Gardening can be expensive and time-consuming. The tools, materials, and seeds all add up especially if you don’t start with a plan in mind. This year, we are starting our first big no-till garden and have been researching the most affordable ways to go about it. Keep reading to learn how to start your own no-till garden for cheap–or even free if you’re extra thrifty!
What is a No-Till Garden?
A no-till (a.k.a. no-dig) garden is essentially what it sounds like–a garden where you don’t dig or till the soil. Instead of digging up grass and weeds for hours and then renting or buying a tiller to turn up the soil, imagine simply laying cardboard over the grass, topping it with compost, and planting your seeds directly into the compost. That’s it! Crazy right?
So what’s the catch? Well according to Deanna of the blog Homestead and Chill, “No-till gardening, also known as ‘no-dig’ gardening, is the practice of avoiding the intentional disruption of soil. Rather than using plows, spades, hoes, or other tools to routinely ‘turn over’ soil, it is more or less left alone. In the no-till world, instead of mixing amendments deep into the soil, slow-release organic fertilizers, compost, and/or mulch materials are added to the top of the soil on occasion. Those things, along with the left-behind plant roots, slowly break down to rejuvenate the soil and provide food for new plants. Think about a wild, natural environment like a meadow or forest floor. Is it ever tilled? Nope! Instead, plant material rises and falls in place, providing a cycle of mulch, nutrients, and biomass.”
Why Should You Try a No-Till Garden?
Because it’s easier! And cheaper. And better for soil health from the research I have done. Raised beds are beautiful, but lumber adds up and the cost to fill a raised bed isn’t cheap. No-till gardens can be started for free if you are really thrifty or for significantly less than a raised bed garden.
Many gardeners have had larger harvests and less weeds when switching to no-till. I was initially drawn to it after my husband and I spent days digging up the top layer of grass when putting in our two raised beds. I wanted to add six more raised beds this year, and we were able to add 18 no-till beds for way cheaper than just six raised beds. No-till seemed simpler and less time consuming, and I can’t wait to test out how it improves our soil health and plant harvest this year.
Charles Dowding, an English gardener who is a no-till gardening guru, says, “No dig is great for your health, your pocket, and the planet.” Instead of disturbing the soil, no-dig gardening encourages adding more and more nutrients into the soil, improving its’ health over time.
How to Make Your Own No-Dig Garden
If you are ready to get your hands in the dirt and want to try a no-till garden, keep reading to see exactly how we started ours. You can use the dimensions we did or try your own! We live on a few acres and are doing a relatively large garden, but you could easily adjust the dimensions for a smaller backyard garden. No-till gardens work for any size garden, just make sure it is in an area that gets a lot of natural sunlight during the day! Keep reading to find out how we made our no-dig garden and for the exact dimensions we used!
STEP 1: The Garden Border
We live on an old farmhouse on a few acres and have lots of old, broken bricks lying around. Instead of paying to dump them, we decided to use them to make the border of our garden. It definitely makes for a rustic look, but it was free and easy and does the job I need it to do!
If you don’t have bricks lying around, you could check Facebook Marketplace for inexpensive bricks, rocks, or even railroad ties. You also don’t have to have a border, it is just helpful when laying cardboard and gives the garden a tidier appearance. A lot of people recommend fencing in your garden to protect it from animals, but our entire property is fenced. We are hoping that it will be sufficient but if not, we will work on adding supplemental fencing later.
A border is not necessary, but it was helpful with keeping our lines straight. If you don’t have an option for a border and want to cut costs, you could skip this step. We still have a lot to do for garden prep including laying weed barrier and adding mulch paths, but here i what our garden looks like at the moment.
STEP 2: The Cardboard Base
I have been saving large pieces of cardboard for the last year, but recently I asked our local feed store if they had any cardboard I could take off of their hands. The best type of cardboard to use is the kind that doesn’t have any printing on it and the kind that comes in big pieces. Many feed supply stores have large pieces of blank cardboard in between their shipments. They gladly gave me some for free, and I promised to bring them some veggies if my garden does well.
Once you have your cardboard, you’ll lay it directly on top of your grass or weeds. I recommend mowing it down so that the cardboard will lay flat. Make sure there are no gaps in the cardboard so that none of the ground is exposed. Otherwise, you will be fighting weeds later on!
STEP 3: Six Inches of Compost
We have a pretty large garden, so we needed a lot of compost! I called five or six local places and got estimates for a full truck-load of compost. The local riding academy was by-far the cheapest! Their compost is a mixture of aged horse manure and hay. I used a few bags of it last year and had a lot of success with my garden, so I highly recommend this type of compost!
We had 12 tons delivered which was more than enough for our 26’ x 36’ garden, but we used the rest to top off our raised beds and will use the remainder in our orchard and flower beds.
You need 6 inches of compost to cover all of the cardboard. You can determine how much compost you will need by multiplying the length and width of your garden beds in inches and then multiplying that number by 6 inches to find out how many cubic inches of compost you will need. Compost is typically delivered in cubic yards, so convert the cubic inches into yards (I just used Google) to find out how many cubic yards you will need.
I have seen a lot of posts on Facebook Marketplace for free compost, but you have to have a way to transport it. We have limited time and no way to transport compost, so we decided to pay for it. But, if you have a way to transport it and are willing to put in the time and effort, check for free local options.
I made the mistake of trying to lay my cardboard before I had compost. We live in Kansas and it is windy to say the least! If at all possible, wait to lay the cardboard until your compost is ready to go!
STEP 4: The Mulched Pathways
I decided to pull from traditional market gardens for my garden-plan inspiration, so our garden beds are 30 inches wide and our paths are 18 inches wide. Overall, I have 9 beds on one side, a 2 foot pathway, and 9 beds on the other side. I would have kept going, but there was a tree in the way. Because of this, we are going to work with the space we have!
For the pathways, we also put down a layer of cardboard, but I am planning on putting a weed barrier on top of it, too. I won’t be growing plants here, so I’m not worried about the barrier getting in the way. Hopefully, it will mean that I won’t have to reapply cardboard under the mulch anytime soon!
We requested a free chip drop from Chip Drop, but there is no guarantee of it being delivered. If we don’t have a delivery in the next few weeks, so are going to do a layer of dead leaves for the pathways and then get some quotes for mulch deliveries.
STEP 5: The Seeds
I bought my seeds from this seed company in addition to a local garden center. I read the back of my seed packets for information about when to start my seeds inside or if I can directly sow them outside.
Read this post for tips on how to start seeds indoors this year!
Our No-Till Garden Dimensions
Because we are hoping to grow a good portion of our produce this year, our garden is pretty good sized. We live on a few acres; however, we don’t have a well yet, so we need to be able to access water close to the house. We decided to continue our garden behind our two raised beds.
Our raised beds are 4 feet wide by 10 feet long by 10 inches tall (4ft x 10ft x 10in). We are using the raised beds for perennials that will come back year after year like rhubarb, strawberries, asparagus, and herbs.
Our no-dig garden is directly behind our raised beds. It is 26 feet wide by 36 feet long. Behind each raised bed, there are 9 no-till beds. Each bed is 30 inches wide and 10 feet long. The compost is 6 inches deep in each bed. We haven’t laid our weed barrier and our mulch hasn’t arrived, but our rows are 10 feet long and 18 inches wide. We have a center aisle that is two feet so that we can fit our wheelbarrow down the middle. I chose 30 inches for the beds and 18 inches for the rows because of The Seasonal Homestead’s blog post about market garden dimensions. Then, I adjusted the length of the beds to fit the space that I have.
Here’s a drawing of what our garden will look like when it is complete. I’m planning on using cattle panels to create arbors for some of the trailing plants like peas and cucumbers. Here is how we installed our cattle panel trellises!
How to Calculate How Much Compost and Mulch You’ll Need for Your No-Dig Garden
Each bed needs to have 6 inches of compost on top of the beds. If you are not using weed barrier in addition to cardboard for the rows, you will need 6 inches of mulch, too. Our garden is quite large and we will use the extra compost, so we had the max delivery of 12 cubic yards delivered which was more than enough for top off our raised beds and fill 18 10 ft by 30 inch no-till beds. If you want to calculate exactly how much compost you will need, here are the steps to that process:
1. Find the Area of Your Raised Beds in Inches
Determine the length and width of your raised bed in inches with a tape measure. Then multiply those two numbers together. If you have multiple raised beds, find the area of each bed and then add the total areas together.
2. Multiply by 6 Inches (This is the Depth of the Compost or Mulch)
Multiply the total area of the raised beds by six inches to determine how much compost you will need in cubic inches. This will give you the volume of each garden bed.
3. Convert to Cubic Yards to Determine How Many Bags or Truckloads You Will Need
Compost typically comes in cubic yards, so you will need to convert your cubic inches to cubic yards. You can use this page on Google to calculate that number for you, or divide your cubic inches by 46,660 for an approximate result.
Other Gardening Supplies You May Need
You may need some basic gardening tools for your no-till garden. We used a shovel and wheelbarrow to move the compost. We raked the compost into rows and paths. The smaller hand tools are helpful when planting. Weed barrier is helpful for controlling weeds on the pathways. And a hose is helpful when watering a large garden! Here is a link to some of my most-used garden tools!
Since installing our garden, my husband designed and installed this drip-line system! Here are the instructions so that you can install your own drip line irrigation system. It will save you so much time and money in the long run!
So far, starting a no-till garden has been much easier than other types of gardening we have done in the past. The promise of improved soil health and bountiful harvests is also an appeal!