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The secret to no-pain and eco-friendly vegetable gardening: Robyn Cammer encourages you to say goodbye to the shovel and hello to no-dig methods.

If you're tired of an aching back each spring and hoping to avoid one this coming season, the solution to your problem is simple: Get rid of your shovel! That's right, you don't need it. Through many trials and errors and the development of shortcuts, I have found that there are much more body-friendly ways to garden that produce great results. You can save your back and the environment by creating sustainable landscapes.

So, let's get started on our move away from the shovel mentality.

First, select an area for your garden that has good southern exposure. If it's somewhat sheltered from the wind, you'll have a longer growing season. The more hours of sun it receives a day the better. Also, make sure your new garden area receives good drainage.

Next, ff the existing ground has weeds or grass, cut them as short as possible. To keep them from growing into your new garden, cover them with four or five layers of newspaper. The newspaper will kill the weeds and grass and rot so the plant roots and earthworms can get through. Most newspapers today are printed with soy ink, which contains fewer VOCs than traditional ink and degrades easier than its petroleum counterpart. Using expensive landscaping or weed fabric is not necessary and can actually inhibit the root growth of your plants. This fabric also has funnel-shaped holes; weed seeds landing on top of the weed fabric will still grow right down through it. Pulling weeds out of this stuff is not an easy job!


After you've wet the newspaper to keep it in place, use the very best quality compost you can find. Don't be afraid to mix different types of composts together--at my farm, we mix seven types--in order to add a broader mineral spectrum to your soil that will help produce vegetables with more nutrients. Some composts and manures available in the region include chicken manure, leaf mold, vegetable compost, trout compost, horse manure, cow manure, rabbit manure, goat manure and llama manure. You get the picture. Make sure your compost is well-aged and mixed. The older the better.

To build your new garden beds, keep your rows limited to about three feet wide. This way you can work the row from both sides easily. Or, spread them about four to five feet apart to allow a wheelbarrow to get in and out.

Pile the compost about one foot deep on top of the newspaper, sloping it down at the edges. You don't have to dig it into the existing soil since the earthworms already living in your yard will do this for you. One earthworm population can move 18 tons of soil per acre per year! So, save your back and put nature's little rototillers to work. Several months after you have built your garden, you can dig into the existing soil and already see where the worms have tilled it in. You've created a big vermiculture bin that you can grow in. Not only will the earthworms keep your soil loose and tilled, but they will also add a continuous supply of earthworm castings to your garden. To learn more about earthworms and growing, I recommend reading Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof and The Worm Book by Loren Nancarrow and Janet Hogan Taylor.


For prevention of weeds and to keep your compost moist, cover your new garden with about two or three inches of shredded hardwood mulch or leaf mold. Avoid pine mulch because of the acidity (unless you are growing blueberries). Simply pull a little mulch back in the spring and "dig" a small hole to stick your vegetables in. If you're planting seeds, just scrape back the mulch to the bare compost and sprinkle your seeds on the compost. Watering every day will guarantee fast germination.

To rejuvenate your vegetable garden each year, simply top it off with fresh compost. This step is not necessary with flower gardens, just with vegetable gardens.

For a neat and eco-friendly border, try rocks, locust wood logs, natural landscape timbers such as those made with recycled materials like rubber tires, or dig a small trench if you're pain-free from the lack of digging you've had to do so far! Avoid any timber that is treated with preservatives other than those labeled safe for growing areas. If you have a lot of garden rows, try covering your walkway areas with newspaper and then several inches of wood chips, which will last for years.

Make sure you don't let a lot of tall grass or weeds go to seed in the area around your garden. For easy weeding, simply pull out the weeds and pat the mulch back in place over the bare compost. Because the compost is so fluffy, weeds come out easily. No digging required!

Robyn Cammer is the owner of Frog Holler Organiks in Waynesville, NC, a Master Gardener in North Carolina and Vinginia, and teaches regularly at the Organic Grower's School and educational workshops at the farm. She can be reached at or through her website; Frog Hollers Helper Compost blend is available for purchase at the farm in 65-pound bags or tractor scoops.
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Title Annotation:digging in
Author:Cammer, Robyn
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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