If you love the idea of having a no-till garden, you’re not crazy. A properly maintained no-till garden can be a productive and bountiful place to grow food. Not tilling the soil can sequester carbon, retain moisture, encourage beneficial microbial life and bring forth beautiful produce. What people don’t often realize, however, is that no-till gardening has many forms and interpretations, and if one style daunts you or hasn’t worked for you in the past, you might just need to find another method.
On our commercial farm, for instance, we have found that attempting to establish a no-till garden via carbonaceous mulching—always covering our beds with straw or hay as described below—is too physically intensive and we end up with weeds. Just the same, I have seen other farms flourish under that system. It’s really about the resources you can access and the crops you plan to grow. So let’s talk about the no-till options available.
1. Carbonaceous Mulching
Mulch can be any range or mix of carbonaceous material—cardboard, straw, hay, woodchips, and so on. In a mulched no-till garden, the straw or mulch is laid down well before planting. This lets the soil soften up and allows for any grass or weeds to suffocate from lack of sunlight. The mulch is then pulled back and the crops are transplanted. The choice of material factors big in efficacy.
Woodchips are great for paths though generally not recommended for garden beds because they temporarily steal nitrogen. Leaves can be a great source of mulch but can controbute tannins and acid to the soil, so they’re best used in paths or with other compost. Straw and hay can be excellent provided they are not full of weed seed—hand weeding is an exhausting, inefficient task. Cardboard and newspaper (without colored ink) can be nice in conjunction with other mulches, though finding uniform cardboard might be challenging.
Using compost like a mulch for a no-till garden is a clever way to subvert the need for straw or hay. A thick layer of compost spread evenly over your garden beds every year can keep the soil covered to reduce exposure while also providing nutrients for plant growth. Compost is not as cheap as hay in most cases, so some financial investment accompanies it unless you make some or all of your own compost.
I like this style of no-till for our own farm—which is transitioning entirely to no-till—because it can be done on our scale (1.5 acres) with very little change to our routine. Just the same, some people might prefer the carbon mulch method, especially in hotter climates where straw or hay mulch helps keep the soil cooler and reflect sunlight, unlike the compost.
3. Synthetic Mulches
Synthetic mulches such as biodegradable plastic or landscape fabric can do a lot of the same things as carbon mulches in a no-till garden, though they will not add to your organic matter. On our farm we use them sparingly but they certainly help with crops such as melons, which take up a lot of space and would require a lot of mulch. These fabrics act like a mulch, retaining moisture and cooling or warming the soil depending on color. You can cut or burn out holes for plants, or you can place them down pathways to suppress weeds. Lots of potential here, but it doesn’t always present the aesthetic that some gardeners want.
4. Perennial Gardens
Another less obvious way to reduce or circumvent tillage is to grow crops that always come back—no need for planting. You must adapt to your climate the perennial crops you choose, but you have many choices. I recommend researching permaculture systems so you’ll have an idea how to design and implement such a system effectively.
Perennial herbs, flowers and vegetables exist for every region and can provide an enormous amount of food when well maintained.
5. Food Forests
Food forests are a larger version of the perennial no-till garden where trees, understory and woodland shrubs—all with edible characteristics—are planted intentionally. You can cultivate mushrooms, ginseng, goldenseal, ramps and the like below the canopy, and almost no tillage is required. The food forest and perennial garden have a slower return on investment, but they can both be highly productive and pay a nice no-till compliment to your annual no-till gardens.