesn’t that sort of asssume that the soil formed somewhat naturally and should be in reasonable condition? For example, I recently reclaimed some of my lawn to use as a garden bed, and to my horror after about 3 inches down of nice dark earth the grass was growing in, there was nothing but sand, rocks, and some pieces of brick and glass. Clearly this was material dumped onto the lawn as part of the excavating and building of the house, and even after 25 years that the house has been standing and the lawn in place, that “soil” looked as dry and lifeless as beach sand. Soil in my area is normally moderately heavy clay, and so I was quite shocked to see all that sand.

    The planting hole I made I filled with some extra good soil (triple mix), but now I really want to improve the surrounding area of my garden bed to more than just that ghastly sand. Should I do as you suggested and only put material on top? That doesn’t seem right to me. It would seem that my soil needs serious amending.

    • If it is construction rubble you may want to do some soil testing to make sure there is nothing dangerous there or confine yourself to non edible plantings in the affected area.

      Yes keep the compost on the surface no matter how bad the deeper stuff is. Compost belongs on the surface where the roots expect it.

  6. Hmmm… newspaper sheet mulching might cause anaerobic conditions (well that’s kind of the point actually to create a rotting situation to kill the weeds underneath, which is why you usually add fertiliser and water it in first, to give the microbes something to metabolise and use up all the oxygen.) Both double digging and sheet mulching make a sacrifice of soil structure and biology. I don’t know which is worse.

    • Hi Adam and welcome.

      I am not quite sure why you think 4 layers of newspaper will create anaerobic conditions. If anything it provides cover and a bit of moisture for all the micro and macro life to get working. Exactly the sort of shot in the arm that the average patch of weedy lawn needs to help it start converting to a kick ass garden bed.

      Also remember that the whole point of using newspaper is that it breaks down after the weeds and grass below have given up. I don’t much like weeding, I have better ways to spend my day.

      I am not recommending that you plant root crops in a first year bed created this way. I tend to plant root crops in a container where I can dump them out and pick out the harvest when I am done. No digging necessary.

      If you have a lot of fun digging trenches then go ahead have a great time. Just don’t expect good results for the first few years while the soil tries to recover from the damage you have done.

      Seriously, sit in the shade and sip some ice tea. Let the soil do the work for you.

      Finally… “The process I lay out is so easy, you can test it with half of one bed for comparison without killing yourself.” So run a split test, take photos and get back to me.

      Winter is coming (I know, I know, gratuitous Game of Thrones reference, I would say I am sorry, but I’m not) so get a load of free wood chips from a local tree trimmer to dump on the target bed now!

  7. Pingback: Grow All of Your Own Food With Forest Gardening - Wondergressive

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  9. Hi there Kevin..
    Just wondering if you have posted an article about feeding the soil in self watering/wicking beds yet ?
    We started to top feed our wicking beds a while back with mulched up aged horse
    manure & worm castings (that include cocoons & worms) then topping it off with a generous mulch layer..
    I have also been thinking of digging through a one off batch of mushroom compost to help improve the heavy soil structure.. I know it’s hard without seeing the soil itself but was wondering if you have any thoughts on a one off amendment in a situation like this ?

    • Hi Rob Bob,
      Use the compost on the surface as described above.
      If you really feel this is a problem area follow this item from the tips section of the post: “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.”, Let us know how it goes Rob Bob.

      • Cheers Kevin… The heavy soil is already in a wicking bed unfortunately but luckily its the only one with that soil blend 🙂
        I pulled a tomato plant from it & have noticed some nematode damage to the roots so it looks like I will be digging through some mulched up marigolds anyway :/
        Thanks for responding mate 🙂

        • Rob Bob, I think I am missing something here.
          “Our nations are divided by a common language”
          If the bed is in a low spot then plant horseradish and other water loving plants. If there is another problem then more mulch and compost will solve it.
          Let us know how it goes,
          -Kevin

  10. Amazing and very nicely said. I got some seeds and I am looking forward to trying this technique myself. This is just like the principles of permaculture.

    • Hi Brandon, Welcome to Backyard Ecosystem.
      Thank you for your kind comment. This is Permaculture. Work with nature instead of fighting her.
      Let us know how it goes.
      -Kevin

      • Hey Kevin. I sure will. I started taking a course on it that is free you may be aware of and I really feel it. It is about letting nature do the work, and that is what your article definitely reminded me of.
        Haha,I just did some back breaking, but I am really only getting into growing food. It was my moms idea to get the shovel and all. I agree though, you can always do your own exercises, and why do all the back breaking when you don’t have to?
        I told my mom about this newspaper technique and she thought it makes sense. I live in Florida by the way. Where we planted the plants and the soil looked good. It was nice and dark that was under vegetation, but it looks like we done disturbed it now. My mom bought, gardening soil, compost and top soil to improve it though.
        Now with the organic heirloom seeds I plan on using the news paper technique. There is some sandier soil. I have been wondering about planting on it or over the vegetation. That soil may more fertile soil I am thinking. So after you have wet the newspaper and planted the seeds into the soil and put compost on it the roots will grow through the newspaper? Its just amazing that you can do this and then I can see how the weeds and insects would be less of a problem. The weeds more so.

        • Hi again Brandon,
          That is exactly what will happen, don’t forget the soil knife step after a few weeks. It helps everything intergrate fully. Don’t overdo it.
          You don’t need to buy soil. compost and the wood chip mulch shoud be enough. You can make the compost and wood chips are often free for the takeing. If you have some specific deficiences they can be addressed with specific amendments like bone meal or greensand.

          • Yes I heard about the wood chips. Where would I get them from though, and compost, don’t it have to sit for about a year for it to be the best?
            I’ve learned about getting 5 gallon buckets, drilling holes in the bottom and rolling them around about every week to get everything churned up.
            I have a bunch of compost I been working on around February. It is in a big plastic pot opened to the elements, but it just has 1 whole on it.
            I heard you can put coffee grounds direly on the plants soil.

          • Contact a tree trimmer for wood chips. You can usually get all you want for free if you haul it yourself.
            You can put coffee grounds directly on the soil, but I would recommend adding them to your compost pile or weed tea barrel instead.

          • Hey, thanks for the advice. That sure is nice to know! Now most of the coffee grounds I do put in the compost bin. It all sounds good!

  11. Kevin,

    I am a newbie and have never composted. I came across your article in search for an answer to a question I have to composting in an “unconventional” method. We are just clearing land on our newly purchased 7 acres and have a place mapped out for planting fruit trees hopefully next year. We would like to know if the method you have explained here would be suitable for the large area that will eventually be our “orchard”. The current composition is pretty much all clay and we would like to prepare the soil in the best way possible to give our trees the best growing conditions. Is it feasible to apply your method to an area approximately 20,000 square feet? Any tips or recommendations?

    • Hi Richelle,
      I would probably just feed rings around the trees sized for the drip line (the area beneath the leaves, which aproximates the root area below the soil. Read up on each variety individually as different fruit trees have different needs. Cover the area between trees in wood chips if you want to supress weeds. And cover the compost with the wood chip mulch as well.
      -Kevin

  12. I have a question: I want to convert about 900 sq feet of lawn into garden. The Square Foot Garden method really fired me up, until I found that vermiculite alone would cost over $2,000. I’m on a tight (very tight ) budget.
    So then I looked at the bastard trenching…then I read your article.

    If someone cant afford the 2″ of compost you recommend, would you support bastard digging then?
    Also, exactly what type of compost do you recommend?
    If I lay the 2″ now, could I plant in a couple months?

    • Hi Forrest and welcome to Backyard Ecosystem,
      No I don’t support digging. Compost is free if you make your own, get started. Create beds as you have compost. Much better than anything you can buy. You can plant the day you put the compost down.
      -Kevin

  13. hello..im building a 4×4 raised bed that will hold 8 cubic feet of soil..so would i fill it with 8 cubic feet of compost instead using your method?

    • What I am describing is for a ground level bed. Any height is just the depth of compost and mulch. I am not a big fan of trucking in dirt to raise the bed unless you have contaminated soil.
      If you have contaminated soil or a physical issue that makes an ultra raised bed a requirement (say two feet or more) I have seen a very successful stat by mixing soil and compost 50/50 and mulch on the surface. After that I would just add compost and mulch to the surface each year.

  14. Kevin!
    OMG! Thank you and Thank God! I’ve been trying to get my husband to work my new garden spot for months now. So this past couple of weeks, I took matters into my own hand. Getting nowhere fast… Googled! Yep! So with this article, I went into drastic “Screw it” mode. I’m going for it. I bought onions, taters, asparagus, and much more in March… just all sitting around waiting for the hubby.. no more! I’ll try to get back to this page in about 2 months to tell you if I was g2g or an ultimate fail. I’m in Quebec zone 4b I think. So planting is late here. I just want to finally see the fruits of my dreams and labor. Thanks for giving me an alternative to my digging conundrum. Josie

    • Check back and let us know how it goes. Just on general principal I would hold off on root crops till year two, but I would like to find out how it goes for you.

  15. Hi, Kevin. Thank you so much for this great information! You (and Google!) saved me from a lot of digging! So, here’s my conundrum…the area I’m hoping to plant has had many, many weeds for many, many years. There is a weed/grass growing that has a spiderweb-like network of roots a few inches below the surface. I’ve attempted to pull the weeds in there multiple times and I come across these 1/4″ roots that I can pull out several feet that are woven in with many other roots to the point where I can pull and pull and barely make any headway on the roots but there will be soil going everywhere.

    If I use your awesome no-dig method described above, will this root system interfere with what I try to plant? Will the roots keep shooting up new grass shoots if they’re left there?

    Thanks in advance for your response!

    • This sort of pernicous agressive weed is just what the method I recomend is good at suppressing. Cover the entire area with the weeds with the paper, compost and woodchips. You want to leave nothing to feed the root system. Leave the whole thing sitting for at least a season. If nothing is comming up proceed as normal. If you have breakthroughts then cover with more paper and woodchips and let it sit a little longer. if you just have a limited number of breakthroughs then try cutting them off below the surface with a soil knife and proceed as normal. Good luck and tell us how it goes.

      • Thanks SO much for your response, Kevin! That’s exactly what I was hoping you’d say! I’ll definitely write back to let you know how it goes. Many thanks!

  16. Hi,
    Nice website. I feel i should correct some common misconceptions relating to double digging. I am not trying to be rude here. I have no doubt that your method works well and i have used it a number of times with reasonable results. However, i also use double digging on occasion and find it works well too if done properly. The yields i obtain from double digging are far greater than any other method.
    Firstly: The aim of the double dig in not the inversion of soil. If you do it properly you do not turn the soil over completely. top soil stays on top, sub soil stays underneath. In fact you more slide the soil over than turn it, after loosening up the sub soil with a garden fork – again, not inverting it.
    Secondly:
    Double digging is called ‘bastard trenching’ because it is not quite the same as trenching. it is like half trenching. Trenching the soil in the traditional sense would involve burrying the soil in the top foot under the soil in the second foot. In bastard trenching however the soil strata are not inverted or burried under each other, the top soil stays on top, the sub soil stays underneath.

    Regarding your objection that double digging causes signifigant soil damage:
    Because soil layers are not being inverted damage is minimised. The soil is airated to a depth of 2 foot. Compost is incorporated making up for the damage. This causes an explosion of aerobic soil life, feeding on the stored carbon in the soil. There is a burst of fertility following a double dig as aerobic life acts on the carbon and nitrogen in the soil, turning them into gases. The idea is to catch these gases and the burst of fertility with advanced size seedling which form a living canopy over the soil as quickly as possible. This will also prevent the setting and cracking of the soil surface you experienced and also the massive germination of weeds you had problems with.
    If you are injuring your back by double digging you are using an incorrect technique. Do this slowly, use your knees not your back, use the spade as a lever to slide the soil. Do not attack the soil with your tools. Only dig the soil when slightly moist, not wet and not dry.
    Once you get the hang of it it is quite enjoyable and not as hard as it sounds.

    I find double digging can be very usefull at times when fast results and deep soil are needed. I am unsure how you would grow carrots or other root crops using the no dig method and feel that no dig encourages plants to have shallow roots since all their food is on the top of the soil.

    Also double digging is usefull where you have plentiful labor, but scarce composting resources.

    jb

    • Thank you, glad you like it. I have put a lot of effort into to keeping it accurate.
      1) If you are turning over a shovel then you are mixing up things that I don’t want mixed.
      2) The bastard trench remark was a joke.
      3) I understand the theory, I can plant a whole backyard with my method and have it producing with the same labor that goes in to one double dug bed. Simple conservation of the only source of labor I have, my own.
      4) While my back is not in the best shape, I have never injured it in the garden.
      5) I always have more access to compostable material, woodchips, and newspaper than I have to time and energy.
      6) I recommend growing root crops like potatoes in a bin you can dump out to make harvesting easy. Shallower crops should do fine after year one because the free labor of earthworms and microbes I have attracted to my beds with the nice surface cover will have made everything
      In short I think you may have missed the whole intent of the post. Try reading it again with these clarifying remarks in mind.

  17. You are talking about growing plants. Us composters are making dirt. Two different things. To turn breakdown human waste, especially paper, into dirt or soil, the waste composted material will need to be turned often to help in the breakdown, otherwise you get toxic dump site. I have a compost heap apart from the plants. I dig holes and bury the waste then turn it over and over until it is indistinguishable from soil. It is great exercise making dirt, and the product is great wherever you need to use it.

    • Hi Bruide,
      Welcome to Backyard Ecosystem.
      I don’t have any experience with composting human waste. But admire those who do. If you click on “composting” up at the top of the page you will find posts on composting. I don’t recommend composting in the bed. References to compost in this post are to finished compost drawn from my compost piles.

  18. How do you ensure that your beds remain filled when the organic matter begins to break down? Add most compost?

  19. Hi – I’ve got 10″ raised beds and have always tilled maybe 6″ deep before spring planting, with fairly good results. The problem: one of my larger beds has over the last year become downright infested with grassy weeds that are virtually impossible to gain control over and/or stay on top of. I rotate beds and planted lettuce and potatoes there this year and they grew well, but the weeds were so bad they towered over the lettuce even though I weeded 3x. I won’t use pesticides so I’m trying your method on this bed starting in a few weeks and will let it settle until next spring. Here’s my question: this bed is completely filled with alot of topped out lettuce and weeds, all of it appx 2 ft tall as I abandoned it mid-summer and worked with my other beds. You mentioned mowing or trampling down before filling – I can’t get my mower into this bed and seems like it would be close to impossible to “trample” all of the growth, so what’s your suggestion? I’ve typically cut the produce to the ground leaving what’s under the soil to feed it over the winter and planting crimson clover in fall to also feed the soil and keep the weeds down. In fact, the weeds I have in this bed are probably largely due to the fact that I didn’t plant the clover in this bed for the last 2 years. Please advise, and thanks

    • Hi Terry,
      Welcome to Backyard Ecosystem.
      I would use loppers to cut everything off at ground level. Then proceed as in the post.
      The tilling is definitely encouraging the weeds.

  20. Wow! Thank you for the advise! I live in the Blue Ridge Mtns on a hillside. We have very rocky, hard clay soil. Wanting to plant tulips this year, I have been digging up rocks and clay to a depth of 18 inches. I read that the bulbs are placed 8 inches deep, and that 4 inches below that need loose, well-drained soil for the roots. Since the clay truly does not drain well, I am digging another 6 inches with the intention of amending the hard clay with shredded leaves. I also hope to achieve a slanted bed for further aid in draining water. I read that tulip bulbs do not like sitting in water. We get tons of rain at times. So the need to improve soil drainage is key. Any thoughts on your method relative to flower bulbs?

    • Hi Elise,
      Welcome to Backyard Ecosystem.
      I never really make beds for bulbs. I just plant them in little groups wherever I wanted to get them started. You can use a tool specifically for making a hole for the bulb, add a little bone meal in the bottom of the hole and mix a little compost with the soil that you use to back fill the hole. If you are on a hillside you are not going to have a drainage problem. Different bulbs have differing depth requirements. Adjust your planting depth based on the recommendation on the package.

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  22. Hello dare i say genius lol. I am just about to set up six raised beds myself and have been worried about well every aspect of it . I was wanting to set them up with only 8 inch walls now in November. Is it ok to use cardboard and not newspaper. I have a lot of cardboard. I was also just going to pile leaves in each bed to start composting now or should I place them all in a pile instead. I also raised bunnies so of course they will contribute some thing to my compost as well .

    • Thank you for the kind complement Amanda. Sadly The MacArthur Foundation has cruelly passed me over, yet again, for a Genius Grant.

      I would tear up the cardboard in small strips and add it to the compost pile or worm bin. The point of the barrier is for it to last just long enough to suppress the weeds and break down in time for the roots pushing downward. That is why four sheets of newspaper work so well.

      You can use the leaves for the compost pile or you can create a leaf mould pile. This post http://www.backyardecosystem.com/composting/ecological-disaster-looms-film-at/ has lots of great ideas for leaves.

  23. Hi All ! I must admit that I have been doing a tug of war over this idea of not disturbing the soil and adding amendments.Here is my issue,I will be growing competition size (250lb& up) watermelons.Every fiber in my body directs me into conventional soil prep because i have received seeds from those growers who do just that.They would have me dig up the top 4-6 inches of soil and mix in to that equal parts of peat moss,and compost.That would require going down an additional 6 inches and discarding that soil.Goal would be to have a raised bed 4-6 inches above surrounding area.Each plant area to be done is 5×5 area.25 cubic feet to disturb.I added compost (3 inches) to total area and tilled in to top 4 inches of existing soil this past november.I then covered area with a generous layer of straw and has been like that since.3000 sq.ft area that will home to only 12 plants.they get a 17×17 area to grow then prune back.This system has produced these results.I have designs to grow even bigger but would hate to lose a whole year in results if it does not do at least as well.Guess need to have faith.Sorry for long post but is a decision hard to make.With planting fast approaching needed maybe any additional advise anyone would be willing to give.Thanks,Mike.

    • Sounds like a perfect opportunity to split test. I would try half the plants one way, and the other half the no dig way. Let us know how it goes.

    • My thoughts exactly.In process of doing 6 areas double dig method and adding ingredients and 6 this method.Also doing 2 pumpkins from a 2032 pound goliath. Will as well do one each method.The area not to be double dug is somewhat a hybrid of the two,as in november I did till down 4 inches and add some amendments.Afterwards I covered area with straw and has been left like that since.Other areas will get more amendments, till, and 5×5 bed areas to be 1 foot deep tilled and mixed..Honestly hard to get past all that drilled in preaching by all that “taught” me how to “shovel”,”dig”, and “hoe” since i was a boy.I will do everything else the same such as drip tape,organic fertilizer,water schedule,etc..Any other suggestions?Thanks !

  24. Hi Kevin, very interesting article. Why do you recommend putting the newspaper layers underneath the compost rather than than the reverse, and would it make any difference the other way around (with mulch still the top layer)? Regards, Dave

    • The paper is a temporary barrier to the existing grass and weeds. The compost on top is the starting soil for what you have planted. Reversing the order leaves you nothing to plant in.

  25. Hi Kevin,
    It’s April 23rd and I’m very interested in a raised garden. My soil is 99% clay and weeds. My question is If I prepare with news paper, compost, then mulch and let it sit until next season, how deep should the above bed be (Its on a slope) and what do I fill it with? Would I use a bagged top soil? I”m very new to all this and need sound advice. Also I don’t have any “compost. What exactly is it and can I buy it?
    Clueless

    • Hi Donna,
      Compost is mixture of decomposed plant material, often with leaves, food scraps, and plant clippings. It’s used to amend the soil by increasing nutrients to feed the plants and add organic material, which helps retain water and in this case protect the surface of the soil from erosion. Many gardeners opt to make their own throughout the year using food scraps and leaves from their own yard, but that will take time. If you need a source of compost now, a nursery should sell bagged compost. Your city may also sell compost made from fall leaves, which is a cheaper option than buying it by the bag. You can check with the waste department or ask someone at a local nursery. I would avoid using bagged topsoil for a few reasons. It’s not going to have the same nutrient richness and organic matter that compost adds, so it isn’t going to actually add anything beneficial except depth. There’s also a sustainability issue because the top soil had to come from somewhere else. Hope that helps some

    • You can buy compost from a garden shop or feed store, much better to make your own. Many of the posts here on Backyard Ecosystem are about composting. Get started now.
      For a raised bed on a slope you could just use the uphill side of the bed to fill the downhill side, or soil from the walkways. If the slope is shallow enough you may be able to avoid disturbing to soil and just do as I described for level ground. I would aim for disturbing to soil as little as possible and perhaps using slopes for permanent crops like berries and fruit trees rather than garden beds.

  26. Pingback: Stop Killing Yourself and Your Soil. Debunking Double Digging. Compost Myth-busting Returns! | Backyard Ecosystem | Bloggy Posts

  27. Hi Kevin,

    I read your article with a lot of interest, as I’ve heard opinions on both sides of the fence about deep digging vs not disturbing the soil. I always prefer less work and disturbing soil creatures less, but I wondered how you addressed problems with soil nutrients and heavy soil using your method. I’m starting my newest garden from an existing lawn (though not a thick grass layer), and have fairly clay heavy soil as well as what I think is a phosphorous deficiency. My first impulse was to incorporate organic matter into the top 8″, which I’ve done with about half the area so far. I’m also planning on adding bone meal to an already planted bed to address the phosphorous. Any advice about how to improve the soil texture and integrate the bone meal without disturbing the soil further?

  28. I’m so happy to find this article. This is almost exactly what my friend and I did in her garden last spring and the results were so bountiful we were giving away produce. Of course we didn’t follow all these same guidelines, we laid down newspaper over grass but didn’t wet it and we also bought dirt and that was back breaking enough since we couldn’t get it dumped directly into the space and we planted from both seed and purchased seedlings, but I’m glad we were on the right track. Now that I have my own yard I am going to create my own garden the right way and it doesn’t seem overwhelming as I can kill the grass in one season and prepare my space throughout the year until next season since everyone in this house, including me, is in school and time is limited. Now I’m on to read the composting articles to get started.

  29. It is winter in Australia. I have just moved in to my home and would love to plant fruit trees where there is only lawn and weeds. Should I forgo my wish for planting right away and plant next winter while getting the soil right with your method? Or could I do both at the same time?
    Agnes

  30. Pingback: It’s a Matter of Balance | Voices from the Margins

  31. Hi Kevin
    This is all great stuff, however ……. it hasn’t worked (in my experience) with Kikuyu grass. Do you have any experience of this? I have refused for 3 years to put down any Roundup and I will stand by that if it means giving up on that patch altogether. My last resort is digging a trench around the whole garden so the Kikuyu can’t get across, then basically hand digging every root of Kikuyu I can, until it is all gone. Then I can continue as normal with the no-dig garden … but it will be a while yet. Please let me know if you have any advice. Thanks 🙂

    • You could try solarizing. Cover the area with a layer of plastic sheeting weighted down around the edges. Let it sit through a summer. You are killing everything in the soil when you do this so it will need an extra thick layer of compost to help it recover.

      • I’m trying to dig out my kikuya by hand. Where I live it’s fall, going on for winter, so probably no point trying to solarize. Any thoughts?

        • You can solarize at any time of year, it is just slower when the sun is at a lower angle. Keep in mind it really is a scorched earth option. You will need to recondition the soil with a good layer of mulch or leaf mould as a follow up.

          • I’ve just finished digging up all the kikuyu-polluted lawn and am down to just earth. This was after years of trying other options (including chemical, before I went totally organic). I’m going to add plenty of compost and grow vegetables until the spring, then I’ll decide whether to keep it for veggies or re-sow the grass that I want there.

      • thanks Kevin. it worked on some weeds but incredibly not the kikuyu – gonna have to do the hard yards and dig it out.

    • I’m currently digging up half my lawn to remove the kikuyu once and for all! I’m interested to know if your attempts worked…..I also refuse to use Roundup (I actually did try it a few years ago, and it didn’t work anyway)

      • hi Sue, i ended up digging a trench around one bed as an experiment, it did work … but i’m going to do what you’re doing and just dig up the whole lot, then sink some corrugated iron into the ground below the kikuyu root system to stop it getting back in …. a lot of work but once it’s done i know i’ll be ok. Problem with solarising is it just doesn’t kill it all off, the roots can spring back after an incredible amount of time looking dead … the stuff is unbelievable. Good luck!

        • Thanks Clare! Hope it works for both of us…..(BTW saw a youtube video about the effectiveness of vinegar as a grass killer – haven’t tried it myself)

          • actually i have a friend who has been using vinegar and salt as a weed killer and he says it is very effective. i keep forgetting to try. definitely worth a go.

          • Probably don’t want to add salt to your soil, no matter how bad the weeds. Salt could have negative effects on the plants you want to grow.

  32. Love this article. Would you recoment leaving plants such as tomatoe squash etc. right in the garden and cover with leaves and mulch for the winter? We are not planning to plant for the next 1-2 years.

  33. Thank you for the great info. Would you suggest leaving the vegetable plants right in the ground after fall harvest. I am thinking of leaving in the tomatoe and squash plants as well as weeds. I will cover with a layer of manure and leaves and leave it for a year or two to break down .Not planning to plant for a while.

  34. Kevin, I’m all for going your route, but my wife insists that our 4″ ceanothus will all die in our heavy clay “soil”. The weeds have done well for years, but this stuff is really like concrete… We’ve been digging it up and amending it, but still have 500 plants to go…

  35. 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?

    • 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!

  36. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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?

    • 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.

  37. 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!

  38. 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/

    • 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.

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

          Debbie Downer.

          • 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.

          • 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!

          • 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.

          • 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.

          • 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.

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

  39. 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

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

  40. 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/

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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

  44. 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 –

  45. Pingback: Natural Gardening Tips – All Natural Gardening

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  47. 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

  48. Wet newspaper? Earwigs, oh god the earwigs! (lightly edited for clarity. Do you have an earwig phobia Annie? Remember you are immediately covering the newspaper with wood chips and/or compost. You will never see a bug of any type no matter how beneficial. -Kevin 2019)

  49. 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.

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