An Excellent No-Dig Garden Demonstration

no dig gardening demonstration

This no-dig garden demonstration is excellent:

No dig gardening runs the gamut from Ruth Stout’s system (which is unfortunately straw-based) to the Back to Eden wood chips method.

My most recent no-dig garden was the one I built with bamboo, cardboard, seaweed, cow manure, chop-and-drop and compost:

It really works well, almost no matter how you do it.

The layers break down and compost in place and the soil life really gets going like you wouldn’t believe. I used big piles of mulch and leaves in my Tennessee garden years back and was absolutely amazed by the work population after a year. They were everywhere, and the hard red clay transformed into black loam within a year. Awesome!

Compost_960I cover this method among many others in my book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting.

Even though it’s not usually all that practical for large spaces, no dig gardening, lasagna gardening and Back to Eden gardening is perfect for backyard spaces, particularly where the native soil is less than wonderful.

Forking the soil beneath may help make the no-dig garden system work better, but I haven’t done that in the past. I’ve just put down cardboard and newspaper, followed by whatever I have available for compostable materials.

Kitchen scraps, leaves, grass clippings, manure, rotten wood, potting soil, peat moss, mushroom compost, banana peels, eggshells, seaweed… just get stuff that rots.

I also try to get a wide variety of materials for maximum mineral content. Seaweed is quite valuable for this, as is cow manure (provided it’s not the evil kind you’ll find across most of the United States).

Grass clippings! Leaves! Kitchen scraps! Paper!

We have these things all the time. Instead of chucking them, why not build some sweet little backyard beds instead?

Even tire gardens can be built as no-dig gardens:

In Florida I usually just dug beds. Here in the hard-to-dig rocky clay, I’m moving back towards experiments with no-dig gardening.

How has it worked for you?


Joel Karsten: Straw Bale Gardening Shill

joel karsten straw bale gardening

Last year I wrote a post for The Grow Network on Straw Bale Gardening… and along came Joel Karsten to attack me, the site itself, and other commenters there.

He writes:

“This article is EXTREMELY misleading. Many basic facts counter to the authors agenda are simply, maybe purposefully, left out. Selling straw or hay sprayed with the listed herbicides is “off lable” use and therefore illegal. Farmers would be extremely unlikely to ever allow their crop to enter this market. In addition while this article makes many claims which might lead readers to believe this is an issue on a large scale, the fact is that very few actual cases where this has happened have ever been actually documented. These involved hay bales, and not straw. To my knowledge, not a single documented case exists of straw causing this issue. I have 23 years of extensive experience with straw bale gardening, and my opinion is that this article is simply “click bate” trying to create controversy where none should exist.”

To this, Pam responds:

“No. Sorry, but you are simply wrong. Almost all straw is sprayed nowadays, not only for weeds, etc but also to dessicate the grain more quickly.

I bought round bales of straw for a horse shelter and almost 15 years later, there is still no sign of anything sprouting out of the straw. I hadn’t thought to ask at the time, but clearly it’d been sprayed.

Not that many people yet use glyphosates on hay, but some do, for the same reason. Things have changed a lot.. I first saw what could happen when friends had to buy hay one year and every single one of their mares aborted; when they finally looked at the hay, they found it had been dessicated, something that none of us had ever run across before so it never crossed anyone’s mind to ask!!this year I saw ads that proudly ADVERTISED the fact that the hay had been dessicated!

I live in the prairies, where grain is grown on farms from small up to townships in size, and it is getting harder and harder to find straw that hasn’t been sprayed. It is the norm now. Farmers have been told for years that it’s safe.. just as doctors used to tell people it was safe to smoke… so because they believe that they not only sell it, but they sell it for feed extender as well as bedding.

Thousands of gardens in Britain were poisoned by contaminated manure. That product is no longer sold but it was too late for the gardens. I once got one bale of hay in a semiload that must have been sprayed with something.. it looked normal, but where it had sat on the ground NOTHING would grow for almost 8 years. NOTHING. not even the toughest of weeds. I still don’t know what was in it, but now, almost 12 years later, the grass is finally filling in the area.

None of the studies saying this stuff safe have been done by governments, they have simply taken Monsanto’s word for it. Not the Canadian government, not the American government. If you actually look at ANY of the studies done by anyone not being paid by Monsanto et al. you will find that the results are invariably that it is NOT safe, that is DOES stay in the soil for at least a year. It’s been scientifically linked to cancers, diabetes, autism, leaky gut and a host of other diseases. It’s been banned in three countries for causing an epidemic of kidney failure deaths in farmers, specifically traced to glyphosate, and even the WHO says it is likely to cause human cancers.

This is important stuff for people to know, it isn’t just click bait, it’s bringing people real information on just how dangerous the world has become, when farming relies on poisoning the food we eat.”

But then Joel Karsten comes back with this comment:

So are the EPA and the NIH telling the truth in the above links to two most recent studies that all the hype over the toxicity of Glyphosate aka Round-Up, is total bunk? By the acute standard of LD50, glyphosate is indeed less toxic than either caffeine or table salt. It has an LD50 of 5600 mg/kg based on oral ingestions in rats, according to EPA assessments, placing it in Toxicity Category III. Did you know that the LD50 (lethal dose of 50% of exposed) Coffee is 192 mg/kg which means coffee is 29 times as deadly to a humans as Round-Up. Keep your head in the sand if you want, but don’t try to educate me about the use of Ag Chemicals until you get your basic facts in order.

The attempt to manipulate people’s opinions by those who do not even a basic understanding of FACTS, is very frustrating. People like the author of this article who simply read propaganda and recites as fact anomaly occurrences that are neither controlled nor evaluated based on any scientific technique or protocols. Your arguments are similar to people that used to be convinced that the earth was flat, simply because they did not understand basic science nor would they listen to those who tried to reason with them. Keep up the ignorance at home because nobody will protect you from yourself, but don’t try to spread that ignorance to others publicly and expect to never be challenged for your ignorance.

This article is completely “Clickbate”. Understand that the owner or this blog gets paid by his advertisers based on how much traffic he generates. I am sorry to those who believe a word of it, many of you are simply victims of this author’s ignorance and deceitful intent to generate clicks.”

So, Joel is calling myself and another gardener in the thread ignorant, deceiving manipulators without a basic understanding of facts… and more… and well, let’s not spend the whole day listing names, shall we?

Really, responding to this kind of attack is almost too easy. Almost like:


Except I like that Joel better than this one.

But respond I shall.

When Garden Authors Attack

So who is Joel Karsten, you ask?

He’s the guy who runs and is the author of the book Straw Bale Gardens.

Yet here he shows up to say my experiences with long-term herbicides are “similar to people that used to be convinced that the earth was flat”

And he says “Keep up the ignorance at home because nobody will protect you from yourself, but don’t try to spread that ignorance to others publicly and expect to never be challenged for your ignorance.

Well, guess what Joel Karsten, author of Straw Bale Gardens… you seem to be a bit socially challenged.

Your trolling and sanctimonious attitude has been noted.

Ah, the irony of a guy who writes “This article is completely “Clickbate”. Understand that the owner or this blog gets paid by his advertisers based on how much traffic he generates. I am sorry to those who believe a word of it, many of you are simply victims of this author’s ignorance and deceitful intent to generate clicks…”

…and says this while actually running the site STRAWBALEGARDENS.COM.

Projection, perhaps?

Note also that Joel Karsten tries to refute the pesticide point by quoting government sources on their safety.

Oh yes, Joel, we believe the government. We are good citizens, Joel.

We need to believe the government, right? If we didn’t, we might stop planting straw bale gardens and you’d lose sales.

Methinks you project too much, Mr.

Try showing some civility before you roast another garden writer for sharing his point of view.

I have had nasty experiences with long-term pesticides and am interested in seeing people’s gardens stay alive.

And yes, I do write for money.

This is part of “being an author,” something Joel Karsten should know something about.

Look, if there are potentially serious problems with your gimmicky gardening style, well then, try to defend it. Tell people how they’re wrong without assuming they’re flat-earthers who are hunting for gardeners to deceive.

I’ve certainly been wrong before. Many times. I even became friends with one critic who corrected some of my assumptions.

Unfortunately, Karsten’s big list of insults was childish… much like his spelling, punctuation and capitalization.

My article wasn’t a personal attack but it’s personal now.

I didn’t even know who Joel was before he came in to call me names… yet now his hypocrisy and vitriol are preserved and presented for all of you to see. I might have been convinced to write a follow-up post if he had simply spoken reasonably.

Next time, refute the points rather than attacking the author, Joel.

Especially an author with my motto.


Tiny Life Doing Huge Work


There is some good sense beyond the modern push to “no-till” gardening methods.

One of the best arguments I’ve found is that no-till farming and gardening doesn’t disturb the soil ecosystem.

You may not think of a patch of ground as a huge web of living creatures, but it is. And those creatures do a lot of hard work, all day, day and night.

Check out this timelapse video showing how soil fauna break down fallen leaves:


Bioturbation with and without soil fauna from Wim van Egmond on Vimeo.


Impressive, isn’t it?

When you rototill an area, you kill off a lot of the useful creatures in the soil, both macroscopic and microscopic.

On a forest floor or a healthy patch of prairie, these creatures break down debris and turn it into the soil, bringing plants the good stuff they need to thrive.

One of the reasons I don’t use pesticides and herbicides (with the exception of the occasional nicotine spray to kill pesky cucumber beetles) is because I do not want to kill soil life.

Just because you can’t see what’s happening beneath your feet doesn’t mean you should ignore it.

Tread lightly and nature will do a lot of good work for your garden. Most bugs and worms are not our enemies.


*h/t PermieFlix for finding this video.


Easy Lasagna Gardening the FREE Way

Patricia Lanza’s book Lasagna Gardening inspired a lot of people, including myself.

I was reminded of the sheet-mulching / lasagna gardening method a couple of weeks ago when I re-watched Geoff Lawton’s excellent film Permaculture Soils.

There’s a spot out back near our gardens that often gets soppy wet in the rainy season. It also has hard clay and rocks beneath the grass. Yet I wanted to do some gardening there.

The solution? A quick bamboo-sided “lasagna gardening” raised bed.

lasagna gardening

Easy Lasagna Gardening on the Cheap

Lasagna gardening is all about making lots of layers – here’s my latest video demonstrating this easy way to build a garden fast!

Are you ready to build your own lasagna garden?

It’s all about the layers… let’s get layering!

Layer 1: Manure and Seaweed

I started with a thin layer of cow manure and seaweed to encourage the soil life to eat up the grass and start loosening things, plus to provide nutrition.

lasagna gardening manure

Geoff Lawton throws down just manure, but I have lots of seaweed available here and it’s loaded with good stuff.

For those of you in the states… watch out when using manure. It can destroy all your hard work!

Layer 2: Cardboard Weed Block

I bought Rachel a chest freezer… and it came in a great big cardboard box!

Naturally, I had to find a way to use that in the garden. Weedblock it is!

First, I laid the cardboard over the bed to get a rough size:


Then I stomped it into place. I wanted it all the way to the edges of the bed so pesky grasses won’t come through.


Layer 3: The Random “STUFF IT” Layer

After the cardboard was in place, it was time to start throwing down some biomass.

I used pigeon pea bushes and heliconia leaves.

lasagna gardening pigeon-peas-layer

You can also use whatever brush you have lying around. Leaves, shredded paper, chunks of wood, whatever.

Layer 4: Kitchen Scraps

lasagna gardening kitchen scraps layer

Why not?

Layer 5: Kitchen Scraps

The next layer was a thin one, made from sifted soil from my chicken coop.


This is manure and compost-rich dirt with bits of biochar in it. You can see this composting method here.

There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to these layers so don’t overthink things. Just throw in the compostable material you currently have available and let nature do the rest.

Layer 6: The Final Compost Planting Layer

And, to top it all off, I added a bunch of mostly-finished compost:


You really don’t need to fill the whole top layer with compost, though. You could just mulch with grass clippings or leaves over the whole top, then fill some pockets with good compost and plant transplants in those… which reminds me, that’s what I did next. Transplanted!

Transplanting into the New Lasagna Garden Bed

I had some bird peppers and a single tomato seedling ready to go… so they went in!

lasagna gardening

And then they were nicely watered in to settle the roots:


I watered them with compost tea for a little extra “juice” to ease the shock of transplanting, but that’s not really necessary.

If you have lousy soil, a poorly drained area, a lot of pesky grass you want to cover without digging, or if you’re just interested in the idea, give lasagna gardening a try. It works and the area where you throw down cardboard and organic matter like this will become one of the richest areas in your entire yard.

Everything in this bed was free. Granted, I did have to buy a chest freezer to get the cardboard, but hey – you can get cardboard anywhere!

Finally, I have more on this and other methods of composting in my book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting.

Get your copy here.

And if you’ve done the lasagna gardening / sheet mulching thing in your own gardens, how did it work for you?

Let me know in the comments.


Enjoy this post? Put it on Pinterest!

lasagna gardening


This Agrarian Life


Herrick Kimball’s new video series on YouTube is packed so full of inspiration and good ideas, it’s hard to sit through them – they’ll make you want to get gardening!

A few selections:

Subscribe to his channel here – he’s already posted over 60 episodes.

Also, if you don’t have Herrick’s Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners yet, check out my review here. Definitely worth owning.

It’s great to see Herrick branching out yet again into a new area. These short episodes are a lot of fun.


A Refrigerator Garden / Container Gardening Hack


I’ve always wanted a refrigerator garden. Now I have one.

The internet is still down at my house but I managed to upload this video a few minutes ago:

This instant herb-garden-in-an-old-fridge should keep us supplied with seasonings for the kitchen.

The method of dumping lots of wood and carboniferous debris in the bottom is one I explain in more detail in Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting.

Also, the rap song from the video? You can get it here for a donation of any amount… or just for free, if you’re really cheap.


The Survival Gardener Book of the Week #4: Perennial Vegetables

gardening books

Imagine planting a vegetable garden once: perennial vegetables allow you do do just that.

I fell in love with the idea of perennial vegetables years ago when I discovered the ability asparagus has to come back year after year.

That doesn’t mean I had success growing it – not in Florida, at least – but the idea of planting something and getting harvests again and again was appealing to me.

Unlike beans, tomatoes, corn, broccoli, lettuce and the many other vegetables most of us rush to plant in the spring, then rush to harvest in their season, perennial vegetables allow the gardener to pace himself.

My Perennial Vegetable Journey


Sweet potatoes were the first perennial vegetable I had luck with. Though normally grown as an annual, they’re perennial in South Florida where I grew up.

I was in charge of taking care of a neighbor’s lovely yard for a year while she and her husband and daughter lived on their houseboat in some exotic port. She said “if anything dies, just fill in the space with something nice.”

When some of the petunias gave up, I planted sweet potatoes in her front planter.

They rapidly took over, filling the space with green rambling vines.

Mrs. Campbell was not happy with me when she returned home. The potatoes were harvested and she replanted ornamentals… but something funny happened. Vines kept popping back up. Every little piece of root left in the ground sprouted.

I think it took her a year to eradicate them completely.

But hey – that’s easy food, right? Maybe it wasn’t in the right place (sorry, Mrs. Campbell) but they are a wonderful perennial vegetable.

The Book to End all Perennial Vegetable Books


Toensmeier book perennial vegetablesWhen I discovered Eric Toensmeier’s book Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy-to-Grow Edibles I spent hours reading and thinking about the possibilities.

And then I started hunting down and planting many of them.

I’ve grown chaya and kangkong, horseradish and yacon, Chinese yams and Chinese water chestnut… there’s a wonderful world of perennial vegetables once you get started.

Perennial Vegetables is a great book, filled with excellent research and a mouth-watering variety of long-term edibles – many of which will be entirely new to the reader.

Some are temperate species, many are tropical, and many will grow in-between climates.

Eric has grown many of these vegetables in his Massachusetts garden and I grew many of them in Florida.

There are selections for shade and for water gardens. There are beans and roots and leaves and shoots and plenty of great ideas.

If you don’t own this book and you love the idea of planting a garden that lasts and lasts and lasts, I recommend you get a copy and get inspired.

This book is well worth the low price of admission – you’ll pay it back in spades after planting some of these prolific perennials.

I wouldn’t be without it.


The Survival Gardener Book of the Week #3: Mini Farming

gardening books

Welcome back to The Survival Gardener Book of the Week!

Last week we covered Herrick Kimball’s inspiring garden ideas book… and this week, we’re continuing the series with a very popular gardening book.

Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre by Brett Markham is a non-stop seller.

mini farmingIt just never, ever stops selling.

And there’s a reason for that: it’s a dream of many to become self-sufficient; however, they think it takes a lot of space.

Markham’s ideas are based on everything from permaculture to Square Foot Gardening and you’re certain to be impressed by the small amount of space in which he manages to grow tons of food (literally).

Markham also covers chickens and has a section on how to build a simple homemade chicken plucker.

For those of us who are deep into theory and have read widely across the gardening spectrum, Mini Farming reads more as a synthesis of ideas and methods into a successful backyard farming operation.

Brett writes on his website:

“Mini Farming is not a hobby. It is undertaken with a specific economic objective. Unlike a garden, even if the food is produced only for your household, it is run like a business. By that I mean that conscientious efforts are made to adopt methods and materials that minimize costs and labor while maximizing productivity.

Unlike industrial agriculture, the focus in a Mini Farm is sustainability. The whole idea is to move food production local; so outside inputs are minimized. An industrial farm might adopt a labor-intensive method that makes economic sense only because of the ability to import immigrant labor at $2/hour; or it might adopt a fertilizer-intensive approach that only makes sense with a specific variety of a given crop. Mini farming focuses on building and then maintaining long-term soil fertility using natural processes. By doing this, even if there is no fertilizer to be had or a specific plant variety becomes unavailable, your food output isn’t compromised.

The idea, too, is self-sufficiency. The future holds economic turmoil from a lot of different directions and the impacts and timing are unpredictable. You want to be able to supply a vital necessity for yourself and your family without being inordinately dependent on materials being trucked in from 1500 miles away or shipped on a slow boat from China. The more you can do yourself, the better.”

I like that approach.

As the book description reads:

Mini Farming describes a holistic approach to small-area farming that will show you how to produce 85 percent of an average family’s food on just a quarter acre—and earn $10,000 in cash annually while spending less than half the time that an ordinary job would require.”

It really is a cool system. Get the book on Amazon here.


The Survival Gardener Book of the Week #2: The Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners

gardening books

Last week I told you why you should get Gardening When it Counts by Steve Solomon.

This week, we’ll cover a book by another one of my mentors – a man I’m also lucky enough to call a friend.

Let’s face the dirty truth: gardening books are often boring. And good gardening ideas are few and far between.

Sure, there’s the occasional laughter-inducing tome, such as Ruth Stout’s epic Gardening Without Work… or the infectious enthusiasm for geometric horticultural engineering found in Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening.

But most gardening books do little to stir the mind.

How many time do we need to be told the proper C/N ratio of compost? Or the spacing of beans? Or the cold-tolerance of kale.


We Gooders are looking for more. We need the burning vision of a Sepp Holzer to stir us… or the green vistas of Geoff Lawton’s food forest Edens.

Today’s book nestles in the sweet spot somewhere between the down-to-earth and the skyward-reaching tendrils of imagination.

If you’re looking for gardening ideas, this is the book for you.

This book = pure idea generation

Herrick Kimball is the inventor of the Whizbang Chicken Plucker, the Whizbang Wheel Hoe, the Whizbang Cider Press the Whizbang Garden Cart and he’s the maker of Classic American Clothespins that are better than their high-strung ancestors.

He also runs the excellent blog Upland Gardener… and he’s now started a regular vlog on his YouTube channel titled This Agrarian Life.

But… on to this week’s book!

I first had the chance to read The Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners during the cold days of winter back in 2014 and found it to be a great inspiration for the upcoming gardens of 2015.

Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners Cover

This is truly a book of ideas. If you’re a DIY person, a dreamer, a tinkerer or an experimenter… Kimball sets forth a big batch of homemade and home-tested ideas and basically says “Here – take these gifts and build with them and on them!”

Gardening ideas covered include remarkably inexpensive and sturdy T-post trellises, tri-grown carrots, refurbishing antique garden hoes (which I have done myself with great success!), creating biochar, building solar pyramids, siphon-tube rain barrels and a lot more.

Along with the many ideas and profuse illustrations, Kimball includes snippets and essays from vintage gardening books, letters, almanacs and bulletins. The wisdom of the past twines through the pages, reflecting Kimball’s Christian Agrarian philosophy of working with his hands and caring for the land generationally.

Mineralization, tool design, insect control – the gardening ideas are introduced to the reader one after the other, daring him to set down the book and get out in the workshop or garden with a brilliant new plan.

The Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners is my kind of book – and I think you’ll like it too.

You can get a copy here.

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