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In His New Gardening Book, Charlie Nardozzi Shares How to Grow More and Work Less

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Charlie Nardozzi - COURTESY OF TESS ARENA
  • Courtesy Of Tess Arena
  • Charlie Nardozzi

In his new book, The Complete Guide to No-Dig Gardening, Charlie Nardozzi recalls his uncle tilling the home garden every spring. During horticulture school, he continues, "tilling and digging were touted as necessary to grow plants well."

In recent years, the North Ferrisburgh-based garden educator, writer and host of "All Things Gardening" on Vermont Public Radio has come to a very different conclusion.

"I'm always experimenting in our garden, trying new ways of growing things," Nardozzi, 62, told Seven Days. "What I've been noticing is that, as I do a lot more raised-bed gardening where I'm not really tilling anymore and not digging that much, those gardens are more and more productive."

His book offers all the details you need to get going. Nardozzi spoke with Seven Days about how no-dig techniques contribute to mitigating climate change, cut down on weeding and might even help deter the notorious tomato hornworm.

SEVEN DAYS: At least a few times every year, I pull my shovel out of the soil to see that I've unfortunately severed an earthworm in half. With no-dig gardening, that would never happen, right?

The Complete Guide to No-Dig Gardening by Charlie Nardozzi - COURTESY OF CHARLIE NARDOZZI
  • Courtesy Of Charlie Nardozzi
  • The Complete Guide to No-Dig Gardening by Charlie Nardozzi

CHARLIE NARDOZZI: Yes, and in fact there's a lot more damage that you're doing, and you don't even know because you can't really see it. This will make your mind explode. In a teaspoon of soil there are over 4 billion microbes: fungi, bacteria and protozoa. It's because of those microbes that the soil has all that fertility and health. Any time you insert a shovel, you're killing many microbes.

SD: How can no-dig gardening help with climate change?

CN: Every time you turn the soil, you're releasing carbon into the atmosphere. In a small way as a backyard gardener, you can help mitigate some of the effects of global warming by not digging. A 3-by-6-foot bed is not going to save the world, but millions of gardens like that could help.

SD: In your book, you talk about the "lasagna method." What is that?

CN: [Laughs] You can call it a multilayered method or sheet composting, but the idea is that you're layering organic materials on top of the existing soil. They will break down and eventually create that nice fertile soil for our no-dig bed.

Determine where you're going to be building the bed. If it's on lawn grass, then mow it really low, leave the grass clippings and then start doing the layers on top with newspapers that have been moistened so they don't blow around.

If the spot has a lot of weeds like brambles or quackgrass with a strong root system, then put something a little more heavy-duty. Grab your Amazon boxes, take the staples and tape off, and lay them down.

Then, on top, you build lots of different layers, just like with a lasagna: alternating grass clippings from an untreated lawn with straw, for example. You cap the whole thing with a layer of compost.

If you do this in the fall, you can put a two- to three-inch layer of compost on top. By spring, you can plant right into it. If you start in the late winter or spring, you'll have to wait a little longer or add a thicker layer of compost.

SD: Is there a shortcut way to start?

CN: The simplest way is to make a raised bed with a 50-50 mix of compost and topsoil. A lot of local garden centers will already have it premixed for you.

The chop-and-drop method of harvesting - COURTESY OF CHARLIE NARDOZZI
  • Courtesy Of Charlie Nardozzi
  • The chop-and-drop method of harvesting

SD: Now that we have our bed, how does no-dig gardening look different through the seasons?

CN: I hardly even use hand tools when I'm planting, because the rich, fertile soil is so easy to push aside with my hand. And you won't get as many weeds, because when you turn the soil, that's just bringing weed seeds up.

The philosophy is to keep the soil covered with something 12 months a year. During the growing season, we're covering it with plants like leafy greens growing between our tomato plants. The benefit is, you're leaving less room for weeds, and soil organisms are kept active working with those plants.

In fact, if you want to do a little companion planting, there's new scientific research out that shows which partners work best. One of them is to grow basil in amongst your tomatoes to ward off the tomato hornworm.

Then, after plants are harvested, you just chop and drop, leaving the roots in the soil and the stalks or leaves on the surface as a mulch.

SD: That all makes sense, but with decomposing newspapers and spent plants, it could all look a bit messy. Do I just need to get over that?

CN: It is a different aesthetic. You certainly can get around that a little bit. Let's say you grew bush beans: Cut and leave the greens on the soil surface to let them die back a little. Then come in with a layer of compost, cover them and then plant your fall crops. That way you're keeping the soil intact, you're adding your organic matter, but you don't necessarily have to be looking at it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Digging No-Dig | In his new book, Charlie Nardozzi shares how to grow more food with less work"