Tilling soil makes for a nice fluffy seed bed and gives the gardener a proverbial clean slate (as clean dirt can get, I suppose). However, there are many downsides to tillage, including losing organic matter, increasing weed pressure and inviting erosion.
That said, not tilling your soil (often called no-till gardening), is a lot of work, right? Well, if you already have a garden going, half of the work is done. You now need to set your garden up for success and have a few strategies for how to best get into your soil without tilling it. Success at no-till might take some trial and error, but if you follow the guidelines below, you can start immediately.
Remove Previous Plant Matter (Such as Winter Weeds)
Let’s say it is early spring or late summer and you want to get some crops in but the soil is covered in plant matter or weeds. A great option for that is called occultation. Do this by mowing the area, then simply placing a black tarp over of the garden plot and allowing the sun to pound down on it. This causes weed seeds to germinate while smothering the buds as well as any living plants without damaging too heavily the beneficial microbial life. Usually this takes about two weeks to a month depending on the heat and sun.
If you have a small garden, it might be worth simply removing any previous with a stirrup hoe. This a great tool to have around. These are often made for wheel hoes or as hand tools, but they slide just below the sour face and knock down weeds rapidly. No matter how the weeds are put in check, you are ready to start your garden.
Make Your Beds “Permanent”
An important factor in maintaining and gaining the benefits from a no-till system is that you needn’t turn over the whole garden every year. So establish small beds and pathways, then never walk on your beds. That will keep them from becoming compacted.
A way to slowly turn your soil over to a no-till garden is to simply get the weeds in check and then cover the soil with compost or another mulch of some sort. Use the mulch material to which you have the best, most affordable access. For some, that might be composted manure, while for others it might be shredded leaves, peat moss or even a cardboard. Whatever you can use to fully cover the soil will probably work—here are materials that make great garden mulch and how to use them.
Use No Mulch
Another tactic? Don’t cover the soil with anything at all. What I mean is that once you have your weeds in check, then simply add a little bit of compost and possibly some amendments to your soil every time you want to plant something, with a light hoeing or no hoeing at all. There are pros and cons to this approach. It is extremely simple but labor intensive because you must keep up with the weeds like any other garden and cultivate regularly. Also, moisture can be harder to keep in so irrigation might be necessary.
Plant Cover Crops
If you were on top of things last fall and planted a cover crop such as rye, clover or vetch, you might be able to tamp that down, possibly throw a tarp over it as described above, give it a few weeks then plant directly into that “mulch-in-place.” That is a great option, but it does require some forethought—there is always next season.