6 Ways to Start a No-Till Garden from Scratch

Many methods exist for starting a garden in what once was grass or pasture without plowing and tilling. Here are several options.

by Jesse Frost
PHOTO: Shutterstock

There is a growing amount of interest in no-till market gardening, but the question often arises: How do you start a garden from say, pasture, without plowing and tilling it?

Some no-till growers will tell you they don’t do that—they do a “one-time tillage” and then never again. A host of other “never till” options exist as well. So today let’s get into breaking ground from a no-till market garden perspective and discuss the many ways to start a no-till garden from nothing. I host a podcast on this subject and have found that almost no two growers break ground the same way.

1. One-Time Tillage

Among the more important things you will ever do in your garden is to make sure you have good mineral balance through right soil test (search the web for albrecth method soil tests near you) and good soil organic matter. Some farmers then prefer to add a bunch of organic matter and proper minerals through a one-time-tillage, especially in heavy clay soils. Then they shape their beds and never till again. This can also be a good option when you want to get into your soil fast. That said, if you want to add the minerals to the surface and not till it in, that might work in soils that don’t leach nutrients as much (such as heavily sandy soils).

2. Occultation

If time is not an issue, occultation—pulling large black tarps over an area—can be an excellent way to suffocate the grass and weeds before you start gardening. After a few months, depending on the time of year, you can pull the tarps back and find exposed, but not tilled, soil. Then you can shape beds with compost, broadfork (if you wish) and then plant. Or you can use straw, hay or whatever mulch you prefer or have available locally.

3. Heavy Mulch

Some growers instead prefer to mow a pasture or crop ground, cover it very heavily with straw or hay or compost, then plant a no-till garden into that. This might also take some time to break down, so it is perhaps best when using this method to start in the spring. You can also use leaves for this, though they might be best when mixed with other materials.

4. Cardboard or Paper Mulch

Cardboard or even paper mulch can be used to smother grass before compost is applied. The pasture or ground should be mowed-clean then covered thickly with cardboard. That cardboard should be then covered with either straw or compost to start the decomposition process and to have something into which you can plant.

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5. Lasagna Style

Lasagna gardening is a very broad term in terms of which materials you can use. One can layer straw with compost, cardboard with compost or a mix of different materials. Some growers even create as many as five layers and allow that to break down before planting. It’s not uncommon to see growers plant a cover crop into the lasagna beds then press those down when they are mature and plant into the resulting “mulch.”

6. Cover Crops

If you have open crop ground to work with, consider adding a cover crop. Allow this cover crop to almost reach full maturity (you don’t want weed seeds, but close) and then press them down and either plant then or start your layering of other materials. Some growers will press the cover crop down, cover it with the tarps for a while to kill it, then simply plant into that. Lots of options.

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