No-dig beds – round 3

In both the savannah forest garden and the vegetable market garden at Dreamland, our approach is to build up no-dig beds from the ground up. So at Dreamland, we don’t have raised beds and no thick multi-layer no-dig beds either. It is literally a slow and steady layer-by-layer build up from nothing. So we’re now in the third iteration on the beds in the forest garden and in the second round on the market garden beds. So what does that look like?

Up to now

ND3 - first beans

Broad beans (and “friends”) in the forest garden bed

In the forest garden we have marked out four beds in between the trees, guilds and paths that we are using for vegetables and other annuals. They were initially marked out for very wide guilds, but we literally ran out of steam to plant them under perennials. At the time we also wanted to increase our vegetable production. So these beds have seen two active summers with corn, pumpkins, tomatoes, tomatillos, cucumbers and some greens. Two of these beds have seen a mediocre kale or garlic crop through the winter in between, two have been left dormant. The biggest bed had a good corn and average pumpkin companion crop over the summer. All four these beds have low rabbit fencing around them which so far has kept the chooks out too – but there is no guarantee that it will continue. Once they realise that it’s a quick hop-over, things may get interesting.

ND3 - Bed C

Bed “C” planted with broadbeans left and peas right

The market garden beds have had a different life. They started off with a very bad winter cover crop of clover and mustard that did nothing really. It hardly even grew at all, or the rabbits may have decimated it while we were away. Through the summer they had a great sunflower crop and some mediocre cucumbers, capsicums and peppers in between. The watermelon and eggplants were a grandiose flop – not a single one bore any fruit. Some of these beds merely produced a lot of dandelion which we picked or pulled out for the young chooks. These beds now have rabbit fencing thanks to our latest project.

Our approach

Our approach with all these beds is that with each successive planting we add another single “combination” layer. So for winter we add a single layer of straw and/or Lucerne and then compost on top of whatever there is, into which we plant seeds or seedlings. In spring and summer, we just layer it the other way round – first we chop and drop whatever’s there, then add a layer of compost and then a straw mulch layer into which we plant. So basically we build up multi-layer no-dig beds over the years. The objective is that over the years the base and the hard clay underneath it would improve as the organic matter builds up. A very slow and steady solution, with a lot of soil building thrown in. In fact, that seems to work well. In one of the market garden beds we had a ton of unwanted fennel come up. I could easily stick the garden fork ¾ way in to work the fennel roots out. There is no way the fork will go in more than ¼ way into the clay on the paths in between. And there were many big earthworms among the fennel. So, happy about the soil improvement.

ND3 - Market beds in progress

This photo illustrates the approach quite well – chop ‘n drop, then straw, then compost, followed by mulch on the work path

Recent work

So, using our planning board, and some new compost, these beds are getting planted in good crop rotation order. For example, the beds that had sunflowers, corn and pumpkins are getting legumes like peas and broad beans to re-nitrogenise the soil. (How’s that for a word?) The garlic and brassicas go into one of the beds that were dormant. In most beds we plant peas or broad beans or combinations of these.

ND3 - Peas ea

Peas (and some unwanted friends) in forest garden bed

Now that the market garden beds have proper fencing, I have put a winter cover of wheat and barley for the chooks in there. For the straw layer, I just took the dirty straw straight out of the coops and layered the compost on top. It will have enough time to break down. They can eat the greens and work the rest into the ground before we plant our spring crops. Besides, I’m doubtful about the clover and mustard mix we used last winter. With different types of clover – perennial white and red – growing so well together with the fescue grass in the paths, I think we’re covered for clover – bee and duck food and compost fodder.

ND3 - second beans

Second crop of broad beans

Well, we’ll see how that lot goes over winter.

ND3 - Brassicas and garlic

Brasiccas, garlic and some uninvited friends in forest garden bed

About (207 Articles)
My name is Martin Rennhackkamp, I now live happily in Lara, Victoria, Australia with my wife, two children and two dogs. My interests, apart from the obvious Organic, Biodynamic and Permaculture Gardening and Farming, include sustainable living, surfing, horse-riding, a wide variety of music, dancing, nature, birds, reading, Christianity and a few other things which I never get to...

2 Comments on No-dig beds – round 3

  1. Lots of work for you moving all that organic material, but it looks like it is starting to pay off in soil improvement. Even if you imported a couple of feet of topsoil it wouid still take time for the soil organisms to build up to the same levels.
    Any idea what caused the lack of fruit on the curcubits? I still struggle with mine, although I’m hopeful my tomatoes (flowering now!) will do better this year.

    • // July 8, 2019 at 10:05 am // Reply

      Nancy I’ve got no idea why they did so badly. My suspicion is that they were planted in a very thin layer of organic matter on top of very hard dry clay, together with the super hot summer. So they were just casualties of the first real round of organic build up. With the worms and darker softer soil I’m very interested to see how next season goes. I know it takes a lot of organic material, but I have a good supply from the three coops! (But of course the coops need to be supplied… the cycle has to start somewhere.)

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