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5 Secrets to a ‘No-work’ Garden

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It took over 20 years of gardening to realize that I didn’t have to work so hard to achieve a fruitful harvest…

By Greg Seaman, Posted Apr 26, 2011

A no-work gardenIt took over 20 years of gardening to realize that I didn’t have to work so hard to achieve a fruitful harvest. As the limitless energy of my youth gradually gave way to the physical realities of mid-life, the slow accretion of experience eventually led to an awareness that less work can result in greater crop yields.

Inspired in part by Masanobu Fukuoka’s book, One Straw Revolution, my family experimented with gardening methods which could increase yields with less effort. Fukuoka spent over three decades perfecting his so-called “do-nothing” technique: commonsense, sustainable practices that all but eliminate the use of pesticides, fertilizer, tillage, and perhaps most significantly, wasteful effort.

Here are the strategies we used which enabled us to greatly increase our garden yield, while requiring less time and less work.

1. Use the ‘no-till’ method of gardening

‘No-till’ gardening is a series of methods in which the soil is never disturbed, thereby protecting the complex subsoil environment for the benefit of growing plants. Amendments such as compost, manure, peat, lime and organic fertilizer are simply added to the top of the garden beds, and over time they will be incorporated into the subsoil by watering and the activity of subsoil organisms. There is no need to dig anything into the soil.

With ‘no-till’ gardening, weeding is largely eliminated. The use of mulch blocks soil-borne weeds from emerging, and any weeds which do emerge are easy to pull out because the soil is always moist. This moist, spongy soil is also the perfect medium to boost the growth of your seedlings and transplants. This process mimics the way plants grow successively in nature.

By switching to ‘no-till’ methods, you won’t have to do the heavy tilling or shovel work which so many gardeners suffer through each spring. You will need to ensure the beds remain well mulched, and take care to never step on the beds. To learn more about this gardening method, read our article No-Till Gardening.

2. Mulch, and mulch again

MulchA thick layer of mulch around your plants and over the entire bed will enhance the growing conditions for garden plants while reducing time spent weeding and watering.

Mulch saves water because it reduces water lost to evaporation, and it prevents the surface of the soil from drying out. The need for regular watering is greatly reduced. Mulch also blocks weeds from sprouting, and any weeds that make it through are easy to pull since their roots are in moist, loose soil. Mulch is an essential garden amendment in areas where water is scarce.

Gardeners are always on the lookout for free sources of clean organic mulch to add to their garden. Lawn clippings are a ready source, and fresh clippings are nitrogen-rich. If plants are close to fruiting, however, let grass clippings go dry and brown before using. Fall leaves, straw (not hay), seaweed, and forest duff can be used as mulch. Bark mulch, landscape cloth, geotextiles or plastic materials should not be used as mulch on vegetable beds.

View this chart of the common materials used for mulch and their properties when in use.

Once mulch is in place, it doesn’t need to be disturbed. Amendments like lime, compost and rock phosphate can be top-dressed. When transplanting or sowing seeds, simply part the mulch to sow seeds, then fold it back in place as seedlings take root.

The mulch you apply to your beds will gradually disappear as it breaks down and becomes incorporated into the soil. You’ll need to reapply mulch to your beds regularly, how often depending on the type of mulch used and the time of year. As the mulch gets thinner and disappears, you’ll know it all went into building new soil for the next crop.

3. Plant ‘green manure’ cover crops between rotations

Green ManureBy planting green manure cover crops, such as peas, vetch, rye or buckwheat, between crop rotations, we don’t have to purchase and haul heavy bags of peat moss as often. And we buy fewer bags of composted steer manure for fertilizer. The green manure crop is easy to seed, and when mature, it’s easy to turn under in preparation for the following vegetable crop.

Using green manures complements the ‘no-till’ method. Green manures and cover crops can be used to improve soil aeration, tilth and fertility without digging into the soil. Cover crops should be turned under before going to seed, but this can be done with minimal soil disturbance. We cut our cover crops to ground level using a garden shears, and leave the clippings in place, or we ‘smother’ the crop with a heavy mulch like seaweed. This creates a ‘lasagna effect’, and enables us to replant the bed without disturbing the soil. It also saves the work of tilling and weeding usually associated with gardening.

Here are some other ways green manure saves work:

  • Displaces weeds. Nature abhors a vacuum, and any exposed soil will soon be covered with weeds. Planting cover crops makes it more difficult for new weeds to get established.
  • Reduces the need for peat. Each bag of peat we use has to be picked up and put down about 4 times before the peat is spread onto the garden beds. We need the peat to lighten and help aerate the soil, but green manure also contributes to the soil in much the same way.
  • Reduces the need for fertilizer. Leguminous green manures will fix nitrogen into the soil, thereby reducing the fertilizer needed for new crops. We still need some fertilizer, and use canola meal for this. A benefit of using canola meal is that, unlike steer manure, it is lightweight and gardeners don’t have to worry about stray seeds being imported into the garden.

4. Grow in Raised Beds

Raised bedsAfter a few hours in the garden, my back would gradually get sore and tired, sending me indoors for a cup of tea and a different activity. And as middle-age wanes, the flexibility of the back and knees seems to diminish. One day I noticed that our best beds, the ones which were well tended and yielded good harvests, were the tallest beds. My wife and I, it seemed, each gravitated to these beds because they were easier to tend than the ground-level beds.

Over the years we have converted the entire garden to raised beds. Today, we can enjoy gardening longer, without sore backs! And the garden is evenly productive, since all beds are equally comfortable to tend. After experimenting with various configurations, we’ve settled on beds which are 4’ wide, so we can reach across the bed from one side. Our garden is on sloping ground, so we built our beds 18” tall on the high side and about 6” – 10” on the low side. We work mainly from the high sides.

Raised beds have also enabled us to control the pathway weeds which used to encroach on the ground beds. By having the bed sides as barriers, it’s easy to control pathway weeds by laying down sheets of cardboard or bark mulch. The garden is tidier now and gives us a feeling that things are not growing out of control. And we spend almost no time weeding!

5. Use soaker hoses for watering

soaker hoseFor too many gardening seasons, we dragged the hose from bed to bed in order to keep our garden watered. We were slaves to dry weather, often changing our personal schedules to be in the garden to water a bed with starter plants. Care was taken to avoid watering the leaves of some plants, like tomatoes, to prevent blight, which meant we couldn’t just set a sprinkler and leave. Watering was done by hand since different crops had different water requirements.

Today, we simply turn on the water spigot and each bed receives a slow, steady flow of water directly to the root zones. Soaker hoses are laid on beds, delivering slow, steady dripping to the plant root zones. This saves us time, and also saves water since no spray is lost to wind, and our pathways do not get watered. This is important because pathway weeds will dry up and require less work in weeding. Less work!

Soaker hoses can be laid beneath light mulch, like straw, so they’re not visible. We also use a battery-powered electric timer to turn on the soaker hoses, and to turn them off after a designated period. This enables us to be off-site, without worrying about watering our vegetable plots.

To our surprise, we’ve had more consistent gardening results since switching to the soaker hose and timer system. The plants are bigger and the yield is greater. The slow, steady supply of water enables the roots to maintain a slow intake, feeding their natural absorption capacity. Our hand-watering practice, on the other hand, applied the water faster, and in larger amounts, which resulted in considerable water lost to runoff (which watered the pathway weeds) and less water actually being absorbed by the plant roots. We found that use of soaker hoses helped us achieve better garden production with less work.

Here in North America, we have a cultural notion that hard work is a good thing. I prefer to think that results are a good thing. If we can enjoy better results in gardening with less work, more people will be encouraged to try gardening, and those who already have gardens will enjoy it that much more.

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GregAbout Greg
Originally from Long Island, NY, Greg Seaman founded Eartheasy in 2000 out of concern for the environment and a desire to help others live more sustainably. As Editor, Greg combines his upbringing in the cities of New York, Boston and San Francisco with the contrast of 31 years of living ‘off-grid’ to give us a balanced perspective on sustainable living. Greg spends his free time gardening, working on his home and building a wooden sailboat with hand tools.


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  • Saydi

    Started my wood chip garden last yr. I didn’t get all of the plants pulled up in the fall, but a couple of weeks ago I went out to do it and the soil, wood chips are full of life worms are working hard along w rolly polly’s ants… Only problem I had was w the tomatoes due to the nitrogen uptake fr the wood chips which will not be a problem this year. The chips were free and had been composting for 6yrs fr the city yard.

  • Greg Seaman

    Yes, you should start preparing the soil now for spring planting next year. You could dig and turn over as much of the soil as you can to clear it of rocks, roots and any debris. Then you can cover the soil with mulch or, better yet, plant a fall green manure cover crop which you can turn under in early spring.
    To learn gardening basics, see our page:
    To learn how to plant a fall cover crop, see our page:

  • Sarah

    Hi I am just starting my first organic garden. I don’t have any grassy areas so I’m going to put a raised bed on my concrete. Does anyone have any suggestions as to what to put on the bottom before I pour the soil right on the concrete. I want to make sure it is safe and non toxic. Any ideas besides cardboard? Thank you :)

    • Greg Seaman

      Some gardeners use landscape cloth for this purpose. You may want to block the bed up 1/8″ to ensure the bed drains readily.

      • Sarah

        Thank you Greg! But I’m not sure what you mean by blocking up the bed? I’m a real beginner :)

        • Greg Seaman

          Put a few small spacers beneath the sides of the bed so any excess water can drain out readily.

  • slender35

    very informative i wish i can have this type of small garden in my home backyard but i have little understanding of acidity and akalinity of all types of plants that suit in the soil to thrive my plants vigorously. i wish i learn more about these type of technique thnx….

    • Greg Seaman

      It only takes getting started. It’s very easy to learn the basics of gardening, and rewarding as well.

  • Maria Del Pilar Ace

    thanks for everybody that teach how live better God bless you…Maria

  • Bob Weldon

    I have been using a raised bed for about 4 years now. It’s about 10′ x 20′. I live on the northern Texas/Louisiana border and our soil is mostly red dirt. I’ve mixed it with flower bed mix and add a couple of bags of chicken manure each year. Last year, I buried sewer field lines, about 6″, between the rows, bringing them up above the surface at one end and plugging the other. I cover the bed with landscape cloth and cut it back where I plant my veggies. About every 3 days, I fill the field lines with water and I occasionally spray with miracle grow. Our small garden gives us tomatoes (2 kinds), squash, pole beans (grow them on the fence), cucumbers (also grown on the fence!), Bell peppers, Jalapenos and okra. My wife also grows some banana peppers and hot peppers in containers in the same area. Over the winter, I grow cabbage and broccoli. Usually have more than enough for us so we share with our neighbors!

    • Greg Seaman

      Thanks for your comments. Laying in the field lines is new to me, sounds interesting.

  • Owlfor

    First, thank you for sharing your insights. Reading the blog and Q&A has really helped.

    My question is: on the no-till method: Very briefly, have a raised garden bed, initial mix was topsoil, compost/manure mix, soil was light and fluffy.

    Problem: it has rained 2 days almost straight, now the soil seems compact (not hard) to the point the soil has settled and gone down and inch or so. I assume this is the water making it denser. There is open drainage underneath as I used metal sheathing for the bottom on a wood frame.

    Question is how can it be easy for the roots to move down in the soil if it is so compact? You advise to just keep adding to the top and rain/watering will take nutrients down. Part of me wants to just take a metal fork and move the soil around to loosen things up. I did not use vermiculite or peat moss or anything at the start. So should I move the soil or just leave it heavy as it is?

    Thanks a lot for any information.

    • Greg Seaman

      Rain or routine watering will lower the soil in your raised beds and this compacts the soil to some degree. But if your bed was prepared with soil appearing light and fluffy then you’ll be fine at rest for this season.
      We use mulch to lessen the compacting effect of watering. But when the soil in a bed seems compacted, then it may need the occasional turning using a turning fork. The fork can be inserted and twisted to open the soil without a major disturbance to the worms and other organisms, and the soil will be lifted and aerated. At this point you can add peat to further lighten the soil.

  • Greg Seaman

    Your soil should contain worms, lots of them. If your bed soil has no worms, take a spadeful of garden soil (earth) which should have worms, and add this to your bed. Given good conditions (light soil, lots of organic matter) the worms will multiply quickly.

    • Owlfor

      Ok thanks. The garden bed is 7 feet x 3.5 feet, 6 inches deep so wasn’t sure if I should add many – I can add some.

      I was holding off adding worms as I will be building a canopy over the gardenbed for winter vegetables and figured they would die in 6 inches.

      (Interestingly of all the articles and posts I’ve read, you’re the first person to recommend worms, which made sense to add them since they are in the ground so why not the raised bed :)

      • Greg Seaman

        Raised beds are typically open on the bottom, so plant roots and soil organisms can access the additional soil below the bed. Your worms will survive in 6 inches, given the right conditions, but access to soil beneath the bed is ideal.

        • Owlfor

          Thanks. I should have been clearer, apologies.
          It’s 3 feet off the ground and open underneath, like a table.
          I’ll still add worms and keep the bed warm with insulation so the worms don’t freeze in winter (soil won’t freeze).

          Thanks for the time. Appreciated.

  • June Siegel-Hill

    Can you tell me how you built your garden beds? the plan? I’ve never built them before. Also, can you explain how to allow for the soaker hose? Does the garden box need to be made in a special way?

    • Greg Seaman

      Please check out our guide, Raised Garden Beds at this link:

      Here you will find instructions for building your own bed, and information about bed heights, soil depth requirements, bed spacing, and lots of other tips for raised bed gardening.
      There are no special design requirements for beds which utilize soaker hoses or drip irrigation systems. These are surface watering systems that you will lay out according to the pattern of the crop you have planted.

  • Oscar Kane

    I Really liked your post.
    I love to spend my maximum of time in gardening.

    • Greg Seaman

      Thanks Oscar

  • Greg Seaman

    Well, the leaves will make excellent mulch, but you don’t have chop them up with the mower, they break down fast.
    Ideally you wuold use a shovel to break up the soil of your patch to remove rocks and any debris. The patch should be located far enough away from the trees so their roots don’t migrate into your new garden.
    You may need to weight down the leaves with some topsoil or throw a light net over them to prevent the wind from blowing them away.

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