From Lawn to Garden: A Year of No-Till

Allyson Ernst
11 Min Read

We had a small 10 x 10-foot vegetable garden in our backyard. The keyword here is had. The garden is now 16 x 20 feet. But the best part is that this addition to the garden was completely free and was completed in just a few days with hand tools.

Not a shovel full of dirt was moved.


Let me introduce you to no-till gardening.

Why No-till?

I was first introduced to the concept of no-till gardening by English gardener Charles Dowding. His market gardens are breathtaking and I have prowled around the internet to learn more about his work. While a lot of his ideas I employed, the one thing I couldn’t get behind is the composting set-up. Charles is constantly making compost in what looks like a set of horse stalls. That is just too much for me. I don’t have the space or time to make the quantity of compost I need, year in and year out. I have a job, a life, and things to do, and turning a compost pile is not that high on the list.

Enter Ruth Stout.

I found the book The No-Work Garden Book (copyright 1973) tucked away on a shelf at work. It caught my interest and I took it home and found Ruth was a “lazy gardener,” too! Her year-round mulch was something I could see myself doing. Why cart the waste to an entirely different site when you are just going to bring it back to the garden at the end of the day anyway? It made sense.

With the support of these two gardening powerhouses, I felt confident to start my no-till gardening journey.

Starting Out

The basic premise of no-till gardening is to not constantly dig up the soil and tear up the soil structure. This cuts down on weeds because the seeds already in the soil never get to see the light of day. It is also cheap and quick, and if you do it right, you could be putting the plants in the ground the very same day. It’s an instant garden bed!

But, while quick can be good, it never hurts to have a plan.

I drew out how big I wanted my beds; 30 inches wide to be exact. Why that number? So that from either side, I could reach into the very center of the bed without needing to step on and compact my precious soil.

I thought about what walkways would be made of. Old pavers and bricks we had lying around. But you can use anything at all. Wood chips. Gravel. Planks. Or nothing!

What was my fencing going to be? I only have to contend with rabbits, so a 24-inch chicken wire fence, that I can step over, worked for me. But if you have deer, consider something quite a bit taller.

The point is, no matter your situation, always go into these types of projects with a plan. No-till gardening isn’t complicated, by any stretch of the imagination, but you will have better results if you go into it with a clear goal in mind.

Materials and Construction

Next, you are going to need materials. So, off to your friendly neighborhood dumpster!

You see, because we aren’t digging up the soil, we need to create soil that is on top of the existing ground. Basically, no-till gardens are raised beds that go directly on the soil. So we need to kill the weeds, and in my case, the lawn, on which to place our “new” soil. We need something biodegradable, easy to find, will kill whatever is under it, and a large quantity of it. We need good old trusty cardboard.

You will need just a little more cardboard than the actual area you want to cover. This extra is your border so that the weeds on the edge of the garden can’t creep in and cause you trouble. Plan for three to four inches of extra around the perimeter of the garden. Then start laying down a few overlapping layers. Make sure you remove any tape or staples that are on the cardboard, as this won’t degrade. It goes without saying, but also avoid waxed or painted cardboard. Wet down the cardboard so it won’t blow away, then start to add your growing medium.

Your growing medium should be weed-free and readily available. You can buy soil, but I wanted to do this for free, so I went to a local riding center and asked to take some of their manure. (If you go down this route, you can use whatever manure you have on hand, just make sure it is well rotted, but if you only have fresh, give your garden about six months before you start planting in it.) Of course, the riding center was delighted to have someone take from their manure heap and they even helped me load a trailer full of it.

Next, it was as easy as shoveling the manure straight on top of the cardboard. I tried to shoot for about 6 inches of manure in the beds. That is because most vegetable plants only have a root system that is about 6 inches deep. This method of cardboard with growing medium on top is straight from Charles Dowding and this is how he built most of the beds for his market garden, but from this point out it is Ruth Stout’s time to shine.

Year-Round Mulch

Mulch is a wonderful thing. I don’t know why it was so revolutionary, in Ruth’s time, to use mulch in her vegetable garden. It just makes sense. It smothers weeds, helps retain moisture, and it’s a way of adding nutrients (albeit slowly) back to the soil without having to dig them in.

Once you have your newly created bed, it’s time to add mulch. It was fall when I created my garden, so I simply raked the leaves from our trees and put a six-inch deep layer across all the beds. If you are creating your garden in the summertime, lawn clippings make an excellent mulch (provided you don’t treat your lawn). Straw also works and is cheap and easy enough to procure. Even spoiled hay will work, and you might get it for free from the farmer who just wants it out of his hayloft. So ask around and see if there is someone you could be helping out in the process.

That’s just how cheap and easy a no-till garden can be. Ta-da!

A Year of No-till Gardening

I started my no-till Garden in October of 2020. It’s been over a year using the system and I can honestly say I’m not going back to conventional methods. The hardest part of the whole process was just getting out of the dumpsters! It was simple, straightforward, and—the best part—it was free.

I started planting in March of 2021 and continued right through the summer and fall. I actually had to buy a chest freezer because the garden was so productive. I filled it in a little over a month! We never had these kinds of yields using conventional methods and there was a lot more labor involved for the little we brought in.

I attribute the ease to the mulch, as there were few weeds, and those that did make it through were easy to pull, having much of their energy spent trying to push through the mulch layer. Even my bitter nemesis, wild garlic, was no match for the mulch. I watered the garden sporadically when we would hit a dry spell, but for the most part, there was relatively little watering compared to my past gardens.

Fall clean-up was easy. Just pull it or chop it down and leave it there in the garden. No compost bin required. I just threw the fall leaves on top of it all, and voila, new mulch!

Is it perfect? No. I had a rough time with root vegetables, but as the native soil loosens up over time from the worms and other soil biota, I think there will be better results. There were weeds around the edges where the mulch wasn’t as thick, and I noticed in the fall there were more weeds as the mulch was on its last legs. Of course, the rabbits still ate my peas and broccoli, but I can’t blame the garden for that. (I can, however, blame the fence.)

But overall, no-till gardening still gets high marks in my book, and it will be my go-to method for starting a new garden in the future.

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