February 13, 2011

Turn a Lawn Into a Potato Patch - No Digging Required


Food is getting more expensive all over the world and this year that situation will become much, much worse. So what can we do to lessen this problem and keep our food costs at an afordable level? If you live in a urban or suburban area finding the space to grow food can become a problem. In my part of the world, most suburban houses will have a large area of the garden devoted to growing a lawn. You can't eat lawn grass.

Well... you can, but it won't be very nutritious and it definitely won't keep you from starving.

You could dig it up and try to turn it into a vegetable garden but that's a lot of work and some favourite lawn species are very hard to remove completely, no matter how much you dig and pull out. How about a method to turn that lawn into a productive, organic potato patch with no digging, no hand weeding and no weed killers required?

No-Dig Gardens

The No-Dig Garden system was developed and promoted by Australian gardener and author, Esther Dean in the 1970's and is still being used around the world as a way to turn wasteland into productive gardens.
This method does require a large amount of organic material to begin with, in the form of straw and animal manures and to a lesser extent, good quality compost. These are long term investments because once the no dig bed is made it can be used many times over with minimal regular additions of organic matter to top up the bed or improve soil fertility. In a crop rotation system a green manure crop can be added to the rotation to help fulfill this ongoing need, along with compost or worm castings which can be produced on-site as well. Eventually (quite rapidly really) you can end up with a fertile raised bed, full of earthworms and other soil life, that is easy to maintain and requires little or no external materials.

So let's get on with growing our potatoes. Potatoes are a wonderful starter crop for no-dig beds, by the way, as they love the straw around their roots and stems and will produce more and bigger tubers than they would in normal soil.

Step 1.
Mark out the area and edge it with boards, bricks, rock or any other material that will hold the material within the bed. This is a great opportunity to re-use some waste. You can usually find something nearby to use for this. You might use old roof tiles, dug in a few inches to keep them upright, or even just chicken wire on wooden stakes with a heavy cardboard liner, if that is all you can find.
If you have a large area that you are converting to no-dig it may be better to build a number of rows that are just wide enough to work on without having to stand on the bed. A good height for borders is around 250 - 300mm (10 - 12") minimum but you can go higher to make maintenance work easier if you have the materials available.

Alternatively, you can build a bed with no edges at all. The edges just help to keep the materials in and establish a permanent raised bed. If you can't find good edging material, just omit step 1.

You can make a no-dig garden edge from just about anything

Step 2.
Cover the entire area with thick layers of damp newspaper. The thicker the layer, the less chance for weeds to break through. Make sure to have plenty of over-lap. Some lawn grasses such as Buffalo Grasses (var. dactyloides) and other perennial weeds are very persistent and may require a stronger barrier to ensure that they don't break through to the surface and become a weed problem. If this is the case, lay a full layer of thick cardboard on top of the damp newspaper and soak it well. These are materials that most of us should be able to source for minimal cost and is a great way to recycle them. If you want to do some more recycling and you have trees that drop a lot of leaves, add a layer of those as well and give them a good wetting too.( Every layer needs to be moistened as it goes down to aid in the composting action.)

Step 3

Cover the area with pads of lucerne hay, which will break down easily. These pads or biscuits should be around 75 - 100mm thick (3 - 4") and should be reasonably compact. If you have square bails then it should be fairly easy to break them off the bale. This could be substituted by pea-straw or crop-straw like rye or canola, whatever is cheap and available. Crop-straw is usually less expensive than lucerne or pea-straw, but is lower in nitrogen. Water the straw lightly.

Step 4

Next apply a layer of organic fertiliser. Chicken manure is excellent because it has high amounts of nitrogen, which helps the breakdown high carbon materials, but any farm manure will perform the function. No-dig gardening is like composting. You need a good mixture of carbon materials in the form of straw and nitrogen in the form of manures. Water the layer lightly.

Alternatively, instead of manure, the mix could be boosted with blood and bone, which is high in nitrogen, calcium and phosphorous but low in potassium, so supplement the mixture with about 10% of sulphate of potash, or even wood-ash

Step 5

Add a 100mm (4") layer of loose straw. This layer needs to be looser than the bottom layer to allow the plant roots to penetrate. Water the straw.

Step 6
Repeat step 4 and step 5. (You can continue adding as many layers as your borders will hold.)

Step 7

Finally, you will need some good compost to plant the seeds potatoes into. If there is enough available, the whole surface area of the garden could be covered with compost to about 60mm (2 - 3"). Alternatively pockets of compost can be created for planting so that it can feed a new plant while the new garden is breaking down.

As your potatoes grow, you can add more straw and compost to mound up around the plants until just the top green shoots are showing. This will increase the size of the crop slightly, depending upon how much extra mounding you can do. As tubers develop it is important to keep them covered up. Exposure to sunlight can green the tuber and that green portion is toxic. You can harvest your crop when the vines are withered. The longer that you leave the tubers in the ground, the thicker the skin will get. This will help the potatoes to store better. One of the benefits of no-dig potatoes is that new potatoes can be harvested without damaging the plant by digging them out of the straw by hand, leaving the plant and most of the
crop to continue growing.

So there you have it. If all goes well, you should end up with a nice crop of potatoes and a garden bed ready for planting something else. Avoid planting potatoes in the same bed again until at least two other crop rotations have grown there. This will help to avoid problems with diseases and nematodes.

You can use the no-dig method to garden anywhere, from rocky ground to paved areas to flat rooftops. This can be a fantastic starting point for urban food production.

Books by Esther Deans
Esther Deans' Gardening Book - Growing Without Digging
Leaves of Life
Esther Deans' Garden Cookbook

Further Reading
No Dig Gardening by Allen Gilbert
Organic Gardening - The Natural  No-Dig Way by Charles Dowding

Related Sites


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