Are you tired of traditional gardening methods that leave you and your garden burnt out? Do you feel like growing your own food is like fighting a losing battle against your environment? What if I told you that you can increase your garden yield, reduce weeds, and improve moisture retention without having to add a bunch of soil amendments or tilling your soil?

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My Frustration

Gardening in Florida has surely been an uphill battle. I’ve had animals, bugs, fungus, weeds, and heat. For every problem that I thought I had solved, another would take it’s place. It was becoming a huge chore. I was used to gardening in Ohio, where my biggest concern was having enough space for the plants as they grew. As long as I kept the garden weeded and watered, I had more than enough vegetables to can, freeze, and even give away come harvest time. Florida has been a big change for me, where I’m lucky to get enough tomatoes to make a salad, much less a batch of salsa. Most of the recommendations I’ve received from other gardeners has included everything from adding a number of amendments to the soil to growing in only raised beds using purchased topsoil. But despite my frustrations, I don’t believe gardening should be complicated or expensive. There had to be a better way.

The Breakthrough

I was at a meeting of my local homesteaders networking group, and we were watching Geoff Lawton’s Permaculture Soils DVD, which I’m sadly unable to find online at the moment, and learning about composting and building soil. For those who don’t know, Geoff Lawton is a permaculture designer who is known for his work in building food forests in desert environments. Florida isn’t exactly the desert, but I realized that building up the soil was going to be key to breaking through my gardening frustrations.

There was a lot of information shared in the video from how far conventional farming has strayed from nature to methods of composting. There was definitely a lot of information, and I need to get a copy of the video just so I can pick apart each piece and start to implement it on my homestead, but there was one thing that stood out to me: his simple no-till gardening method. Granted, he showed a number of lasagna gardening techniques in the video, and I would like to try all of them at some point, but the one that struck me was using just a little bit of manure, some biodegradable weed barrier, and mulch. The idea was simple, the weed barrier blocks sunlight to the weeds and seeds in the soil, killing them and turning them into nutrients for the soil. The barrier and mulch also break down and retain moisture, reducing water needs and rebuilding the soil. I could use materials that I already had on hand, it wouldn’t require a lot of labor, and it was easy; it was pretty much exactly what I had been looking for.

The first problem I face is that Florida’s soil is very poor. Some of my soil is better than others because I live in the woods and years of decomposing leaves have made the soil rich, but it’s still mostly sand. Sand doesn’t retain much and erodes easily, but it can be very fertile if kept fertilized and moist. When I first learned about this method, my main appeal was its ability to rebuild the soil. I do some composting, but it’s time consuming and usually results in my dogs digging up the garden. With this method, any compost or manure I use is buried under the weed barrier and mulch so the dogs can’t get it. The fact that I’m not tilling helps reduce erosion and saves me the expense of renting or buying a tiller.

Free gardening classes on Craftsy

The weed barrier and mulch also help to retain moisture so that I don’t need to water as frequently. I’ve gone from having to water every other day to only watering once or twice a week. If it rains during a week, I don’t need to water at all. I don’t yet know what that will mean this summer when we typically get rain every day, but my main growing season is in the winter anyway. I’ll worry about the summer when it gets here.

Did I mention that this method is no-till? The only ground prep that I needed to do was pull the big weeds so the weed barrier could lay flat. The plants themselves are planted after the weed barrier and mulch are down. The weeds that are left under the weed barrier will eventually break down and fertilize the garden. The benefit to not tilling is that all of the good organisms are left in the soil to help the plants thrive. I’m a big believer in providing a balanced environment. Plant companion plants in your garden to attract beneficial insects that will keep away pests. Provide a healthy soil environment to encourage earthworms and beneficial nematodes. The right balance will keep away bad nematodes, but tilling will kill the good soil critters along with the bad. Like most things, it’s twice as difficult to rebuild beneficial organisms as it is for pests to rebuild themselves.

So How Did I Do It?

Feed bag layering

  1. Manure or Compost – Geoff Lawton points out that there is no one right way to do this. I have to double check, but I don’t even think he said that the manure used has to be composted first. Of course, it’s probably a good idea to compost it first, but I didn’t. Only spread a very thin layer over the ground, I didn’t even completely cover the ground. It was a mixture depending on what I had, some sections had horse manure while others had chicken shavings because I had just cleaned coops.
  2. Weed Barrier – I like weed barriers, I’ve used them for years in my flowers gardens. They keep weeds down and make my gardens easier to maintain. What I don’t like is that most of the weed barriers sold in stores are made from plastic. Over time and with lots of use, the barrier gets ripped up and no longer lays nicely under my mulch. I now have to pull all of this cheap black weed barrier from my flower gardens and start over, but I digress. With Geoff Lawton’s method, you can use any material that will decompose, be it newspaper, cardboard, brown paper, whatever. I happen to buy most of my animal feed in brown paper feed bags. They don’t have a plastic liner, so they are fully decomposable. I buy about 15 bags of feed every two weeks, so I have plenty of bags. For my garden, I open both ends, then cut the bags down one side and lay them flat on the ground. I overlap the bags slightly so no light can get through to the weeds still underneath the bags. If I have any large weeds that don’t allow the bags to lay flat, I pull them up or cut them down at the base. All of the little weeds are left where they are.
  3. Mulch – The mulch can also be any material that is readily available. You could use leaves and grass clippings if you have enough of them. If you see a tree company trimming branches on the sides of the road, stop and ask if they need somewhere to dump the mulch. You can usually get a truck load (or more!) for free. I bought a roll of cow hay from our hay guy. Here in Florida, large rolls of cow hay are only about $35 and will cover a very large area. The hay is nice because it’s soft and easy to walk on. I’ve been known to run out to the garden in my bare feet if I need an ingredient while making dinner.
  4. Plant – Once your mulch is down, you can start putting in your plants. Make a space in your mulch and cut away the weed barrier underneath. Geoff Lawton used cardboard as his weed barrier in the video, so he used a box cutter when planting. Since I just used feed bags, I used a pair of scissors. Make sure the mulch is pulled well away from the seedlings while they get established. Just like the weeds that were left underneath to rot and die, your mulch could snuff out your seedlings if they encroach too much and block the light.
  5. Water – Any time I plant new seedlings, I immediately give them a good drenching. It will help settle the soil around the roots, but also settle the mulch and weed barrier into place so it doesn’t fly away. I usually turn the sprinkler on for an hour or two so everything soaks through. You should then be good for a day or two before they need watered again.

Strawberry bed

I’ve seen a lot of benefit from this system. Already my plants are bigger and more productive than in years past. Below are my cabbages about a week after I planted them.

Planted cabbages

Here they are this week, about 2 months later. They really took off, now I’m just waiting for them to form heads. I planted them a little too close together, but I’m thinking about making a soup with the large overlapping leaves.

Cabbage bed

Another benefit I’ve found, especially with my leaf plants, is the lack of dirt on the leaves. Because our soil is mostly sand, we get a lot of sand splashed onto the leaves when it rains or the plants are watered. I admit, I like eating vegetables straight from the garden, and I prefer to do it without getting grit in my teeth. I haven’t had any gritty leaves using this method. We have also had very few pests and none of the rot I was worried I might get.

Peppers and garlic

Potential Problems

While I’ve used this method for most of my garden, there are certain sections that I am modifying for certain reasons. Here are some things you may want to consider when choosing this gardening method.

  • Seeds – So far, I’ve only used started plants with this method, with the exception of my garlic plants, which germinated very well. Because this method is designed to block the sunlight and prevent weed seeds from germinating, it may also hinder garden seeds from sprouting. The same can be said for any deep mulching method. You may want to start the seeds in pots, or refrain from using the weed barrier and only lightly mulching until after the seedlings are established.
  • Tubers – The roots of tubers tend to multiply underground and come up over a section of ground. While this method works well for bulbs, it’s difficult to know where to cut the weed barrier so tubers can come up. My ginger plants are tubers. They would come up through deep mulch, but would be blocked by the weed barrier. For this reason, I won’t be using the weed barrier around my ginger plants.
  • Creeping Vines – There are certain vines that root into the ground as they spread, one example is sweet potato vines. Everywhere that my sweet potato vines take root, they produce more potatoes. As the sweet potatoes grow, I want to actually cover the vine so that they are encouraged to produce more roots and potatoes. If the vines are up on top of the mulch, I have to actually pull the mulch out from under the vines and rearrange them so the vines are underground and the leaves are peaking through the mulch. It’s a little bit of work, but it still keeps the weeds under control for the most part. I can’t use the weed barrier, but I’m mulching less than if I wasn’t using mulch. Hopefully it’ll result in more potatoes once we get some warmer weather.
  • Established Plants – This really isn’t as much of a “potential problem” as it is a work around. If you already have established plants in your garden, it’s easy to work around them. As you are placing your weed barrier, you can either arrange them around the plants or cut the barrier to fit around the plants. However, make sure they you don’t cover the plants too much when mulching. You don’t want to mulch around them so much that the lower leaves rot.

A Stepping Stone

Now, I’m not saying that this method in any way replaces good quality compost. One of Geoff Lawton’s most common messages is the need to compost and make more soil. Composting will always have more nutrients in it than this simple method and is certainly the preferred method. Consider this more of a stepping stone. If you’re new to composting, your compost isn’t ready for use, or you just can’t wrap your head around it right now, this is a simple way that you can still help the soil and your garden without going overboard. I currently only have one small compost tumbler, so I’m limited in how much compost I can produce at one time. I have plans for building another tumbler or some kind of larger bin. This works well for me in the meantime.

Additional Resources

This No-Till, Low-Maintenance Gardening method that I learned from permaculture designer Geoff Lawton has solved a lot of my gardening woes.