To a traditional gardener, not tilling and flipping soil layers before sowing seeds or planting seedlings may seem absurd. The practice of overturning the soil has been around for centuries and is quite a tried-and-tested method to freshen up the soil and make it healthy for crops.
Naturally, no-till gardening may not be understandable to an old-school gardener; but if they learn about the tremendous benefits of this new technique, they can easily understand why no-till gardening has become so popular among gardeners across the world.
Published: May 12, 2021.
But first, it’s better to understand why tilling is not so beneficial for gardening.
Why Stop Tilling?
Even every traditional gardener will agree that tilling is hard work. But does one have to stop it just because it’s tiring? All our ancestors have been saying it’s worth it because tilling helps growers add nutrient-boosting components to the soil, such as compost, and at the same time creates looser, fluffier soil to make sowing and planting easy. However, if one examines tilling logically, it seems to cause some unpleasant consequences.
Soil contains a great range of organisms from micro ones such as bacteria to slightly bigger ones like earthworms, fungi and ground beetles. These organisms build a network in the soil for years which is essential for the health of soil. Some of them leave sticky exudates that hold soil together. Tilling obviously disrupts this important web of life, causing a major setback to the natural processes that make the soil healthy.
Tilling also breaks down humus, an organic component of soil essential for plant life. This causes an increased need to do more soil amendments to compensate for something that would be done by nature for free.
On the other hand, the no till gardening leaves the soil undisturbed and thus soil organisms can thrive well, which is of course good for plants. What’s more, no till method also causes a more natural balance between pests in the soil and their predators.
Another major disadvantage of tilling is that it tires the gardener tremendously, especially double-digging where gardeners dig the soil to the depth of two spade blades. This is not even good for the gardeners’ back.
So, why do gardeners have to till if it may cause harm to their soil as well as health?
Tools Needed for No-Till Gardening
If one is planning to start a no-till garden, it’s better to have all the tools required at hand.
A cover crop is an important component of no-till farming as it works like mulch after it is killed. Those having a small garden can kill the cover crops with hand tools, but for large gardens, one will need a roller/crimper invented by Jeff Moyer from Rodale Institute. It contains a large cylinder with long blades which is to be rolled over the cover crop. The blades arranged in a chevron pattern crimp the stems of the crop and thus kill them to form weed-suppressing mulch which also retains moisture and adds organic matter to the soil as the roots of the cover crop decompose.
Gardeners can even build their own roller/crimper using simple materials like a 30-inch piece of angle iron which is to be screwed to the bottom of a 30-inch piece of 2 x 4 wood, then a hole should be drilled at each end of the wood, a rope should be threaded through and the ends should be knotted. Moyer explains how to use this tool; he suggests putting one’s weight on the board and crushing the stem of the crop, then pulling it up by the rope and repeating the process.
However, gardeners should remember that not all vegetables are suited to planting in a growing area that has been cover-cropped and rolled. Crops that are suited to crimped mulch are beans, melons, corn, cucumbers, squash, and any other crop that can form a strong and sturdy seedling.
Vegetable seedlings that gardeners can easily transplant into crimped mulch by hand are broccoli, peppers, and tomatoes. Crops like beet or spinach that emerge out of the ground with small leaves can be easily smothered by heavy mulch. For these crops, a gardener should use a flail mower or no-till slicer-planter with opening discs that form a small strip of ground bare for the seedbed.
Low-growing leafy greens, like spinach or lettuce, grow best into a residue-free bed to avoid pieces of old cover crops that can spoil a future salad. Experts recommend using a flail mower for this purpose. It has many pivoting blades that will chop cover crops into small pieces that should then be tilled into the top layer of soil where they’ll be broken down by microbes. This kind of surface cultivation is suitable to no-till gardening because it doesn’t disrupt the soil structure.
Moyer, in his field trials, experimented with a four-wheel tractor with a 10-foot wide roller/crimper in its front and a weighted planter with a slicer attached on the backside. It was found that the system killed the cover crop and immediately planted it into rows formed in the mulch. Thus this equipment proved to be useful for no-till gardens, especially the larger ones.
Even with no-till gardening, the soil becomes compact every few years. To loosen this soil a broadfork is used by Jean-Martin Fortier, a Quebec farmer. According to Fortier, a broadfork gives the gardener the benefits of deep tilling without really tilling the soil.
This tool has tines fitted onto a horizontal bar which is again fitted with a pair of straight long handles. It’s used by pressing the tines into the soil by stepping or even jumping on the bar and swaying the handles back and forth to loosen the soil. A broadfork doesn’t invert the soil, unlike tillage, but instead breaks through compaction.
Another tool is a tractor attachment named a subsoiler which can be considered ‘low-till’. It is to be dragged through the soil 11 inches deep to loosen up the compacted soil.
A tool no-till gardeners will need, useful especially for weed control is a wheel hoe designed to go no deeper than 3 inches.
Rotary Power Harrow
To mix the residue (after shredding cover crops) into the top inch of the soil’s surface, a rotary power harrow can be used as experimented by Fortier. It stirs the soil with tines and levels its surface to prepare it for planting. It excellently conditions the soil for transplants.
How to Do No-Till Gardening?
If a gardener is wondering how to prepare new growing areas without tilling, the good news is that it’s possible. There are various types of no-till gardening. Following are a few steps that are more or less the same in every type of no-till gardening. First off, a gardener just has to clear the area of any debris and rocks.
If there is grass or weeds, the gardener should mow or cut it back to the ground. A few people who transitioned to no-till gardening experience out-of-control weeds which prompts many of them to return to tilling. Here one should note that weeds are common during the first year of no-till gardening.
Actually, weeds are created by nature to fertilize the soil. There will be at least some weeds, no matter whether the soil is healthy or not. However, if the weeds are overabundant, it’s an indication that the soil is low in organic matter and needs nutrition.
In such a case, the gardener should let the garden go for around a year if they can. They should believe in nature’s power to provide the soil with what it needs without having to do much work.
During this period, they should check the garden regularly and chop and drop the weeds. This can be done once a week. This is very essential! If they fail to do this, weeds will disperse their seeds everywhere.
The chopped and dropped weeds will do an important job of fertilizing the soil as they decay. Their decomposing roots will feed beneficial soil organisms.
Another way to deal with weeds and grass grown to such an extent that they are hard to remove is to place a layer of thoroughly wetted cardboard on the ground. The cardboard will act as a barrier to weeds, exhausting and ultimately killing most of them. Once the growing season starts, any weeds that manage to make their way through can be removed much easier.
Growers will also have to kill the weeds between growing areas. For this, they should fill the gaps between these areas with thick cardboards overlapping each other. These cardboards can be later covered with bark chips or hay etc.
Fertilizing the Soil Further with Mulches
If a gardener is planning to start no-till gardening, they should remember to mulch their plants regularly with organic matter. By covering the soil with mulches, a gardener can protect the soil from erosion, trap its moisture and suppress weeds. Furthermore, they rot down and improve the soil structure and add to the fertility of the soil without having to dig the soil. Thus, mulching replaces digging in no-till gardening.
A no-till gardener should replace old mulch as it rots down or blends with the soil. This way the soil will be constantly provided nutrients and will slowly build up. A lot of materials can be used as mulches, including compost, grass clippings, woodchips, sawdust, straw, leafmold, and hay. But one should remember that mulches should be free from weed seeds and should not be self-defeating.
One of the best mulches is chopped herbs of all kinds which also fertilize the soil. Most medicinal or culinary herbs serve the purpose. Especially, dandelion (Taraxicum officinale), Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum), and Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) are considered to be highly potent to offer minerals to the soil essential to plant health.
They are high in phosphorus, calcium, and potassium. Comfrey is high even in magnesium, whereas comfrey and dandelion contain copper and iron.
Growing Cover Crops
If one finds the above method a bit uncomfortable, they can grow a cover crop in place of weeding and mulching. Any annual or winter annual cover crop can work well in a no-till garden. The gardener should choose plants that best suit their soil, environment, and rotation.
Cover crops include small grains like rye, barley, oats, triticale, wheat, and buckwheat, plants like grasses, mustard, brassicas, and non-perennial legumes like field peas, crimson clover, winter peas, forage soybeans, or any annual clover. Cover crops will form mulch after they are killed.
The cover crop mulch should be pretty thick i.e. at least 5,000 pounds (dry matter) per acre, although 8,000 to 10,000 pounds is still better. To kill the cover crops, timing should be chosen carefully. They are easiest to kill when they bloom but have not yet developed seeds.
Adding Organic Matter
Now, gardeners should add well-decayed organic matter to the area. A thick layer of this organic matter will block the light reaching the weeds beneath and suppress their growth. It will also pack the soil with nutrients so that the plants’ roots can thrive.
It should be at least 4” (10cm) thick. This can be compost or manure from a reliable source in which herbicides have not been added.
A few months after this, the grass and weeds beneath this layer will decompose, and earthworms will do the job of blending the organic matter into the soil below.
The gardeners may find the organic matter added to the growing area clumpy at the time of planting. In such a case, they should start seedlings off in pots or trays so that once the root system establishes itself, they can plant them out in their no-till garden. This way they can even space out the plants correctly.
Going Close to Nature
When a gardener uses a no-till gardening method, they are better off with materials that can build soil and are readily available. Expert organic gardeners recommend using woodchips because they have the ability to recycle nutrients just like Mother Nature.
Reportedly, woodchips leach nitrogen from compost and soil while breaking down. However, the amount of nitrogen leached is very low and the effect is very minimal. It’s recommended not to mix woodchips with compost so as to minimize nitrogen depletion. Also, during the planting or sowing time, one can push the woodchips aside, so that the seedlings/young plants are not affected.
In place of woodchips, materials like hay or leafmold can also be used. This top layer slows down evaporation and feeds the soil below continuously. This method minimizes or eliminates the need for additional fertilizers.
With all the above activities, weeds will go on reducing in years to come as nutrients in the soil will increase.
After around a year of weeding and mulching/cover crops, testing the soil is a good idea to find out which nutrients the soil is still lacking.
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Role of Soil Amendments
When a gardener does soil amendments, soil organisms digest them and then make those nutrients available to the plants. Thus, the more soil organisms one attracts, the higher would be the rate of absorption and the fewer amendments one has to purchase.
Therefore one has to perform the step of adding soil amendments after working on fallow soil.
Preparing to Plant
When the gardener is ready to plant, they should poke holes with a digging fork across the garden bed to loosen the soil, enhance drainage and excavate weeds. They should do this gently without turning the soil.
Although the soil should be intact as much as possible, the top few inches will be disturbed a little due to weeding, planting, and harvesting. However, this will allow some aeration without disturbing soil organisms’ habitat.
Over time, plants grown in a no-till garden will be able to better regulate water, and this will enable them to withstand extreme dry or wet periods.
Types of No-Till Gardening
As such, the very basis of no-till gardening is to avoid tilling. Still, there are some variations on the basis of which no-till gardening falls into the following types.
Square Foot Gardening
As one can guess from the name, square foot gardening is a method in which the growing area is divided into 1 ft. x 1 ft. squares, rather than rows in traditional gardening.
Dividing the garden into small squares makes the garden highly organized but simple to maintain, and gives the highest yield possible. This method was invented by Mel Bartholomew, a retired engineer, urban planner, and hobby gardener himself.
Firstly keeping the method limited to dividing the area into small squares, Bartholomew updated this method to creating a 6-inch deep raised bed or frame and filling it with a combination of peat moss, compost, and vermiculite as a planting medium rather than garden soil reinforced with compost. He named this method an ‘all-new square foot garden’.
Thus, the gardener can combine 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 compost, and 1/3 vermiculite to apply this method. The measurement should be by volume and not by weight.
If one has good healthy and fertile soil, they can use the regular square foot gardening method, and if one’s soil is poor, they can apply the all-new square foot gardening. Mel has written informative books on these methods such as “Square Foot Gardening”, “All New Square Foot Gardening” and more.
All new square foot gardening can be used practically anywhere, even in balconies, driveways, or small yards. Also, it’s great for a beginner because it doesn’t need a lot of work or know-how. It also doesn’t need a big yard.
As the name suggests, container gardening is simply growing a garden in containers. Since tilling the ground to grow a garden is not necessary while practicing this method, it’s considered to be a version of no-till gardening. A gardener will just need containers, potting soil, and fertilizer or organic compost.
A container garden saves space and can be created even in balconies and patios. Thus it works well if a person doesn’t have a yard. The gardener can easily monitor the amount of nutrients and fertilizers going to their soil more closely.
Also, the gardener can easily and economically replace the growing medium every season, and thus the need for crop rotation is mitigated. Container gardening is far less labor-intensive than most other types of gardening including standard no-till gardening.
Straw Bale Gardening
Straw bale gardening is an excellent alternative to soil-based gardening. It involves sowing seeds or planting plants directly into bales of straw.
Since this type of gardening requires relatively smaller space and works well even if the soil quality is very poor, it’s getting increasingly popular. Another advantage is that straw creates and retains heat while breaking down, and thus provides a longer growing season.
However, the gardener will have to take the trouble of adding nitrogen to the straw. The nitrogen can be added directly to the bale before planting and that will create a nutrient-rich environment for plants. Also, in order to create a solid planting base, it’s recommended to add a layer of peat-based potting soil on top of the bales.
The best thing about straw bale gardening is that it can help grow almost any crop. The gardener just has to watch out for height because straw bales are not able to support plants that grow too high.
Hence it’s recommended to plant dwarf types of plants. Also, if the gardener wants to grow root vegetables, it’s recommended to reinforce the straw bales with wire mesh supports as these vegetables will otherwise sink into the bale.
Lasagna Gardening/Sheet Mulching
Sheet mulching is an extremely popular no-till gardening method because it’s known for turning barren soil into fertile healthy soil. Also known as lasagna gardening, it’s a great type of no-till gardening for small spaces and is named after the layering technique used in it. Although there are a few variations in the technique, lasagna gardening has the following general formula:
- Laying a layer of cardboard and/or newspaper (not of plastic): Some gardeners who have practiced no-till gardening for several years are of opinion that laying cardboard/newspapers is not absolutely crucial. One can even skip this step and create a good no-till garden.
- Laying a layer of organic materials for absorbing and retaining moisture: These organic materials include grass clippings, straw, or wood chips. The gardener can use any one of these or mix all of them but the layer should be 2 to 4 inches thick.
- Laying a layer of organic materials to add nutrients: These materials include compost and animal-based organic fertilizers. This layer should be very thick i.e. 4 to 8 inches. Closer to 8 inches is recommended.
- Mulching: One can use a natural material of their choice for mulching. Mulching should be repeated every year.
- Watering the compost and laying a light layer of fertilizer: The purpose of this layer is to help break down the organic matter so as to release nutrients.
- Planting a light layer of a low-maintenance cover crop: The purpose of this layer is to prevent the erosion of soil over winter and develop healthy soil so that by the next spring, the gardener will get a nutrient-rich light soil that they won’t have to till or dig to prepare it for planting. They just have to kill the cover crop and start sowing or planting. Some good cover crops are cowpea, clover, oats, buckwheat, tillage radish, and winter rye.
No-Till Mulched Garden
When a gardener has great soil but just wants to shift to no-till gardening, mulching is a great way to do that. This means that they just have to cover their existing healthy soil with a thick layer of mulch and eliminate the need for tilling. This method was invented by Ruth Stout around a century ago but is effective to date.
Some mulching materials are woodchips, old hay (this should be seedless), grass clippings, or any other organic matter. For a wet climate, it’s recommended to use compost as it prevents slugs from hiding in the mulch, whereas woodchips are recommended for a dry climate.
A sheet mulched garden (lasagna garden) will turn into a mulched garden over time. Mulch should be added every year to maintain the effect of no-tilling. But every year, one will need less and less mulch. However, it’s important to keep the soil covered.
Bag planting is particularly helpful in areas where the soil is of very poor quality. It’s also great for gardeners who wish to have a no-till garden in spring, but have failed to prepare a garden during the previous fall. The only difference between bag planting and traditional no-till gardening is that in bag planting plants are planted into bags of organic soil enriched with fertilizers. Thus gardeners can have their spring garden but they just have to add compost after the first season to enrich the soil.
The principles and aim of bag planting too are the same as that of the standard no-till gardening – creating a nutrient-rich soil base without tilling and damaging the available soil.
Things needed for bag planting are cardboard/newspaper and bags filled with fertilizer-enriched organic potting soil which should be at least 2 cubic feet in volume. Following are the steps to create a bag garden.
- Laying a layer of cardboard sheets or newspapers in the desired garden area: If one is going to use newspapers, they should use several sheets for each layer. They should also make holes in the sheeting material 4 inches apart. This will allow the circulation of air and moisture. This is important because, without the holes, a sodden, dirty lump could be created.
- Placing unopened bags of potting soil over the sheets: The bags should be spaced as required, depending upon the type of plants to be grown. Gardeners should keep some space between them so as to enable them to walk through the garden.
- Opening the bags: Now the gardener should cut the plastic on the top of the bags and expose the soil inside. This will be the garden. Gardeners should make holes at the bottom of the bags with a screwdriver. There should be around ten holes for each bag. The sheeting material beneath the bags should be punctured as well.
- Planting: Now the gardeners should sow seeds or plant seedlings and fertilize them as usual. At this stage, it’s recommended to add a layer of mulch on the top of each bag for retaining moisture and discouraging weed growth.
- Removing the plastic bags after the final harvest of the season: Gardeners should just cut down the sides of each bag and pull them out gently from under the soil. Now they should spread a layer of mulch over the soil to lay it down for the winter. The cardboard/newspaper sheeting beneath the bags should completely disintegrate by the next spring.
- Starting no-till gardening in the traditional way: Since bag planting is useful in areas with very poor soil, it needs heavy layers of nutrient-rich compost and fertilizers to be added before planting. However, after a few seasons, a healthy, light, nutrient-rich soil ideal for growing all types of plants is created in which the gardener can start a traditional no-till garden.
No-Till Gardening for Any Garden
No-till gardening can be applied to gardens of any size. One can practice it even on beds not wider than 4 feet (1.2m) which will eliminate the need of stepping on the soil inside due to which the soil is protected from being compacted. This further reduces the need of a spade.
No-till gardening is highly useful to eliminate weed growth as mulches weaken weeds by smothering them. Also, since the gardener is not digging, weed seeds in the lower layers of soil cannot come to the surface to germinate. This too saves a gardener’s time.
No-till gardening is kinder on the soil the gardener grows in, the crops they grow, and their back too.
Benefits of No-Till Gardening
No-till gardening is beneficial simply because it assists Mother Nature in her work instead of disrupting it. Since the gardener goes with nature, the health and fertility of their garden increase. Here are the benefits of no-till gardening in short.
- The closer a garden to nature, the simpler it is to grow and maintain. The longer a gardener has a no-till garden, the less are the pest and disease issues. Beneficial organisms increase over time and a natural balance increases and keep the garden healthy.
- Research has shown that no-till gardening increases fertility, vitality, biological diversity, water retention capacity, resilience, nutrient cycling, organic matter content, and crop yield of the soil as compared to tilled soil.
- The natural soil structure remains intact. For example, air pores are important in the soil structure to reduce soil compaction and water runoff and thus to reduce the requirement of water to plants.
- The established useful fungal, microbial, and mycorrhizal network within the soil is maintained so that their beneficial work is continued. On the contrary, tilling can completely stop the microbial activity within the soil.
- No-till gardening allows the roots left in place to decompose over time, and thus providing organic matter and nutrients to microorganisms, detritus-eaters, and worms in the soil which then feed the plants.
- No-till gardening saves the gardener’s time and physical labor. Preparing beds and planting new crops becomes remarkably easier with no-till gardening.
Considering all the goodness of no-till gardening, the gardeners should try this method to improve and maintain the health of the soil and thereby the environment.