Stop Digging: No-Till Gardening Is the Low-Maintenance Technique You've Been Looking For

No-till gardening eliminates the need for turning over your soil each season, creating healthier plants and less weeds in the process.

If you're an avid gardener, you're likely always on the lookout for techniques that simplify the sometimes grueling hobby. While you may enjoy pruning and harvesting, one thing many gardeners could do without is digging. Done to loosen and aerate the soil, digging is often considered a necessity when it comes to preparing a garden bed for new plants. But the task can lead to back and joint pain and even blisters when performed at length. 

Fortunately, there is a method that eliminates the need for digging all together: no-till gardening. More than just a way to skip over the mundane chore of tilling your soil, the technique (which involves layering cardboard, compost, and soil) protects important microorganisms in your soil, yields less weeds, and minimizes erosion concerns. Though it involves more patience at first, in the long run no-till gardening is easier, less-time consuming, and more beneficial to your yard's ecosystem. 

What Is No-Till Gardening?

Exactly as its name suggests, no-till gardening (also known as no-dig gardening) is a method that eliminates the need for tilling your soil every year. "No-till gardening is an easier and more ecologically-friendly approach to gardening," says Rae Vassar, fellow at Longwood Gardens. "Instead of preparing the soil by digging or overturning, no-till gardening builds up the soil through the application and decomposition of mulch and cover crops."

vegetable garden no-till


Benefits of No-Till Gardening

There are many benefits of no-till gardening, from being more accessible to gardeners with mobility issues to supporting beneficial bacteria, fungi, and earthworms. 

Protects Beneficial Organisms

While a handful of gardeners strive to keep pests out of their garden, there are actually many beneficial organisms living inside the soil that help plant growth. "A rototiller tends to disrupt the lives of beneficial bacteria, fungi, and earthworms," says Beth Syphers, owner of Crowley House Flower Farm and author of the upcoming book Furrow & Flour. After disrupting the earth, it can take the entire growing season for the soil to return to normal. On the other hand, no-till gardening leaves the soil undisturbed, allowing the organisms to thrive and multiply—and, in turn, help your plants. 

Less Physically Demanding

One of the biggest benefits of no-till gardening is that it's less labor intensive. "This is a much easier way to garden than using big equipment and moving around with a wheelbarrow," says Syphers. "It opens the door to gardening to more folks, whether they have limitations or not." Additionally, no-till gardening can be done in a raised bed, which may be helpful to people with mobility issues who have trouble bending down to tend to in-ground beds.

Less Weeding

It's widely believed that tilling your soil is an essential part of weed control, but it can actually have an adverse effect. "Turning your soil can bring buried weed seeds to the soil surface where they can germinate," says Vassar. No-till gardening keeps those weed seeds deep in the ground, lessening the likelihood that they germinate and disrupt your garden. 

Reduces Soil Erosion

In addition to protecting beneficial organisms, no-till gardening has many other ecological benefits. "With minimal soil disturbance, no-till gardening maintains the integrity of the soil's physical and biological properties," says Vassar. "The soil retains water better by keeping the physical structure intact, reducing the need for supplemental irrigation and lessening erosion concerns."

How to Make a No-Till Garden

no-till garden raised bed

Sandra Westermann / GETTY IMAGES

You can create a no-till garden in the ground as well as in a raised bed—the choice is yours. Both use cardboard as their main component. "The cardboard creates a weed barrier, so do not skimp here," says Vassar. "You are better off going with more overlapping cardboard here, rather than missing spots on the ground that you are preparing for your bed.” 


You can make your in-ground bed as big or as small as you please, depending on how much space you're working with. Just make sure you leave about 1 foot of walking space on each side to make it easier to tend to your plants. 

  1. Lay down a layer of cardboard in the area where your garden bed will be, expanding slightly into your walking space. Overlap the pieces so weeds can't get through.
  2. Water the cardboard until it's damp. 
  3. Top cardboard with 6 inches of compost. 
  4. Water compost generously. 
  5. Add 2 inches of mulch over the compost and your walking space.
  6. Create a hole in the mulch and plant into the compost below.

Raised Beds

A raised bed is a good option for people who have poor soil quality, mobility issues, or want more protection from pests. Making a no-till garden in a raised bed is similar to making an in-ground bed, but involves a few minor differences. 

  1. Place your raised bed on top of the ground. 
  2. Lay down a layer of weed mat. 
  3. Add a layer of equal parts sandy loam soil and compost over the weed mat, until it reaches the halfway point of your bed. 
  4. Lay down cardboard. 
  5. Top with 6 inches of compost. 
  6. Plant directly into compost.

How to Care for a No-Till Garden

Like any type of bed, a no-till garden requires some routine maintenance to ensure it stays in optimal condition. 

Keep It Covered

The soil must remain covered in a no-till bed to prevent weeds and protect the organisms living in your soil. This is especially important during winter, after your plants have died and you've pulled out you annuals for the year. "In the winter, if we're not growing anything, we'll put a layer of cardboard down, put more compost on top, and then cover it with leaf mold or straw," says Syphers. Mulch or wood chips are also affective ways to keep the soil covered.

Minimize Foot Traffic

The point of a no-till garden is to reduce the need for tilling or turning over your soil. When you walk over the garden beds, you compact the soil and increase the need for digging. Avoid foot traffic on your no-till garden by maintaining a walking path along the sides.

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