The first time I heard about creating a garden bed right over the grass… my mind was blown. Then, the skepticism set in… this CAN’T really work… can it? Although It sounds too good to be true, the method I’m about to explain to you actually works. I use it all the time and actually have garden beds with less weeds than if I were to remove the grass and till the soil.
So, let’s get into how you can create a brand new flower garden bed without having to dig up all the grass.
Before we get started I should mention that although this is called the “no dig” method… there’s actually still a little bit of digging you’ll have to do. But believe me when I say that it’s WAY LESS than you’d be doing otherwise.
What is “no dig” gardening?
No dig gardening is a method created by… well… no one actually knows. It’s thought to have originated centuries ago, though! If you want to learn more about the method, Charles Dowding is your man. He has done years and years of testing the results of a no dig vegetable garden vs. a tilled vegetable garden. The results are quite amazing, actually.
The theory behind this method is that when you till the garden you’re actually affecting the soil structure and bringing up lots of weed seeds and other things to the surface. If you keep the soil undisturbed, it is actually better for all of the microorganisms and living creatures within the soil…. all the things that help to make the soil fertile and good.
You can hear more about the no-dig method from Charles Dowding himself in this super quick YouTube video: No dig explained in 3 minutes.
And, while Dowding speaks of this method mostly related to vegetable gardening, the same methods can be used to create a brand new flower garden bed pretty much anywhere. This is a great method to use if you want to create a new garden bed where there isn’t one yet. For example, in a patch of grass.
Here’s a great resources I wrote if you’re really interested in all the mechanics that go into improving your soil, It will help you to understand why this method works so well.
Materials for no dig flower bed
- Rolled cardboard, recycled cardboard or lots of newspaper
- hose with nozzle
- tape measure (to measure your space and calculate mulch and compost amounts)
- spade shovel
- garden gloves
Not such a bad list of materials, right? Notice I didn’t include landscaping fabric. This method is way better than using that crap anyway. But… mostly I didn’t include it because you CAN’T use it for this method. The fabrics don’t allow for organic matter decomposition into the soil. And, that’s how we make a great, nutrient rich garden bed.
So, if you’re currently using landscaping fabric… your soil is probably in rough shape underneath it. And most weed seeds drop from above via birds and the wind so you’ll still have weeds. Try this awesome method instead.
Steps to create a no dig flower bed or garden
Still interested? Great… now lets just find a patch of grass where we want our new flower garden bed to be and we’ll get started. Here’s a quick list of the steps that I’ll talk about in more detail throughout this post.
- Measure the bed and calculate materials needed
- Clear the bed area
- Edge around the bed
- Pre-plant larger trees and shrubs
- Lay paper over the no dig flower bed
- Cover the paper with compost
- Top the compost with a layer of mulch
- Plant flowers
And just for some extra clarity, here’s a diagram to show you how this will work.
1- Measure the bed and calculate materials needed
The first step is to figure out exactly how large your new flower garden bed will be. Measure the length and width of the space using your tape measure or a flexible landscape tape (I use this one by Komelon).
With dimensions in hand, head over to this website to determine how much compost and mulch you’ll need to fill your new bed. It will also give you estimated costs related to the materials.
As an example, if you had a bed that’s 10 feet long by 10 feet deep, the website will give you this information:
- 250 square feet of cardboard— or approx – 0.3 rolls of standard recycled cardboard (4’x250′) which range from $50-110/roll. Alternatively you can gather your own cardboard.
- 0.4 cubic yards of compost— to cover a depth of about 1.5″ which ranges from $25-$50 per cubic yard. You can also use your own compost if you make it.
- 0.9 cubic yards of mulch— to cover a depth of 3″ which ranges from $15-$35 per cubic yard. You can use a variety of different kinds of mulch as long as they are natural and will degrade into the soil. So… no rubber mulch or stone or anything like that.
- The estimated material cost is $90-$195…. or $40-$85 for just the mulch and compost.
Quick Tip: Before we even get started with this project… if you’re a total newbie at flower gardening, you should read this post first so you can learn answers to the questions you didn’t even know you should be asking…. yet. Then, you’ll really be ready to get started.
2- Clear the bed area
In this step you should clean out the area within the flower garden bed. I honestly skip this step a lot… especially if it’s just covering the grass. However, if you’re converting a rougher area you may need to remove noxious weeds (ivy, blackberry, bermuda grass, oxalis, etc) to give yourself the best start. Also remove any larger sticks, rocks and other items from the area.
3- Edge around the bed
This is the only digging you’ll have to do, so now let’s get it out of the way! All you need to do is create an edge around the perimeter of your garden bed.
Using a sharp spade, cut a straight line around your bed to at least a 4” depth. Then, from inside of the bed area, cut a diagonal line at least 6” from the perimeter down to the depth of your first pass to create a “V” notch. This will keep all of your soil and mulch inside of your bed. It also helps to prevent your grass from growing into the garden bed area.
Some proponents of this method recommend creating a “trench” that’s about 3-4″ deep and about 8-12″ wide. So, you can make the trench wider if you’d like to. Creating a trench will allow you to build up the height of the inside of your bed without the mulch and soil, etc. falling into your lawn.
4- Pre-plant larger trees and shrubs
Before we cover the area with the cardboard, you’ll want to “pre-plant” any larger trees and shrubs. I would say anything that’s 5 gallons or larger you can plant now (yes, right into the grass). Be sure to plant these trees and shrubs slightly above soil level because later you’ll be adding about 4.5″ of organic matter to your bed. Also keep any mulch away from the base of your plants or trunks of your trees and shrubs.
This is also a good time to wet down the entire area with your hose. This will water any plants you just put in. It will jump start this whole process.
5- Lay paper over the no dig flower bed
Finally it’s time to lay the paper. If you are using rolled cardboard, it’s best to do two layers since it’s much thinner than recycled cardboard boxes. I like to do this in a crosshatch pattern. So, lay rows horizontally, then do the same vertically.
If you’re using recycled cardboard, make sure that it’s not coated. Also remove any shiny plastic or tape. I would recommend using heavy cardboard if you’re concerned about weed pressure. However, you can also use uncoated newspaper.
I do one layer of heavy cardboard or 8 layers of newspaper, or a mix of both. Whichever paper you use, be sure to overlap your materials at least 6-8″. Make sure that every square inch of your new bed is covered very well to prevent weed pressure.
You may be wondering if the ink on your cardboard boxes is safe… but rest assured the industry standard for ink on cardboard is soy-based and will not hurt your plants or soil.
Saturate the paper layer with water. This will hold it in place and also start the decomposition process. The water may roll off the paper at first. If that happens, wait a few minutes, then go back and saturate it again. Repeat as needed.
6- Cover the paper with compost
Next you’ll just spread the compost right over top of the cardboard. Usually at this point I try not to walk on the bed too much. I would start in the middle with the compost and work your way out to the edges. Put a layer at least 1.5″ thick. You can use even more compost if you’d like to. And, if the area had a lot of weeds when you started you may want to do a little bit thicker layer to keep them in check.
Saturate the compost layer with water.
7- Top the compost with a layer of mulch
Now we’ll add mulch to the top of the pile. I usually spread about a 2-3″ layer of mulch if I’m just covering up a basic lawn. Again if you had a lot of weeds when you started you can go thicker.
It’s recommended that you use coarse mulch for this process. You can try using arborist or tree trimmer mulch. This is usually a mix of wood chips and leaves and will work very well. Another option is pallet mulch, which is what you’ll usually find at the hardware store. This is made from untreated pallet wood and either dyed a color or left natural. Then, saturate the mulch layer with water.
8- Plant flowers
Finally… you’re ready to plant your no dig flower bed. Many people get to this point and then say… wait… I can plant right now? And the answer is yes. IF you have smaller plants, you can actually plant them right into the compost layer. As they grow their roots will break through the decomposing paper.
If you have something larger to plant, you can poke a hole through the cardboard layer and plant. Just be sure that you add some organic matter to the hole when you do this. But… likely you already pre-planted your larger plants in step 4.
Quick Tip: If you’re new to flower gardening, you may want to check out this post about how to make your flowers bloom more (and longer)!
Bonus Step: Look into lawn conversion rebates with your water company
The other thing you should do is contact your local water company. Many water companies offer what’s called “lawn conversion rebates” so you should find out if you’ll be eligible. You’ll need all of the size and area specs for them so be sure you have that handy.
Well, that’s the easiest way that I’ve learned in my many years of gardening to make a new bed from scratch. It’s really a lot less labor-intensive than having to remove all of the grass, then tilling up the soil, then tilling in the compost, then ending up with a ton of weeds. This process used to be so frustrating for me and actually stopped me from enjoying gardening. But now… I’m throwing newspapers all over the place and starting beds without much effort at all.
What’s been your experience with no digger flower gardening? Do you have any tips or tricks to share that I didn’t include in this post? I’d love to hear about them!
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