Till Responsibly Using S4 Tillage Principles

It's true that tillage can do a lot of harm to soil life and structure, but these four simple guidelines can help you till responsibly for easier gardening.

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by Zach LoeksDecember 16, 2022
PHOTO: retbool/Adobe Stock

Tillage rightly has a bad rap. It can destroy soil aggregates and create compaction layers (or plow pan, a result of excessive plowing at a constant depth and/or the tiller’s slapping effect). Tillage can lead to loss of nitrogen, nutrients and soil organic matter. It can pulverize mycorrhizal fungi hyphae and, over all, really disturb the soil ecosystem. 

However, we shouldn’t dismiss tilling altogether. Rather, tillage benefits can be achieved though lower impact usage, as defined by what I call S4-tillage principles:

  • Seldom
  • Shallow
  • Softly
  • Sorted

Read more: What is a Permabed, and how does one differ from a raised bed?


Limited Tillage for Permabed Maintenance

Permabeds have a maintained raised form because they are usually formed higher and designed for both stable soil structure and well-defined soil horizons. Permabeds are also never plowed under, and as a result possess routine soil building processes and dedicated systems to strengthen the soil life’s ability to stabilize the own environment for mutual benefit. 

To reform Permabeds, you can use a power ridger or rotary plow alongside other equipment. But mechanizing this operation requires some forethought.

Powered machines can manage for disease/weeds (usually by plowing the field) without harming the soil conservation core. Crops connect quickly with soil organisms to outgrow pests, disease and weeds. And plants are able to develop natural pest defenses, such as rich lipids forming in their leaves.

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tiller tillage Permabeds
courtesy of Zach Loeks

Consider higher Permabeds (4 to 6 inches) in wetter climates for drainage and reduced compaction. Use lower Permabeds (2 to 4 inches) for sandy soil to conserve water. For perennials taller beds (6 to 8 inches) improve root growth.

I make 14-inch beds covered with weed barrier for husk cherries. When ripe, they roll into the dry clean aisle for easy picking.


Read more: Here’s how you can build Permabeds with a two-wheeled tractor and a powered ridger.


The S4 Principles

Now let’s look at the 4 principles involved with careful and considered tillage.

  • Seldom:  Only essential tillage in tandem with alternative techniques
  • Shallow: Adjust equipment for task-appropriate depth. 
  • Softly:  Soften the blow with “soft tillage” through soil horizon design. Using task-specific horizons to buffer soil life communities in aggregates. This will improve water, nutrient and air storage, cycling and release in an undisturbed soil conservation core.  In a garden system where waste material is cycled in situ, soil can horizons develop; the soil surface holds mostly a diverse crop cover in all seasons. This is nature’s design. You can see it in a woodland or prairie ecosystem’s thriving and resilient productivity.
  • Sorted: Organizing earthworks in a pattern to avoid larger landscape issues of erosion from expanses of bare soil.  A percentage is always covered with either a cover crop or food crop. Never till both adjacent areas (alternate beds).

Grow On, Zach

For more on growing with two-wheel tractors, check out Zach’s new book, The Two-Wheel Tractor Handbook, available for pre-order from New Society Publishers.


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