To understand the benefits of no-till gardening, it is first important to understand why tilling can be bad for the soil. Good soil relies on effective drainage and water retention. It also needs biological help from earthworms and microorganisms. It is also important that soil contains the right balance of macro-and micronutrients as well as a balanced pH.
No Till vs Tilling Your Garden
Tilling disrupts the soil structure, displacing or destroying the biological components, reorganizing the physical order so that the soil does not properly drain, retain water or keep the critical nutrients needed for healthy plant growth. Tilling is also typically performed with a gas-powered rototiller which works against the environmentally friendly nature of most gardeners.
Ingredients For a No Till Garden
Cardboard – add a layer of cardboard over an existing garden, or directly over grass, basically anywhere a new garden is desired.
Compost – add compost regularly to the soil to guarantee the balance and growth of microorganisms and macro- and micronutrients.
Mulch – keep a layer of loose mulch (straw, leaf mulch, or grass clippings) on top of the soil all year round, including winter. Compost can be used as a winter mulch and incorporated into the soil in the spring.
Plant matter – cut plants down to the soil rather than uprooting them. The roots will decompose and add valuable organic material to the soil.
Steps for Making a No Till Garden
No till gardens can be created as in-ground gardens or raised beds. Here are some tips for setting up a successful no till garden:
1. Test the soil – diagnose the soil pH and determine what macronutrients (phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium) are present. Amend the soil if needed to get your plants off to a good start. Many universities that have a Cooperative Extension Service offer soil testing. There are also home soil test kits available.
2. Plan walkways in advance – no till gardens are not meant to be walked on, as the pressure will compact the soil. Plan the size of each bed so that all plants can be reached from the planned walkways.
3. Lay cardboard or newspaper over the desired area to kill grass and weeds. No till gardening is a slow process, so it is a good solution to lay out the sheeting in the fall and start planting in the spring.
4. Add a thick layer of compost over the sheeting, about two inches (five centimeters).
5. Plant seeds or buy starter plants from the garden center. If you’re not sure which is the better option for you, weigh out the pros and cons with Vegetable Garden Basics – Start Seeds or Buy Plants?
6. Add a layer of mulch to protect the soil and discourage weed growth.
7. At the end of the growing season, cut plants to the soil line and leave the roots in the ground. Add a thick mulch layer of compost before winter that can be incorporated into the soil in the spring.
Maintaining a No Till Garden
To maintain a no till garden, use a pitchfork or broadfork to aerate the soil each spring. Using a broadfork helps to prevent compaction without changing the structure of the soil. It can be stepped on or jumped on to drive into the ground, then gently rocked back to create space.
A garden rake can be used to gently incorporate compost or spread mulch throughout the season. Regular weeding, watering, composting and mulching is critical to a no till garden, as it keeps up the nutrient content, soil structure and moisture content.
No till soil is a great way to garden “greener”. While it does take some time to establish, over the long term a no till garden is easy to maintain. Your plants will thrive in soil that is healthy, nutrient rich and that has good water retention. “Living soil” allows insects, worms and microorganisms to live undisturbed by the damaging effects of annual tilling.