Have you heard about the ecological benefits of the no-till garden? Replace your old habits with these essential steps for a successful transition.
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When I wanted to create gardens in my 0.10-acre yard years ago, I couldn’t find any research to support tilling in my small space. I found research that supported tilling for large-scale agriculture, as well as high-production market farms.
But it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense for a tiny, sloping yard with obstacles such as trees and chunks of concrete in the soil (from a previous owner’s filled-in pool).
Years later, I’m glad I didn’t till the soil. Instead, I had a front row seat to watch the gradual development of a living ecosystem that was created by partnering with the soil.
Transitioning to the No-Till Mindset
Does the no-till garden save time? Many gardeners think that without the task of tilling, they’ll surely have less work to do. While true in the long run, a successful transition requires a few other habits to start off right.
These no-till habits require a shift in mindset about land management.
Tilling is used to break up and loosen soil, turn up weeds, and quickly incorporate soil amendments. The thinking is that as long as the soil is loose and free of weeds, something should grow!
However, tilling destroys fungal networks and the sticky exudates of soil organisms that hold soil together.
Tilling also destroys humus, the organic component of soil that is necessary for plant life. This results in the need to add more soil amendments to compensate for what nature would have done for free.
Many people switch to the no-till method because they want to take advantage of the soil-building benefits of soil microorganisms. These beneficial soil organisms do the work to keep soil healthy, loose, and full of organic matter. (See: 7 Ways to Improve Soil Quality)
The following actions will encourage soil microorganisms to take up residence in your garden and multiply.
However, just to set the record straight, it won’t be an overnight phenomenon. It may actually take a few years before you start to notice the full benefits.
Would you like to grow more food with less effort? Check out my mini guide, The Permaculture Inspired Vegetable Garden.
No Till Gardening, Step 1: Fertilize the Soil With Weeds
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 to ultimately return to tilling because it just didn’t seem worth it.
Although alarming, it’s important to note that weeds are common in the first year after stopping tilling.
Weeds are simply 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.
See: 5 Weeds You Want in Your Garden
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. This is a very important step! 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.
No Till Gardening, Step 2: Fertilize the Soil With Herbs
After weeding, mulch heavily with chopped herbs of all kinds (check out the article about this at Herbal Academy). Herbs also fertilize soil. Comfrey is a good example, but most culinary or medicinal herbs work well.
See: 7 Comfrey Uses in the Permaculture Garden
If letting the garden go like this makes you uneasy, grow a cover crop instead of weeding and mulching. Here’s a resource for choosing non-grass-type cover crops for the no-till garden.
After a year of allowing weeds, cover crops, and/or herbs to fertilize the soil, perform a soil test. This will determine which nutrients, if any, your soil is still lacking.
Soil amendments are digested by soil organisms, who then make those nutrients available to the plants. Therefore, the more soil organisms you attract, the higher the rate of absorption, and the fewer amendments you need to purchase.
That’s why adding soil amendments is a step that comes after managing fallow soil.
Industrial agriculture hasn’t learned this lesson yet. Synthetic fertilizers are consistently over-applied—even with highly technical calculations and equipment. That’s because industrial soils lack the soil life to properly digest what has been applied.
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 the above activities will balance things out so that weeds are fewer in years to come.
No Till Gardening, Step 3: Prepare to Plant
When you’re ready to plant, 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 hand tools.
Although you want to leave the soil intact as much as possible, the top few inches will be gently disturbed for weeding, planting, and harvesting. This activity allows a bit of aeration without destroying soil organism habitat or beneficial fungal networks.
In time, your no-till-grown plants will better regulate water, enabling them to withstand super wet or dry periods.
Tired of generic permaculture design advice that you can’t apply to your specific goals? If so, check out my Permaculture Design Program and get the tools and support needed to create and implement your own permaculture design.
No Till Gardening: 5 Ways to Support and Protect Healthy Soil
#1: Practice Crop Rotation
Through tilling, soil diseases and pests are exposed to the air and elements, thereby reducing their viability.
On one hand, the thriving soil ecology in a no till garden can reduce the chance of any one organism (i.e., pest) becoming a problem. However, because the soil is not disturbed regularly, diseases and pests that do show up, can persist.
To combat this, keep good garden notes and rotate crops each year, especially after a pest or disease outbreak.
Your soil will already be healthier with increased numbers of beneficial soil organisms, but this is one more way to set your garden up for success.
#2: Sow Cover Crops
Cover crops protect the soil as a mulch, fertilize the soil with nitrogen and other micronutrients, and attract soil organisms. Because you won’t be tilling the cover crop under before planting in the spring, it’s important to select cover crops that are killed by winter frost or that are short-lived.
- Try clay-busting plants!
- Buckwheat, daikon radish, and millet are a few examples.
Learn more about cover crops for no till systems from the Rodale Institute. In addition, Anna Hess covers the topic thoroughly in her book, Homegrown Humus: Cover Crops in a No-till Garden.
Cover crops can help improve the health of your soil after years of tilling.
#3: Avoid Walking in the Beds
In a tilled garden, the soil is loosened every year mechanically. To keep soil loose in the no-till garden, however, you need to avoid 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.
Build permanent garden beds and pathways to avoid having to walk in the beds or de-compact the previous year’s pathways.
In permanent beds, simply continue to improve their fertility year after year. This saves time, too!
#4: Add Organic Matter
Add organic matter—lots of it, as often as you can.
- Make your own homemade compost. Learn 6 ways to build a compost bin as well as how to keep herbicides out of your compost (even if you don’t use herbicides yourself).
- Homemade worm compost is an essential amendment in my garden. Learn to make your own or purchase organic worm castings.
#5: Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
Mulching shades the soil (habitat for the beneficial soil organisms) and reduces the germination of weed seeds. Mulch between 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 on top of the soil. In the winter, try mulching with shredded leaves. (See: Mulching in the Permaculture Garden)
No Till Gardening into the Future
At first, the no-till garden is simply trading one activity (tilling) for another (supporting a soil ecosystem). However, you’ll get more joy and satisfaction out of learning how to fertilize, support, and protect your soil.
Respect the role of microorganisms and you’ll be on your way to having a successful, abundant garden!
Have you transitioned to a no till garden? What has your experience been like?
- How to Improve Clay Soil in 6 Steps
- How to Keep Herbicides Out of Your Compost Bin
- Growing Comfrey in the Permaculture Garden
>>> Get my free 19-page Guide to Organic Soil Amendments for more ideas:
Great post Amy! We do a no-till garden and you’ve really covered the important information here – wish I’d had this years ago when we transitioned to no-till!
Yay! Thanks Lesa! Congrats on getting a no-till garden off and running!
Thank you for this article! I was overrun by weeds this summer and felt defeated in my gardening efforts. I now know this is a result of no-tilling this year since I’ve started companion planting. It’s so good to know there’s a reason for the weeds! You’ve restored my confidence so I can happily plan next years garden. Before I read your article, I was dreading it, thinking I was doing something horribly wrong. It turns out, those weeds were a sign of doing something right!
Weeds can certainly make a mess of things in the short term, can’t they? I hope they help your garden improve in the long run. Keep us updated on whether your garden changes and improves in upcoming years!
Alex M says
Thank you for saying it was OK for a one time till of heavy clay soil. We purchased 100 acres that was conventionally farmed and drilled for over 20 years so needless to say the “soil” is severely compacted and is a heavy clay soil. I want to do no till but realistically I think I will have to start with a till and then this fall implement a cover crop….would you recommend doing an off season till in January with heavy addition of additives like the leaves and manure or do you find it best to wait until warmer weather to till and amend? I am considering tilling and amending now as I live in zone 7A and have some unseasonably warmer weather currently…?
I wouldn’t till ground that’s frozen or oversaturated by rain. Farmers are typically hard-pressed to get crops going in the spring, so tilling may culturally happen before it really should. For healthy soil, I’d wait until ground is moist and pliable, but not saturated. Then add your amendments. Adding amendments sooner, when spring rains are on the horizon, can result in nutrient leaching.
Many state laws include these common agricultural prohibitions, which reduces runoff from farm fields and helps to keep waterways clean. Plus, you don’t want all of your hard work and valuable nutrients to wash away!
Larry Beauchamp says
Started my no till last year by using leaves in the rows as a starter about a foot deep right on top of the ground and have added grass clippings, straw and manure and more leaves in layers. I made walking rows between by laying down cardboard and old newspapers and topping with about 6″ of woodchips. I have noticed a very large population of HUGE worms in the rows and am anxious to plant in it! I also noticed it really holds the moisture well. I just wished it was a faster process.
That sounds like a great plan, and that the worms agree! I wish it could be a faster process, too. The only thing that comes to mind about helping the process go faster is to use shredded rather than whole leaves. They will decompose faster, unless they are oak leaves…which take forever regardless. In general though, I agree it would be nice to speed it up a bit 🙂
Virginia Anderson says
I have taken over my daughter’s 30′ x 50′ garden and had an amazing crop. Her garden has been tilled since they came close to 30 years ago. I have started a garden area which is essentially no till (without me knowing it) that will be very interesting to incorporate your methods. This year I have done some leaf mulching and plan to do more in the fall. Question, how do we conquer quack grass with this method?
Your and your daughter’s gardens sound great!
Oh, the dreaded quack grass. Sheet mulching might be your best bet–covering it with cardboard and then topping it with organic matter. This should smother it. Is the quack grass invading the garden from the lawn area? If so, the other thing you will need to do is create an edge between your garden and the lawn that creates a buffer. In my garden, I did this by making an 18-inch wide walkway between my garden and the grass by laying down cardboard and topping it with wood chips. It does take some maintenance to keep that pathway. Every couple of years I re-sheet mulch it with cardboard and fresh wood chips because as they break down, the grass sneaks in.
You could also look for rhizome barrier edging to line your garden beds with. Quack grass roots shouldn’t reach deeper than about 8 inches.
Margaret @ Pure Pearl Homestead says
This fall I covered my entire garden with an old moldy alfalfa bale and am not going to till it in the spring. I’ve decided to try this because almost the only thing my garden grew last year was weeds and the mulch will hopefully help with that. Not to mention the soil is a scary sight and I’m hoping to get the microorganisms and worms back! Thanks for the additional ideas and motivation!
I love that idea! One piece of advice about alfalfa–most of it is genetically modified and sprayed with herbicide as it grows, which–when added to your garden, can transfer the herbicide to your soil and stunt growth in plants. It’s so sad we have to think about these concerns, but I would look for an organic source. I hope I’m not the bearer of bad news–I’m sure your garden is going to be great 🙂
What about straw? I’ve been using straw to mulch for several years now, and never thought about it potentially being full of chemicals.
Yes, unfortunately straw and hay both are likely to be laced with herbicides. It’s sad, but it’s essential to find a source that specifically grows chemical free.
There are two riding schools in my village, can I trust the straw and leftover hay from there? Horses sometimes eat the straw too, so it should be pesticide free right? ( I live in central Europe)
I wouldn’t assume that because the horses eat the straw it’s free of pesticides. I can’t speak for your location in Europe, but here in the U.S., pesticide-free straw is rare and hard to find. Best to ask questions about where the straw comes from and try to contact the grower directly. It seems silly… until you’ve experienced a damaged garden.
The green bean herbicide test is an easy identifier of herbicides. Start several green bean seeds in a bit of soil topped with a sampling of the straw/hay. Water well and see how they grow. Click on the link in my comment above for more details.
This fall I cover cropped four of my raised veg. beds with crimson clover. You indicated that this type of cover crop does not require turning under in the spring, although that is what has been recommended to me by a nurseryman. My thought was to cut it back and then plant transplants directly into the beds, continuing to use the clover as a mulch. Would like to know your thoughts please.
I love this idea! I did the same thing a couple of years ago. What I discovered is that the clover tended to smother out the transplants that I had planted. In other beds, I left the clover in between the rows, but carved the clover out of the planting rows by breaking it up with the digging fork. These beds did much better and all of the plants seemed to have enough room for root growth. Let me know how it goes for you!
Janet Pesaturo says
Wonderful post, Amy. I’ve been gardening for over 30 years, and when I started, I don’t think anyone was talking about n0-till. Tilling was so ingrained in me, that it has taken several years for me to gradually lay that mentality aside. We don’t till anymore, we just pull the weeds and mulch, sometimes with compost, and sometimes with dirty hay litter from our chicken runs which hasn’t been composted yet. Either one works wonders for our garden. Once the weeds start popping up again, I periodically scratch the surface with a hoe to disrupt them. This routine seems to work well, and most years we get a good yield of most crops.
It sounds like you have a great system! I’m curious about the hay you use in your chicken runs. I’ve read reports (and sadly experienced it on my homestead) that most hay and straw anymore contains residues of the herbicide aminopyralid, which could be toxic to livestock and stunt growth in plants. I was just curious if you have found a source for herbicide-free hay in your area, or if you have heard of this problem? It seems widespread in mine.
“…the Sioux brave remarked while watching a farmer turning under virgin prairie grass, “wrong side up!” ~~~in ‘Altars of Unknown Stone’ by Wes Jackson
Love it 🙂
I read this post last week and wanted to let you know we raked leaves into a pile, and chopped them with our lawn mower, which worked great! They looked great too. Now, instead of piling all the autumn leaves in the compost bin, we will start incorporating them into the gardens. Thanks!
How exciting! Thanks for the feedback and I hope you will keep me updated on how your garden is growing 🙂
Paul Torcivia says
What is the maximum percentage of compost that can be used in a garden? Is 100% ok? Compost – in this case is from totally decomposed leaves – compost is a dark brown – no remnants of leaves visible. I have a very very large supply.
Leaf compost–or leaf mold–is an excellent soil amendment, and I would be excited to have a large supply of it. Leaf mold can improve the water-retaining capabilities of garden soil, holding around 5 times its weight in water. It is also high in minerals. Leaf mold will attract beneficial soil organisms and help to balance soil pH. To answer your question: There isn’t consensus among soil scientists about whether or not you could successfully grow in 100% leaf mold. I think success would vary depending on what kind of native soil lies below the leaf mold, your local climate, and what you intend to grow.
In my opinion, it would be a worthwhile experiment. Here are some things to think about: If you live in a wet climate or typically have a wet spring, the water retaining trait of leaf compost might encourage mold or fungus problems in plants. In this case, I would keep leaf compost away from the stems of plants to reduce exposure and go light on mulch. Leaf mold mixed with a nitrogen source such as manure might help to improve and balance the nutrient content for successful planting.
Good luck! Let me know how it goes!
I have recently bought a new house and moved so that means a new garden to plan! The only sunny spot is in my front yard so I want to make sure my garden is maintained and beautiful. I used the no till method at my last garden and loved it. Unfortunately, I have to deal with a sinking concrete sidewalk that runs through the middle of two grassy mounds in my front yard. Husband and I hope to remove the sidewalk and level out the mounds. I’ve been worried about disturbing the soil too much – he thinks I’m a quack for caring! I am leaning towards building raised beds but I have found that landscaping with edibles can be so beautiful. What is a gardening girl to do?
How awesome that you’re considering gardening in the front yard! I think removing the sidewalk before starting a garden will be a good idea so you don’t have to disturb them if you decide to take it out later.
You’ll have to disturb the soil to remove the sidewalk, but I don’t think I would worry too much about that. It sounds like maybe your front yard soil was under-appreciated by the former owners and could use some TLC, so starting over by sheet mulching over the former sidewalk and leveled mound areas will probably do great.
As far as raised beds vs. edible landscaping, that is a hard choice. I love landscaped beds with rock borders–they are so quaint. However, it might be beneficial to have at least one small raised bed for garlic and/or root vegetables, since digging them up can disturb an unmortared rock wall. Here are some of my edible landscaping ideas.
Good luck and let me know how it turns out 🙂
I’ve had my veggies in the open front yard for years. I’ve been told by neighbors that people check on it daily! It’s been a conversation starter with passersby and kids love eating a tomato off the fine and talking about the garden. I highly recommend front yard gardening!!
Mike Davis says
I’m 74 years old and a shrinking 5’5″ tall, so by necessity, I’m a “lazy” gardener. Many years ago, I made the mistake of using a rototiller in my garden, thus damaging my soil in three ways: destroying its structure, killing a high percentage of its beneficial micro-organisms, and eventually creating a compacted soil layer just below the depth the tiller could reach. I find the use of a broadfork for larger areas or a simple digging fork for smaller ones actually easier on my aging body than wrestling with a tiller. GREAT article with one possible exception: it’s hard to keep from incorporating some wood chips into garden soil when using a fork, and doing so “borrows” too much nitrogen from the soil, so I believe it’s best to avoid using them on planted beds. It’s easier to keep sheet mulch such as newspaper on top until it breaks down, and this is also best for reducing weed problems.
Good tip with the wood chips–they are tricky to deal with in the vegetable garden. You are certainly an inspiration! I love my digging fork but hope to get a broadfork sometime.
Great info! i am curious about what you use on your paths – cardboard and woodchips on all? I would like a sort of living mulch, but so far haven’t found anything that will stay put in the paths without migrating to the beds.
White clover is probably the best living mulch for garden paths, in my opinion. If you aren’t using raised beds and don’t want it migrating into your beds, then you’ll want to use edging.
I use cardboard and woodchips, but it will need some weeding and because it breaks down, I needed to reapply every couple of years. That is more labor-intensive than throwing down more clover seeds in bare spots 🙂
I am rereading this article this spring. This is a similar question as one above. I am interesting in doing more with cover crops. If I would plant the clover as you suggested or I’m thinking of fava beans, what do I do with those when they’re done growing? Can I just “chop and drop” or will they regrow? I wouldn’t want them to interfere with other plants in my garden bed but would like the nutrition they offer. Should I cut them back and throw the tops in my compost? Pull them out of the ground completely and compost?
In my opinion, the best way to handle a cover crop in the spring is to cut it back at the soil line, leaving the crop residue on top of the soil. Wait a couple of days, then use a digging fork to break up the roots and incorporate the green matter into the soil. Let it sit for about 3 weeks before planting. Doing this will give your soil all of the benefits of the cover crop–nitrogen, micronutrients, and increased soil life.
Another solution is to map out where your planting rows will be and just cut/loosen in those areas, allowing the cover crop to continue to grow in between the rows to get a crop or provide a living mulch.
Cindy Eby says
Cardboard is unacceptable in an organic garden. I called a couple of manufacturers and they would not tell me their “proprietary” ingredients, but each manufacturer said that there are chemicals that will persist in soil and that should not be used near food crops.
You are certainly entitled to not use cardboard in your garden if you don’t want to. Thanks for sharing this info so other people can make a decision for themselves.
Chemicals can persist in the soil but not be bioavailable to plants (meaning plants may not take in these chemicals or be affected by them). Healthy soil and soil organisms will act as filters. As one of my permaculture teachers, Dave Jacke, taught me, sending my cardboard away b/c it might not be totally pure is outsourcing my own participation in society’s poor choices. Personally I still use cardboard as a weed blocker in my own garden and have had great success with it, but we are all free to make our own decisions.
This is a WONDERFUL article!! I’ve always hardened using no dig or lasagne methods, purely because my 80 yo step father told me he grew this way and his garden is wonderful!
Looking to the future and more self sustaining crop growing, I will do the same. The aim is that no matter how big the garden, I will not be digging my soil!
I’ve used the mulched leaves in the same way a previous commentator mentioned and it worked well… Have tried using newspaper and was worried about the ink and dyes; while cardboard has the most heinous smell… smells like rotten potatoes. I have a very large lot and am a retiree ergo I need this method. Thank goodness it works. My growing season isn’t very long, but last summer some rogue tomato seedlings grew along the edge of my composting area and made the ones in my garden beds look like they were neglected! This summer the lasagne method is going to transform my tomato garden. Your page is an affirmation of the observations I’ve made myself, over the years. I enjoy reading it and look forward to future posts.
I love hearing how others are using these methods–what has worked and what hasn’t. Thanks for sharing your experience!
Sarah Torres says
Hi. Can you lay out when and how much it’s consider okay or necessary to dig the soil in a no-till garden? For example,you’ve mentioned digging up cover crop and incorporating it into the soil and I believe a few other instances of digging in your answers. I’ve got a grass-covered area and want to build the soil for a year before planting. I’d rathere not use sheets. How do I get compost worked into the soil? Thanks for your help!
So here’s the thing: We know that less soil disturbance is good for the local ecology, so we want to approach soil maintenance with care. However, annuals of all kinds (including vegetables) thrive in disturbed soil. It’s what we call a catch-22 🙂 We want to strike that fine balance between awesome, primo garden soil, and being good ecological gardeners. In nature, the soil would only be disturbed once–maybe from a tree falling in the forest, a fire, flood, or some other natural event that exposes bare soil. Then nature quickly covers the soil with “weeds” and other plants. Slowly over time, nature will add more plants. So the best solution is for us all to plant perennials–plant them once and then never disturb the soil again!
But that’s not as much fun.
We keep our garden soil in a disturbed state so we can grow vegetables. Without a little bit of disturbance–such as poking holes throughout the bed with a digging fork to lightly loosen and aerate–our vegetables will have a hard time germinating and taking root.
When I use the digging fork, I use an up-and-down motion to poke holes and loosen. I use this same motion if I’m loosening the roots of a cover crop or incorporating compost or another amendment. It’s different than a digging motion like you would use with a shovel. I don’t want to turn the soil. Does that make sense? 🙂
I have a very large garden surrounded by quack grass. I really want to start the no till method this spring. But I just can not figure out how I would keep out that grass. I think putting down layers of sheet mulch around the perimeter would take me half the summer! Also, I have tried that in one area. Putting down a good layer of cardboard followed by a good 5 or 6 inches of wood chips on a walking area around my raspberries at the edge of the garden. By the end of that first summer I was already pulling grass that was coming in. So I think I would have to do the whole perimeter ever year really thick and it still would not fully keep it out. I wonder if mowing quack grass reduces its vigor for spreading? I have not been mowing around the garden as it is wild and unkept. Do you think it would disturb the inner areas of the garden if I was to still use my little tractor and six foot cultivator around the edge, just to keep the grass out? Thanks in advance. I really want this to be a new way of gardening for me, but I can not let that grass in!
Quack grass is certainly a frustrating weed, and it won’t go away easily. In my opinion, tilling would probably make the situation worse. By chopping it up, you create more roots and thus, spreading. Sheet mulching will work, but only if it is thick enough…12-24 inches of mulch such as wood chips.
A rhizome barrier around the garden bed would keep any existing grass from growing into the bed. Raised beds with a cardboard bottom would reduce the possibility of a grass takeover if the pathways around the beds were heavily sheet mulched.
My friend Laurie at Common Sense Homesteading suggests getting a soil test to see if you’re lacking nutrients, as weeds can be an indicator of nutrient deficiencies. If all else fails, she says you can make wine with the roots, or take it for urinary tract health.
I love the idea of no tilling, but I have a 1/2 acre garden that was once cattle corrals. When we bought our property, I thought that would be a perfect place for my garden. Wrong! All of the years of those heavy animals compacting the soil had made my garden area a huge chore! We do have two orchards and I am wanting to chip up all of the old fruit tree limbs and put those wood chips down in my walkways. The amount of weeds is unreal because of the manure and such that was there from the cattle. What should I do about the weeds? Mow them and mulch them? Help please!
Per the “fertilize the soil” section above, weeds are really trying to repair the soil. If you can take your garden out of production for a year and let the weeds do their thing, chopping and dropping them frequently throughout the season (mowing and mulching as you mentioned), that would really be the easiest approach with the most success. If the weeds are really that bad, you could try wood chips in the walkways, but I would lay cardboard down first or they would probably just grow through. It can be very frustrating–sometimes it takes a while to repair damaged soil and there’s no easy fix.
Better yet, broadcast seed a cover crop of Daikon radishes and spring oats (both of which winter kill). This will aerate your soil while suppressing weeds. I just sowed this mix on untilled lawn turf this fall and scattered a little straw over top to shade the seed and prevent birds from stealing it. Weeds are minimal except where I ran out of seed and my soil is definitely more friable.
Karen Garnica says
I loved this post, but disagree with your advice regarding wood mulch. As wood mulch breaks down it leeches the nitrogen from the soil. Grass, leaves great. Wood, not so much.
If wood chips are mixed in, yes, you get leaching. Laid on top as a mulch, they’re fine. You won’t need a thick layer, and they will form nice fungal networks. I propose using whatever organic material you have available to you. Not everyone will have wood chips.
Joann Rodriguez Iriarte says
thank you for sharing your hard earned knowledge. My no till beds are producing but I have a thriving population of pill bugs that eat my strawberries, green bean seedlings. Are these beneficial organisms? How do I control this population?
Pill bugs are mostly beneficial, as their role is to decompose organic material. If you’ve added a lot of mulch to your garden, they are likely helping to break it down into a rich soil amendment. In general, they do not eat green plant material. They are attracted to moist soil/mulch.
The easiest remedy is to pull away some of the mulch for the remainder of the wet spring, and replace it once summer kicks in with hot/dry weather.
Often the culprit is slugs if you haven’t seen the pill bugs directly on the plants. They come out at night.
I just switched to no till amd this far I’ve had horrible results. I use, and always have, garden fabric for weed control. The problem is the plants haven’t taken off yet, and the soil is so dense. There are gobs of worms but the plants appear to struggle. Thoughts?
The tips in this article should help if you follow the steps in order.
Oliver Faulisi says
Hi, we are building a home pen for 1 FFA market hog. The ground now is rock, not very small, probably 1 inch. The thought was to remove it to bare ground and add gravel. What are your thoughts? Is gravel in the bed area fine if we add hay on top?
I am trying to convert pasture to a garden. In 2017, I planted cover crops and raised 70 meat birds… I did not garden. I chopped and dropped the cover crop. By fall I planted more cover crop and added compost. The soil was not nearly as hard, thanks to the chickens scratching and pooping. This spring I’ve got a fantastic crop,of… GRASS! Very green, it looks like a lawn, not the fescue clumps I had the first year.
I’m committed to no-til but I’m not sure how to get rid of the grass. I tried layers of cardboard and mulches (2’) in a test plot last year and the grass grew right through it. I use gated pipe to irrigate, which is 30” on center from gate to gate. My garden area is about 700 sq ft. Thanks for your advice!
Many cover crop mixes include ryegrass, which is better used in gardens that will be tilled. No-till gardeners should look for a “winter kill” cover crop.
It sounds like you did a lot of wonderful things for your future garden, though! It’s just a matter of getting rid of that grass, whether it has persisted from the pasture days or it came in with the cover crop seed.
If cardboard didn’t work for you, you might want to dig up the sod and turn it over. Then put two layers of cardboard on top of the turned-over sod and sheet mulch with layers of organic matter.
Digging up sod is no fun task. With your large area, it might be beneficial to rent a sod cutter from your big box home improvement store to make the sod removal easier.
Hope that helps!
Hi Amy, I just got your book and was reading this section on the No-Till Garden. One thing I am confused about though – how do you incorporate your soil amendments into the no-till garden? We try to add at least an inch of compost every year and just use a shovel to mix it into the top 5-6 inches of soil. How would you do this without turning over the soil? Just lay the compost on top? thanks!
Add your amendments first, then follow the directions in the “Prepare to Plant in the No-Till Garden” section above. The digging fork or broadfork helps incorporate amendments without turning soil. Over time, as it rains, the amendments will percolate into the holes that the digging fork has made.
Thomas Pearce says
I am using my chickens to clear the area when there is no garden plants. After the area is cleared then i covered it in straw. The garden looks great growing wise. However the weeds have now taken hold. This is my second year and im going to incorporate some of your tactics thankyou for once again giving me hope in this war on weeds!!!
Good luck and let me know how these ideas work out for you!
I’ve wanted to go no-till, and intended that path with my .10 acre raised bed pantry garden, this year. However, I was inundated with harlequin bugs, squash bugs, cucumber beetles, and cabbage worms. I already have a rotation system and a lot of companion plants worked in, but also grow a lot of brassicas, which are a favorite among pantry clientele, and which attract a lot of the pests. I haven’t done anything to the cucurbits, yet, except remove infected vines. However, I choked, and hand-turned the collard beds where the bugs had been the worst.I’m worried about returning populations in the areas where I don’t till, next year.
In short, I’m worried I can’t get past the bug infestations to get to no-till. I’m also unsure how to determine the right cover crop mixes for my beds.
With no-till gardening, our thinking goes deeper than simply how to rid the garden of pests. We must ask, “What is causing such a large pest outbreak?” Tilling does not solve a pest problem, although it’s true that tilling can offer short-term relief by disrupting the life cycle for many pests that overwinter in the soil.
You are already doing great things by rotating crops and companion planting. Have you considered running soil tests? Often our plants “catch a bug” when they are experiencing a nutrient deficiency. Adding organic soil amendments that correct deficiencies can help.
In a healthy garden system, mulching over the winter is a great idea, but removing mulch for the winter can prevent pests from surviving the winter. You’ll find more strategies for preventing pests in this article.
Also, one thing that gardeners never want to hear is that their beds might need a rest. Sometimes planting a cover crop for the season can be a great strategy. Cover crop mixes are very specific to your local area. To find out which cover crops are right for you, consult your local extension office for their free and helpful advice.
Vickie Simmons says
Hi Amy, I live in East TN and love that I can have a long season garden. I moved out here 10 years ago and started my garden by tilling a large area about 25×30 feet. The first year it flourished and then went down hill from there. Bugs over whelmed me and so did the weeding and battling the Bermuda grass. So I built raised beds which have work great so far but still the bugs. My question is what can I do for my 4, 25 foot rows of Asparagus? I can’t let the weeds get around them as I read the weeds will use up the nutrition they need. I have put the garden to bed for the Winter with loads of compost from my composter so should I shred some maple leaves and add a thick layer of them also? I’m hating the asparagus beetle and their larvae and considering raising chickens! LOL Thanks for your article, it’s convinced me to stop tilling 🙂
Unfortunately, Bermuda grass and asparagus do not play well together. Bermuda grass, in fact, does not play well with ANYTHING. As you know, it is a mean ole’ playground bully. If Bermuda grass has taken over your asparagus bed, your best bet is to continue harvesting what you can until it stops producing, and then take steps to eradicate the Bermuda grass for future plantings. You can pull up what you can and weed-eat back the rest to slow its growth, but eventually it will probably take over.
If your asparagus patch is no more, I suggest solarizing the area to get eradicate the grass. It could be a multi-year effort to get rid of it completely. Get ideas here.
Although I typically recommend mulching, when pests appear, it is better to leave the soil around the asparagus clear over the winter. The mulch (and any nearby tall grass) is likely where the beetles are overwintering. Good luck!
How do you do this practically for a 40×80 garden? That is a large amount of mulch or compost to have to get every year. I like the idea, but I am not sure how to practically make it work.
As with all changes in routine, it is the transition period that is typically the most difficult. 🙂
Personally, the steps I’ve outlined above don’t seem to take me too much time, but if you’d like to look at it from a “farming” rather than “gardening” perspective, you’ll find some good suggestions over at Rodale Institute.
There seem to be plenty of small farmers out there who are using no-till methods successfully. The main thing is to develop a method for growing your own organic material for making compost and building soil and mulch. Cover crops are an important component for professional no-till farmers.
A few details that have been discovered in the past few years :
-first, you don’t need nitrogen rich material like grass and stuff in your mulch. You can use carbon rich mulch like BRF or straw. You just need to understand that in the first few months it’ll starve your plants from nitrogen, until the nitrogen-fixing bacteria and the worms get into cruising speed. But you don’t need chicken manure or stuff like that, the soil will fix the nitrogen for you, as well as potassium and phosphorus. Fertiliser isn’t needed anymore, the mulch does all the work. It’s something people have a hard time accepting, but it’s been scientifically proven. Add carbon to a soil, and N P K magically appear…
-you don’t need to chop the winter crops to mulch and enrich your soil. In France (and I’m sure elsewhere too) there are people who applied no till gardening to large scale farming. In fact, it’ll replace till agriculture in the next decades. For it to be profitable, you can’t have too many steps. They discovered you can just roll over your winter green cover, right before they flower, and it’ll kill it. With just one pass of a rolling tool mounted on a tractor, you’ve got your mulch. And you can sow directly into the formed mulch, again with a standard machine. For smaller seeds like carrots, you need a layer of compost on top of the mulch, and seed into that. That part isn’t fully mechanized yet, but farmers and scientists are working on it. But for large seeds, it works like a charm. Corn, wheat, courgettes, squashes, melons, broad beans, peas etc…
So the key to no till gardening is to find a good source of mulch, and plants working for your climate that’ll enrich your soil when you can’t grow vegetables. Also, don’t shy away from using plastic covering. Sure you can remove the weeds of a location you’re preparing for crops with a really thick mulch, but it works even better with plastic. Put it there for a few months, weigh it down with rocks on the edges, and that’s it. Some tough plants may still survive, like thistle, but most of them, especially the annuals, will die.
PS: another little thing, do not dig in your mulch. Let is sit on top, as is. Otherwise you’re making a warm compost that’s not gonna be good for the life of your soil. It is especially true for pine mulch (needle or bark). Many people will say pine acidifies the soil. Only if you bury it. If you let it on top, it doesn’t ferment and there’s no acidification. Only manure should be mixed in with the soil. Again, those things have only been discovered recently (or rediscovered, it’s probably a knowledge that’s been lost…).
Interesting. Thanks for this bit of information. Follows from what permaculture teaches us and how nature does not need much interfering with – instead we should just work with her.
DOROTHY WILSON says
I live in an apartment and do container gardening on my roof and fire escape. Do the no-fill methods work for container gardening? I plan to put an inch of good-quality compost on top of the existing dirt and let it sit for a couple of weeks, before planting seeds. But I just can’t imagine how the new seed roots are going to penetrate the old dirt, which packed with roots from the previous crops.
This technique does not really work for container gardening. By building up soil fertility in the no-till garden, we are building up the diversity of soil organisms that do much of the work for us. There are simply not the same type and number of organisms living in potting soil of containers, so we can’t rely on their help there.
As such, I would mix the contents of your container soil together evenly rather than leaving the compost on top. And I would not leave in the plant roots, as you don’t have the soil organisms to be able to decompose them.
When I add compost to an existing garden bed, I should just layer it on top? I’m new to gardening and trying to figure how to prepare my existing garden bed. I currently have mulch on top of newspaper from last year. I’m thinking I will need to remove the mulch and newspaper then add compost then cover with newspaper and mulch again, what do you think?
The best time to add compost is in the fall. This replenishes the soil with the nutrients that were removed in harvests. Add a layer of compost on top of soil and top it with any weed barriers or mulch. In this case, soil organisms like worms will spend the winter churning it in for you.
If adding before planting in the spring, you should do some of the work that the worms would have done for you. Use a digging fork to poke holes throughout the garden, add compost on top, then water it in well or wait until after a rain. This allows compost to filter through.
Yes, I would put it underneath mulch and newspaper.
Leah Johnson says
I am very interested in doing this. As I have been taught, I have tilled religiously lol every year; tilling in composted manure in the fall and then a spring tilling for loosening the soil for planting.
Currently we have 2 beds approximately 20 X 50 and will be expanding them over the next few years. It would be a great time to switch to the no till method.
– I rarely plant the same thing in the same place every year. In doing so, our rows and plantings are always spaced differenlty meaning our walkways throughout the garden area always different. Is this ok? Every year we would have different paths that we are walking in. We do have a perimeter that we are able to use as a path, however we usually are walking all over and around our plants – which what I’m reading is a no no.
– What would be a good cover crop for over the winter in the midwest? I’d like to plant it in the fall and then be able to plant in the spring.
As I mentioned above, garden beds and pathways are ideally permanent in the no-till garden. The difference with the no-till garden is that you’re creating a permanent home for soil organisms. Personally, I wouldn’t like to do all the work of building up soil and creating soil organism habitat if they’ll later be squashed and compacted.
So are you still able to do any sort of crop rotation? Or do your beds stay fairly consistant with where you plant your seeds/plants?
Yes, crops are definitely rotated, they’re just rotated around the permanent beds.
Very new to gardening and let the weeds go to seed. *facepalm* Can I still save the beds before winter? Or is my spring penance pulling weeds?
Pulling weeds may very well be in your future! But you could also sheet mulch over the winter with cardboard topped with a thick layer of compost soil to see if that smothers them.
Hi Amy, I’m learning so much from your posts and am inspired to plant my front yard within the next 2 years. We moved into our place this summer and Nature gave me the design for a hugel Kultur, so half the yard now looks like I buried 5 people there under mounds filled with old and new wood, leaves, grass, branches, shredded paper, sawdust, compost and other goodies, each layer water soaked. I planted into them immediately but early frost got most of it.
I don’t know anything about permaculture, but this was my guide and I did it. I want to grow squash, yams and other crops that grow “sideways”. What’s best to build for hanging the growing plants on? How do I add to the soil in the mounds? I put in winter peas late fall. Can’t find good manure, straw around here, I took some of my neighbour’s leaves (before the female green ash trees dropped all their gazillions of seeds everywhere) but it wasn’t enough to create depth for mulch. I’ve put bark mulch on all the paths around the mounds to keep weeds down and that seems to work ok. My biggest challenge is squirrels; have only managed to trap one so far. I put down cardboard from packing boxes to cover the vast other half of the yard, which had a lot of weeds growing in areas I want to develop for garden space and that was very successful.I’ve reused that material around my new grafted espaliered apple tree.
Sorry to be so long; it’s just there’s so much to do come spring and I need ideas to help me.
Sounds like you have some really fun projects in the works! Check out my article on trellising your climbing vegetables for some ideas. Cheers.
Just to clarify, do you do step 1 alone for a season or mulch as well?
If you’re allowing your garden to rest for a year, then you can mulch as well as fertilize with the weeds that pop up. If you’re continuing to grow crops during the transition, then chopping and dropping the weeds may provide sufficient soil cover without smothering your crops. It’s important to keep soil covered, so the weeds may provide this cover automatically or you may need to add mulch.
Amy, I have been reading and watching all kinds of gardening things on the internet this spring and I’ve found myself coming back to your site again and again. Thank you for making such wonderful content available!
I currently have the typical suburban lawn in front and there is a gentle slope down to the street. I’m thinking about covering the whole thing in cardboard and wood chips to kill off the grass in preparation for next spring. Is there any benefit to doing this in the summer rather than waiting for the fall? I’m wondering if the grass would die off fast enough in summer to plant a cover crop this fall for nutrients. And I live in zone 4 if that makes any difference.
You can sheet mulch with cardboard + wood chips any season of the year, but wood chips would take at least a year (maybe longer) to break down to soil, enough that you could successfully sow seeds into it.
Katy Taylor says
Hi Amy, i’ve just discovered your site and am really enjoying it–thank you! i have a larger area i’m gardening, but you are helping me learn the permaculture tools (along with books and experimentation).
one thing i have not resolved is this: in the Pacific NW where i live now, our gardens are carved out from the forest and we have a small pond (10×15). if i mulch any plants that are small–like from seed or tiny starts, they are immediately eaten by slugs that hide under the mulch.
i LOVE to mulch and practiced it in other gardens, but am finding i need to mostly keep the earth uncovered in my annual veggie beds. once they are full-grown, i can mulch, but until then, i’m asking for disaster (even with sluggo and beer traps). i recently put up copper mesh along the edge of the raised beds, and that’s helping, but i had awaful slug damage in a bed that has no edge to attach it to.
do you have any suggestions?
thank you, Katy
As you’ve discovered, mulch is site-specific, meaning that HOW you mulch depends on the unique conditions of your garden.
Where slugs are a problem, I recommend mulching only with compost. It won’t eliminate slugs entirely, but without a layer of bulky material to hide under, they won’t feel as inclined to stick around.
As a mulch, compost protects the soil (and soil organisms) beneath it, while allowing excess moisture to escape.
Mulch can also have seasonal variations. For example, I add a thicker layer in the winter, but remove much of it for the rainy spring.
Thanks for the great question! 🙂
It’s comforting to know we aren’t the only ones dealing with buried concrete due to previous owners pool. Very excited to begin this no-till transition after 10yrs of fighting my yard!
Deniese Newman says
I’m so happy to find this article, after just hearing about no-tilling. Please clarify: “chopping and dropping” with the weeds. Might the weeds not mature on the ground and still go to seed? (Showing my ignorance here) Thanks for your support!
Some weeds are annuals (live one season) while others are perennials (live many seasons). So you will have a variety of responses to chop and drop. Many of the annual weeds will die right away, while the perennials will continue to regrow after being chopped back.
My suggestion is to chop and drop about once a week, which doesn’t give most plants enough time to go to seed.