No-Till Growing: Build Garden Soil Health by Doing Less

No-till farming is quite popular with people who maintain permaculture systems, but it's a good idea to apply to backyard gardens, too.

by Rodney Wilson
PHOTO: Karen Cox/Flickr

Here’s the thing: I love my hand tiller. You know what I’m talking about? The garden implement with the twisty tongs at the end. I’ve broken up so much soil with the thing for gardens in the handful of homes my family has occupied. I’ve heard of no-till growing, but I never tire of preparing a new bed by, first, de-sodding it with a shovel, then sinking those tongs deep into the ground, twisting hard and repeating.

That’s actually a lie. I do get tired, because it is tiring work, and I probably enjoy it only because I consider the work a kind of sweat equity. Sure, I tear up my hands and get woozy with exhaustion, and boy is tomorrow going to be a rough and achy day, but this is what my soil needs to give me an abundance of plants and veggies. It needs aeration and a good fluffing as well as organic matter worked in there to feed the plants.

Except, I’m starting to learn, this conventional thinking might not be right. The bone-grinding workout might, in fact, compromise my soil’s health even as it wears and tears on my middle-aged body. My beloved tiller, it turns out, disrupts the established ecosystems of myriad organisms, throwing off a natural balance that helps keep pests in check. And when it rains, the soil I thought I was building is at a far greater chance of being washed clean away after I till it.

Dig Less, Grow More

This is where the concept of no-till or no-dig gardening comes into play. It holds that growing in undisturbed soil preserves underground ecosystems, builds soil health and prevents erosion. It sequesters, rather than releases, greenhouse gases. To top things off, it’s better for the gardener because it requires far less labor to establish and maintain garden beds.

I’m probably not ready to list my hand-tiller for sale yet, but I am beginning to try some no-till methods in our garden. When I prep our beds for winter, I will try to envision a spring that doesn’t start with a good, deep till.

How to Prepare for No-Till

OK, so you’ve got a patch of grass you want to turn into a garden, and you’re keen on this whole “easier” thing plus the improved soil. Where do you start?

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First, clear the ground of large rocks and other debris, then turn your attention to killing the grass and weeds. You can do this with a heaping helping of compost material. You probably don’t have enough in your bin for this (unless you’ve been composting for many, many years), but you can buy bagged compost at a garden center or, if you have a hookup with an organic farm, use composted manure. Spread it on the area at least four inches thick to block air and light from the vegetation beneath. If you’re concerned this won’t sufficiently suppress weeds, you can lay down wet cardboard or brown paper bags before applying your compost. In a couple of months, the vegetation and paper will be dead and decomposed, which is why fall is the ideal time to start preparing your no-till garden.

Alternately, you can cover the patch with black plastic or wood chips for a few months, move it off and rake the exposed topsoil clear.

Start With Starts

You can’t really direct-sow seeds in a no-till bed—weeds take over really fast—so put in decent-sized starts as soon as planting season starts. I’ve used nursery starts and plants grown from seeds in my basement; either method is fine, you just need to get those starts in the ground, shading the soil so that weeds can’t get established.

Dig holes as close as your starts will tolerate, drop the plants in, then mulch the bed with organic matter. Frequent mulching is key, as it suppresses grass and weeds while holding moisture. For mulch, you can use compost, straw, leaves or other organic material.

Once the warm-weather plants are in, start planning the next season. You’ll need to get cool-season crops into the ground as soon as possible after removing the warm-weather plants to keep weeds away. If you’re in it just for tomatoes, though, cut the plants at ground level (there are all kinds of good things living on or around the roots) and cover the bed with more mulch.

That’s it. No till. If you can commit to mulching and pulling the occasional stray weed, you can get to growing with a lot less effort.

One reply on “No-Till Growing: Build Garden Soil Health by Doing Less”

I’ve wanted to try no-till gardening, but our ground is so hard that I ‘m not sure it will work. The other issue I have is the cost of enough compost to put 4-6” on all my beds. I guess the last problem is my husband, who doesn’t believe there are benefits to not tilling.

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