No-dig gardening or no-till as it’s called in commercial growing systems is a method of growing by which the soil is disturbed as little as possible.
For years, home gardeners, allotmenteers and farmers have been told to till the soil by digging and ploughing. Along with many people my age, as a young boy I was taught to dig and double dig, to remove every last piece of root from the soil and then to leave the overturned soil all winter for the elements to “break it down” into fine tilth. Then, in the spring it was time to turn the soil over again and this time to add fertiliser to replace all the nutrients that had washed out over the winter. A good way to do this was to dig in a load of manure with gave the soil back it’s structure, again which had been lost over winter.
Looking back it’s easy to see what a crazy system that was. All those hours and hours of backbreaking work just to destroy the goodness in the soil only to work just as hard in the spring to put it back in again – madness! And the maddest thing about it is that that is how most people still continue to do it!!
These days if I want to leave an empty bed over winter for any length of time, I will usually cover it with a tarp, or with weed membrane to protect the topsoil. Weed membranes are also used to grow crops through, thereby protecting the soil and keeping weeds away at the same time.
On larger areas such as field-size plots, cover-crops are used to protect the soil structure and to add nitrogen into the soil.
The point of these and other techniques is to retain and improve soil structure while keeping or better still increasing the nutrient content of the soil.