As temperatures rise across much of the U.S., your thoughts (as mine) have surely turned toward this year’s garden. For many of us, that means we’re hardening off plant starts we planted as seeds weeks ago, eying the calendar and planning on when to put them in the ground. Or maybe you spied trays of green stems and stalks at the local nursery or garden center and started drawing up plans to start your very first garden this year.
Plants are fun, but when it comes to prepping garden soil, perhaps you have more questions than answers. A common query (without an easy answer) amongst would-be gardeners is, do I need a rototiller to have a garden?
If you don’t have the extra cash for a rototiller or are just not keen on noisy, gas-powered machines in your yard, never fear. While common knowledge has long paired growers and rototillers, you actually don’t need one to grow your own food. In fact, there are a few key reasons why you might actually want to avoid breaking up your soil with a rototiller.
Reasons to Ditch the Rototiller
Yes, that’s right: Not only can you garden without a rototiller, there are some key reasons you might want to go this route. You’ve probably heard of no-till gardening (we talk about it a fair bit here at Hobby Farms), a gardening approach that applies as much to the home garden as it does to large farm fields filled with sustainably grown produce.
Protects Soil Ecosystems
Not using a rototiller is a beneficial choice for the soil for a couple of important reasons. Plunging sharp tines deep into the ground to violently turn and churn the dirt does certainly make a garden plot look ready for plants. But the fact is, rototilling your yard can put your soil health in serious jeopardy.
The act of tilling, especially to an intense degree, disrupts the important ecosystem of bugs and fungus just below the surface of your yard. Worms, beetles and other creatures constantly burrow through the dirt, creating interconnected tunnels that allow air and water to penetrate below ground, carrying hydration and nutrients to plant roots.
And networks of subterranean fungi named mycorrhiza interact with plant roots in a symbiotic relationship, extending a root system to help plants reach further to collect more nutrients and water.
Using a rototiller disrupts these critical ecosystems. So while common knowledge holds that a rototiller makes it easier for plants to take root and grow in the prepared soil, in reality, tilling can be a negative disruption to ecosystems that actually keep your soil healthy.
Read more: Till responsibly with S4 tillage principles.
Protects Soil Structure
The tiny tunnels and underground fungal root systems are also really important to the structure of your soil, too. And when a rototiller breaks up this structure, your soil loses critical structural value—and then you can lose soil.
Your topsoil—the part of your dirt that holds the nutrients and water—only extends a maximum of 10 inches below ground. When you break up the soil into small pieces in an effort to better deliver air and water to your plant roots, you actually make it so much easier for heavy rains to wash the limited resource of valuable topsoil away. The solution is then to dump tons of compost and other additives onto the denuded garden to replenish depleted topsoil.
Or you could skip the rototiller and keep the soil you already have.
Compaction is another serious risk to compromised soil structure. Loosening soil and breaking down the natural structural elements makes it all too easy for garden soil to become compacted, which makes it harder for roots to grow, and for water and nutrients to make their way into the topsoil. The result is too often bare, cracked garden soil that’s as unproductive as it is unattractive.
And while chosen plants can struggle in tilled soil, wild-growing opportunistic plants will gladly take root from seeds your rototiller turned into the soil. In this way, tilling can make weed management so much harder!
How to Garden Without a Rototiller
So you’re looking at a patch of grass, willing to garden without a rototiller but unsure, exactly, how to do that. It’s not that difficult, but you do need to keep some things in mind.
First, you need to prepare your plot by killing off the grass and plants already established there. In fall, you can put down cardboard that will smother the grass below for nice, productive soil come spring.
But as of this writing, it is spring. So rather than cardboard, put down newspaper or paper bags over the grass, wet it down well, then pile compost on top of the paper layer, which will weigh down the paper and feed your new plants. Then just dig holes and plant your starts! Shallow-rooted (green, leafy) plants are best for this first year, but as the paper breaks down and the grass decomposes, you’ll be building healthy, nutrient-dense soil for future gardening years.
Put down mulch to suppress weeds, keep soil in place and retain moisture where your plants can access it. Add compost and other organic matter along the way, which, rather than repairing soil compromised by an aggressive rototiller, will feed and strengthen your young plants as they grow.
So not only do you not need a rototiller to start a garden, avoiding this tool can actually produce healthier plants and a more productive and attractive growing space.