No-dig gardening seems like a new concept but it’s been mentioned in garden literature for decades—or longer. Let’s have a look at its history and some of the influential gardeners who have shared its benefits over the years.
Is this right for your garden? See What is No-Dig Gardening and Should I Try It? for more.
No-Dig Gardening Through the Years
It may seem like a new concept but mentions of no-dig gardening in publications date back over 75 years with older mentions appearing in the 19th century. And that’s just English print sources.
Since then, we have decades’ worth of experience and refinements to draw upon, and successful examples of great gardens created under all sorts of soil and climate conditions with minimal digging.
But, at the same time, plenty of great gardens are created with digging. And maybe that’s why it can be a contentious issue in gardening: both diggers and non-diggers have lots of success stories to cite.
But the reason to give up so much tilling or digging is not just about the outcome but ways to save time and, perhaps, benefit the environment in the process. I’ve provided examples here: What is No-Dig Gardening and Should I Try It?
No-Dig Gardening = Disturbing existing soil as little as possible
Modern gardening has a long history of tilling and digging. For many years it was just the way things were done. It was done that way in agriculture with farmers plowing, and also in gardens. We dig trenches, break up the soil, add amendments like compost or manure and mix them in. We may even double dig, turning over the top layer of soil, surfacing whatever lurks below.
For a long time it was just generally accepted that that’s what gardeners did and what their soil needed especially if they were growing vegetables. It was grueling work, though perhaps eased with the use of a motorized rototiller, and perceived as necessary to get a garden off to a good start.
But is it really? Could we achieve the same results, or possibly even better results, without that digging?
Maybe we could just add material to the surface of the soil and give it time to decompose or sink in, letting the worms and microorganisms take over, leaving them do the job.
I know I had never heard of no-dig gardening when I started doing it decades ago. In my case the ground was so hard I couldn’t dig. So I improvised with what is now called “no-dig”—adding good compost and mulch on top of my own, horrible, un-diggable soil, gradually building it up to become a thriving, healthy garden.
For some, the main motivation might have been to avoid all that work up front. Since then soil science has made great advancements and we are learning that it’s better for the health of the soil not to dig it up, and maybe better for the environment as well.
No-Dig Gardening Influencers (Then and Now)
Here are some notable proponents of no-dig gardening through the years.
1943 – Edward Faulkner
One of the early examples, now considered to be a milestone, was a book written for farmers called Plowman’s Folly by Edward Faulkner from Ohio, published in 1943.
Right at the start, he wrote: “no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing. Many learned teachers have had embarrassing moments before classes of students demanding to be shown why it would not be better to introduce all organic matter into the surface of the soil than to bury it, as is done by the plow.”
And it wasn’t long until that same skepticism was expressed in gardening.
1946 – Frederic King
In 1946, Frederic King, had been a head gardener at a manor house in Cumbria in North West England for over 20 years.
King published a pamphlet titled “Is Digging Necessary?” He mentions Faulkner’s book and acknowledges that “To suggest that it is possible to crop a garden without the aid of the spade is to evoke criticism from all quarters.”
King wrote about the importance of earthworms, bacteria, and fungi—”the biological condition of the soil is of the utmost importance in the health of the soil” and said he had been experimenting with no-dig vegetable gardening since 1920. “Nature provides an answer to all our arguments in favour of using the spade if only we are prepared to listen.”
1949 – A. Guest
King’s work was followed a couple of years later by Gardening Without Digging written by A. Guest, which sounds like a nom-de-plume. Some people say he was Arthur and others Albert but we have no biographical details other than he lived in South Yorkshire.
His book seems to have done well. I couldn’t find a digital version anywhere online.
1955 – Ruth Stout
In the United States, one of the pioneers of no-dig gardening was Ruth Stout in Connecticut.
Ruth started writing columns for Organic Gardening and Farming magazine in 1953.
Ruth’s first book, published in 1955, was How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back, where she talked about starting her garden in 1930 and doing a lot of heavy digging, which she later figured out 14 years later was not necessary.
Stout jokes about being “more than a little let down” when, after finally figuring this out on her own, someone gave her a copy of Faulkner’s Plowman’s Folly—”He had stolen my idea of not plowing even before I had thought of it.”
Stout became known as the queen of mulch, and that was her substitute for digging—applying a very thick layer of mulch to the top of the soil through the year. For her, it was also an alternative to composting because she took what most of us would put in a compost pile and just added it to the mulch on the garden. One of the chapters of Stout’s book was titled “My Garden is My Compost Pile”.
Her follow-up book six years later was called Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy & the Indolent.
Now, there’s actually plenty of work involved with her method—just getting all that mulch to your garden and applying it is work, but I’m sure a book called “Gardening With LESS Work” wouldn’t have sold as well. So it seems they were doing clickbait 60 years ago just as we are today.
1977 Esther Deans | Lee Reich
There have been plenty more no-dig books and articles over the past 50 years.
Esther Deans in Australia wrote Growing Without Digging in 1977.
Lee Reich, who’s still going strong, wrote a column in the New York Times 30 years ago called “To Dig or Not to Dig.” He wrote, “How the soil is readied separates gardeners into two camps: the diggers and the non diggers. I belong to the latter school.”
2007 – Charles Dowding
The best-known proponent of no-dig gardening today is Charles Dowding. He says he read Ruth Stout’s book in 1982 and tried her all-mulch, no-dig approach but found he got way too many slugs when he followed what she did using hay as mulch.
Dowding switched to compost, primarily, with much more success and wrote about it in his book Organic Gardening: The Natural No-Dig Way which first came out in 2007. And he hasn’t stopped writing about it and creating videos about no-dig gardening ever since.
And really, if you think about, people have probably done some version of the no-dig approach for as long as humans have grown from seed. Because who wants to dig if they don’t need to?
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
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