A few weeks ago I built some no dig garden beds in our new home that we are renting and planted them out with small cuttings and seedlings. After living in Bolivia for the past 2 years, growing at altitude and indoors, in pots, I am excited to back at sea level in the sub tropics, converting grassed areas into abundant food production gardens. Here, my plants are growing so fast that I feel like I should be able to see them gaining height real time. This is how I built my no dig gardens: Each layer is around 10cm thick but it all settles to a height of approximately 20cm once finished. When doing no dig gardens and composting it’s good to know your Carbon:Nitrogen ratios to help you pick suitable materials. As always, it’s best to use what you have in your environment rather than buying in extra materials. Below is a handy reference chart I did up of common C:N ratios of materials you might have access to, but if you need a more complete list, just check out this link. Are you still a bit confused about what the Carbon-Nitrogen Ratio is? Well, all organic matter is made up of substantial amounts of carbon (C) combined with lesser amounts of nitrogen (N). The balance of these two elements in an organism is called the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (C:N ratio). The C:N ratio affects the rate of decomposition and the amount of humus formed. For best performance, the compost pile or no dig garden, or more to the point the composting microorganisms, require the correct proportion of carbon for energy and nitrogen for protein production. Scientists (yes, there are compost scientists) have determined that the fastest way to produce fertile, sweet-smelling compost is to maintain a C:N ratio somewhere around 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen, or 25-30:1. If the C:N ratio is too high (excess carbon), decomposition slows down. If the C:N ratio is too low (excess nitrogen) you will end up with a stinky pile.
If you look at my list of C:N examples above, you’ll notice I’ve associated little brown leaves with the highest Carbon materials and little green leaves with the highest Nitrogen materials. This will give you a hint when you are trying to remember what to use. For example, green/wet grass is high in Nitrogen but once it has dried out/goes brown it’s higher in Carbon!
So, for your Carbon layers look for materials that are higher in Carbon, ie. likely to be brown in colour and for your Nitrogen layers look for materials that have more Nitrogen, ie. likely to be green in colour.
So, what did I use? I created the edges of my gardens by digging into the earth a little and placing planks of wood and bricks I found lying around. I then covered the grass with cardboard. My coarse nitrogen layer was roughly chopped up prunings from my neighbour’s garden, as well as our garden – I didn’t have any banana stems but these would have been perfect here! My coarse carbon layer was again from my neighbour’s garden – logs, bark and sticks. My medium nitrogen layer was chicken manure but I imagine many of you might have access to fresh grass clippings too! My medium carbon layer was collected from my garden – dried leaves and stems. My fine nitrogen layer was compost and my fine carbon layer was sugar cane mulch. As I created each layer I watered it well, ensuring not to water it too much. Then, to plant my new seedlings and cuttings I dug a hole into my garden bed, filled it with compost and planted into it. As the plants grow the layers break down at different speeds (course layers break down slowly, fine layers break down faster), providing on-going nutrition for the plants. As we are currently in Spring, I’ve planted beans, tomatoes, lettuce, silverbeet, parsley, celery, mint, thyme, brazilian spinach, zucchinis, kang kong, oregano, mizuna, kale, basil, thai basil, shallots and pak choy… they are looking very healthy and loving their gardens!
Ultimately, you don’t have to know and remember all that (I just find it interesting). You can just follow the instructions, put it all together like a recipe and then sit back and watch it work like magic! Magic is exactly how it feels to me. Each evening I like to hang out with my growing garden, often with a bottle of homemade kombucha in hand – watering these new lives, observing shooting growth, bigger leaves and insects. I love this time of day… it cools down, the light is soft, the sky displays her changing colours, the galahs peck at the grass, the parrots screech, the cicadas start chirping and all seems good in the world… I take slow deep breaths of gratitude as the day ends and slows.Each morning I also enjoy sitting on the stairs nearby, sipping my coffee and observing my new babies. I was thinking the other day “little beans… thank you for teaching simplicity by simply being… you don’t need validation or acceptance or to be liked.. you will just be yourself, grow and prosper anyway… all I have to do is love you.“. I am calling it my permaculture meditation. Gardens feed us, teach us, connect us and I’m so very grateful.