Many people hear about the ecological benefits of the no-till garden and want to give it a try. They figure that without the tilling, they will surely save time and have less work to do. While this can be true in the long term, transitioning to a successful no-till garden will require replacing the tilling with a few other habits to get started off right. Here’s how to make that transition with the least amount of headache.
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Transitioning to the No-Till Way of Thinking
Tilling and no-till gardening encompass different ways of thinking about land management. Tilling is used to break up and loosen soil, turn up weeds, and quickly incorporate soil amendments. As long as the soil is loose and free of weeds, something should grow!
One reason why many people switch to the no-till method, however, is because they want to take advantage of the soil-building benefits of soil organisms such as worms, which would otherwise be killed in the action of tilling. In natural gardens, these beneficial soil organisms do much of the work to keep soil healthy, loose, and full of organic matter. Tilling also destroys fungal networks which–along with the sticky exudates of soil organisms–hold soil together like glue so it can’t blow away in the wind and wash away in the rain.
Another reason why many people move away from tilling is because humus–the organic component of soil that is necessary for plant life–is destroyed when it is tilled and exposed to air, which means more soil amendments need to be added to compensate for what nature would have done for free. Soil organism habitat is destroyed as well.
Much like the health of a human can be determined by the number of beneficial gut organisms, the health of the soil can be determined by the number of beneficial soil organisms. Both human health and that of the soil can be improved by focusing on this one aspect.
The primary question we need to ask when transitioning to the no-till garden is: How do I attract, support, and protect beneficial soil organisms?
You’ll want to encourage them to take up residence in your new no-till garden and multiply. It may take a couple of years.
The No-Till Transition: Fertilize the Soil
I’ve had quite a few people tell me about their struggle of transitioning to a no-till garden. They reported out-of-control weeds, which prompted many of them ultimately to return to tilling because it just didn’t seem worth it. They didn’t know to ask How do I attract, support, and protect beneficial soil organisms?
Out-of-control weeds are common in the first year post-tilling. Although it is common, it is certainly stressful, and I believe that anyone proclaiming no-till is the answer should also be educating on what to expect and offer essential tips for returning soil to a manageable state.
When weeds exist in heavy numbers, they are trying to do the job that nature has set out for them: Fertilize the soil. Now, to be sure, there will always be weeds to some extent, healthy garden or not. But an overabundance of weeds are an indication that soil lacks organic matter and needs nutrition.
If you can stomach it, let the garden go for a year. Take advantage of nature’s ability to give the soil what it needs without much work on your part. Check on the garden once a week, chopping and dropping the weeds. Chopping and dropping is very important! Otherwise, the weeds will set seeds everywhere. The chopped-and-dropped weeds will fertilize the soil as they decompose. Their decaying roots will feed beneficial soil organisms.
If letting the garden go like this makes you uneasy, consider growing a cover crop for the season instead. See below for details on cover crops.
When I’m ready to plant in the bed, I use a digging fork to poke holes throughout the garden bed to loosen the soil, improve drainage, and excavate the weeds gently without turning the soil. It is much less work than weeding with my hand tools.
The texture of no-till garden soil will be different than that of a tilled bed. It will be more dense, like chocolate cake, which everybody likes!
Although with the no-till method we want to leave the soil intact as much as possible, it is common for the top few inches of a no-till garden to be gently disturbed for weeding, planting, and harvesting. This activity allows a bit of aeration without destroying soil organism habitat or beneficial fungal networks.
Note: Loosening the soil with a digging fork is only necessary in vegetable gardens, and should not be used around perennials such as fruit trees or asparagus. For perennials, continue to practice chop-and-drop with the weeds and the other tips in this article, without disturbing the soil.
In time, your no-till-grown plants–with the help of fungal networks–will better regulate water usage, making them better able to withstand super wet or dry periods.
After a year of allowing weeds, cover crops, and/or herbs to fertilize the soil, a soil test can determine which nutrients your soil is still lacking, and you might be interested in purchasing store-bought soil amendments. It’s important to note that soil amendments are digested by soil organisms, who then make those nutrients available to the plants. The more soil organisms you attract, the fewer amendments you need to purchase because you’ll have a higher rate of absorption.
That is why it is best to improve the soil with organic matter first–attracting beneficial organisms–before testing the soil and purchasing amendments.
Industrial agriculture hasn’t learned this lesson yet. Synthetic fertilizers are consistently over-applied–even with highly technical calculations and equipment–because the value of soil organisms hasn’t been recognized, and industrial soils lack the soil life to properly digest what has been applied. The undigested fertilizer then washes away in the rain, contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and other problematic water quality issues.
All of these activities will help attract soil organisms and help to balance things out so that weeds are fewer in years to come.
The No-Till Transition: Support Healthy Soil
There are two ways we can support healthy soil in the no-till garden. The first way is crop rotation. Through tilling, soil diseases and pests are exposed to the air and elements, thereby reducing their viability. In no-till gardens, however, where the soil is not disturbed regularly, diseases and pests can persist. To combat this, you will want to keep good garden notes and rotate your crops each year, especially after a pest or disease outbreak.
Because your soil will be healthier in general–with those increased numbers of beneficial soil organisms to promote overall health and the digestion of nutrients–you’ll already be setting your garden up for success.
The second way to support healthy soil in the no-till garden is through winter cover crops. Cover crops will not only protect the soil as a mulch, they will also fertilize the soil with nitrogen and other micronutrients, as well as attract soil organisms. Choose non-grass-type cover crops (such as crimson clover), since grasses need tilled under and are not well-suited to the hand-tended garden. This is not essential every year, but it can help improve the health of your soil after years of tilling.
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The No-Till Transition: Protect the Soil
The first rule of protecting the soil in a no-till garden is: Don’t walk in the beds. While in the tilled garden the soil is loosened every year mechanically, the only way to keep soil loose for planting in the no-till garden is by avoiding compaction. Compaction destroys beneficial soil organisms, their tunnels that allow air and water to infiltrate the soil, and the naturally loose, crumbly texture of healthy soil.
To keep from walking in the beds, I highly recommend building permanent garden beds and pathways to avoid having to start from square one each year building up soil. In permanent beds, simply continue to improve their fertility year after year. This saves time, too.
The second way to protect garden soil is by adding organic matter–lots of it, as often as you can. To read more about what kinds of organic matter to add, see the resources section below.
The third way to protect soil in the no-till garden is to mulch. Mulching shades the soil (habitat for the beneficial soil organisms) and reduces the germination of weed seeds. I mulch between the rows of veggies, avoiding contact with the stems of plants. I use grass clippings and leaf mulch because that’s what I have the most of. Wood chips are an excellent topping. Just be sure to keep them on top of the soil as a mulch and away from plant stems. Do not mix them into the soil as an amendment, since this can reduce your garden’s vigor. Rather, allow wood chips to compost naturally into soil. In the winter, try mulching with shredded leaves.
Keep in mind that lighter mulches are beneficial in wet areas, while heavier mulches are more beneficial in dry areas.
Here is a resource for farmers who are transitioning their fields from till to no-till. It has a lot of farmer jargon in it, but you might find some useful information relevant to the home garden. One of their suggestions is to use manure for nitrogen fertilizer, but be sure you know the source well because many manures are laced with herbicides due to the animals feeding on pastures or hay that was sprayed with herbicide. These herbicides will persist in the manure, damage healthy soil, and stunt the growth of your veggie plants.
Yes, sadly, most straw or hay is also laced with herbicides. I found this out the hard way and spent years nursing my soil back to health. Do yourself a favor and make your own compost and mulch! If you listen to podcasts, this one is excellent about sourcing free, safe soil amendments.
Make your own homemade compost from your own non-sprayed yard waste and chemical-free kitchen scraps and coffee grounds. Homemade worm compost is an essential amendment in my garden (or purchase organic worm castings) and will absolutely help your gardens soar.
What if I have a large garden? How can I possibly prepare all of my beds without the tiller?
Tilling was meant to be used in large-scale agricultural operations to make spring soil preparation more manageable for those whose livelihoods depend on it. It is certainly understandable to worry that caring for a large no-till garden may be too much work, but only you can decide for yourself. I’ve become so accustomed to my routine of caring for my no-till garden and building a relationship with the organisms in my soil that I can’t imagine chopping them up! But everyone deals with challenges, and time is certainly a challenge that many of us face. Good luck in making the decision that is right for you.
How do I start a new no-till garden on hardpan soil?
The idea of starting a new garden without turning the soil seems kind of impossible, doesn’t it? There are two ways we can use to get started with a new bed. The first is the traditional method of tilling. Making that first deep till to get a garden bed started for the first time is called primary tillage. While I try to avoid tilling at all costs, if you really want to, a first pass with the tiller will be fine. Follow that tillage immediately with all of the practices mentioned in this article, especially adding as much of your homemade compost, worm castings, and other organic matter as you can.
The method that I use to start new beds in the ground is called sheet mulching. Rather than tilling down into the existing soil, sheet mulching builds on top of it by layering new “sheets” of organic matter. A digging fork aerates the hardpan soil before covering it with cardboard and layering it on top with organic matter. You can read more about the details of sheet mulching here. In just a few short months, the soil organisms will have come in to help break down the sheets, churn the new soil amendments into the existing soil, and begin to turn the hardpan soil soft and chocolate cake-like. Add more organic matter as often as you can during the first few years especially.
For both methods, it’s important to remember that the main focus is on attracting, supporting, and protecting beneficial soil organisms. This process won’t happen overnight. The first year of a new garden bed rarely produces abundantly or is pest-/disease-free because the soil organisms aren’t settled yet in this new home you’ve created for them. Continue to ask how you can support their population growth, and you will be on your way to having a successful garden in the long run.
The No-Till Garden into the Future
Although the no-till garden is simply trading one activity (tilling) for another (supporting healthy soil), I believe you will get more joy and satisfaction out of observing your garden and learning how to fertilize, support, and protect your soil. Respect it as a living, breathing organism made up of billions of micro-organisms (like humans) and you’ll be on your way to having a successful, abundant garden.
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Have you transitioned to a no-till garden? What has your experience been like?