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All Things Garden,  Compost

What is No-Till Gardening or Farming (aka No-Dig): Benefits Explained

Have you heard the term ‘no-till’ gardening or farming, but aren’t quite sure what it’s all about? Then you’ve come to the right place. This article will dig (or… not dig?) into the concept of no-till gardening, including what it is, how to do it, and what stellar benefits it brings to soil and plant health – and your back! We’ll cover some frequently asked questions along with examples of when tilling may or may not be for the best. After reading this, you’ll have a better understanding of why the simple and natural practice of not tilling soil is swiftly gaining popularity in the garden and farming community. It is what we mostly follow here on this homestead.


After all, Mother Nature doesn’t use a tiller!


What is No-Till Gardening (or No-Till Farming)?


No-till gardening, also known as ‘no-dig’ gardening, is the practice of avoiding the intentional disruption of soil. Rather than using plows, spades, hoes, or other tools to routinely “turn over” soil, it is more or less left alone. Additionally, many no-till gardeners choose to leave the roots of spent plants in place. At the end of the growing season, we cut plants out at the soil line (or just below the soil) with pruners or a small hand saw – rather than yanking out the entire plant and root system. 

In the no-till world, instead of mixing amendments deep into the soil, slow-release organic fertilizers, compost, and/or mulch materials are added to the top of the soil on occasion. Those things, along with the left-behind plant roots, slowly break down to rejuvenate the soil and provide food for new plants. Think about a wild, natural environment like a meadow or forest floor. Is it ever tilled? Nope! Instead, plant material rises and falls in place, providing a cycle of mulch, nutrients, and biomass. 


Two hands cupping rich brown organic soil with a few red worms, hovering over a garden bed with leafy greens in the background below.
Living organic soil from our no-till garden


The Soil Food Web


The difference between a garden that survives and one that thrives is all in the soil. When tending to an organic garden, the focus should be on building and maintaining rich healthy soil as opposed to simply fertilizing plants. Within your soil, an entire living, breathing, dynamic ecosystem exists! The idea of ‘living organic soil’ and no-till gardening go hand in hand. 

Quality organic soil is full of beneficial microorganisms, fungi, nematodes, earthworms, protozoa, and other critters that all work together to break down organic matter, introduce nutrients, and improve soil aeration, drainage and moisture retention. Some even help to bioremediate soil and remove unwanted pollutants. For instance, studies show that worms (Eisenia fetida) can significantly reduce the concentration of crude oil and heavy metals in contaminated soil! In return, well-maintained organic soil nourishes plants without the need for harsh chemical fertilizers. Plants grown in this manner are not only highly productive, but are also more resilient to pests, disease, and environmental stresses like drought. 


A diagram by Heidelberg Farms showing what the Soil Food Web looks like below ground. There are tree roots with compost and micro arthropods on the soil surface, with bacteria and fungi, mycorrhizae, and nematodes and protozoa below the soil surface, in and around the tree roots.
The Soil Food Web. Image Courtesy of Heidelberg Farms via Pinterest


The Troubles with Tilling


In traditional or commercial farming, soil is routinely tilled and turned over after each season and crop. Farmers do this to break up compacted soil or clumps to prepare for planting. The problem is, the act of tilling actually exacerbates the compaction problem. Over time, repeated tiling destroys soil structure which leads to increasingly compact soil – so they “have to” till it even more. 

On an industrial scale, the churning and tillage of thousands of acres of farmland each year leads to significant soil erosion and increased runoff. More runoff means less groundwater recharge. Also, that more chemical fertilizers and pesticides are flowing into drinking water and surface water bodies –  some eventually making their way to the ocean and causing harmful algal blooms and “dead zones”. Furthermore, all the heavy equipment used to till farmland uses an immense amount of fuel and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Even on a small scale, home gardeners may feel the urge to dig up their gardens to ‘fluff’ the soil periodically. Not only can that be counterproductive – it is hard work! I know my aching back doesn’t need any unnecessary manual labor. Last but not least, tilling disrupts the soil food web. Overall, it isn’t great for soil health, unlike no-till gardening – which can easily and significantly improve it!


A diagram showing agricultural runoff, sewage, and detergents being dumped into a lake which in turn decreases oxygen in the water which kills fish, and increased plant growth which makes the lake smaller, in turn creating a loss of wildlife.
Agricultural runoff contributes to eutrophication, loss of habitat, polluted waters, and loss of wildlife. Diagram courtesy of Joel Rubin Environmental Science Guide


The Benefits of No-Till Gardening


Allowing Mother Nature to do her thing by not tilling soil can boost the health and vitality of your garden in numerous ways! You’ve likely already gleaned some of the benefits of no-till gardening from what we’ve explored already, but here is a recap:

  • Studies show that no-till farming increases soil biological diversity, fertility, resiliency, water retention, organic matter, nutrient cycling, and crop yield over plowed soil.

  • By not tilling, the natural soil structure isn’t compromised. Important air pores within the soil are preserved, thus reducing water runoff and soil compaction. This also leads to less water required to irrigate plants.

  • It doesn’t disturb the established beneficial microbial, fungal, and mycorrhizal associations within the soil, allowing those critters to continue their good work down there. Experts say that tilling soil can bring the microbial activity within the soil food web to a complete halt!

  • The roots left in place in a no-till garden will decompose over time, providing free organic matter and nutrients to the worms, microorganisms, and other detritus-eaters in the soil – which in turn feeds plants!

  • The more a garden mimics nature, the easier it is to maintain! We’ve found that the longer we’ve had our no-till garden (and the more mature the organic living soil has become) the pest and disease issues have declined. More beneficial insects are present, and things have struck a natural balance.

  • No-till gardening saves you time, effort, and physical labor. It makes preparing beds and planting new crops significantly easier.


A large no-till garden with many raised beds, in a U-shape. The beds are redwood, and two feet tall. In the background are tall kale plants and flowers, with the setting sun shining through. In the foreground, one of the tall raised beds is full of carrot greens. A chicken is leaping up in the air to try to eat the carrot greens through the fencing that surrounds the bed.
We build our raised beds fairly tall for many reasons: 1) More soil = nice deep space for root growth 2) Added height makes it easier on our backs 3) They’re above chicken beak height (for the most part… lol) No need to go digging this all up every season!


How to Practice No-Till Gardening


Just don’t till your soil, silly! Just kidding. Having a no-till garden doesn’t necessarily have to be an all-or-nothing endeavor. In fact, there are a few instances where lightly turning over soil or removing plant roots may be for the best, which we’ll talk more about in a moment. First, let me explain a few things we do in our no-till garden.


Removing plants and adding new

When it comes time to remove spent or old plants from the garden, we cut them out at the base of the plant near the soil line. For the most part, the left-behind stalks and roots do not get in the way when planting new crops. We simply work around them, or if needed, shove them aside but still keep them in the soil. We do the same with our large fabric grow bags: cut out the old plant, keep the soil mulched, lightly moist and alive over winter, then amend and plant again in the spring.

If a really large stalk or root section is getting in the way, don’t feel like you’re cheating if you do have to remove it. Put it in your compost pile, or bury it somewhere else in the garden.


A man is leaning over a garden bed with a hand saw, he is sawing the stems of plants off at the soil line, leaving the roots behind in the soil. The plants resemble trunks sticking out of the soil, these were leafy green vegetables or cauliflower and there greens have all been striped from the plant. There is a half wine barrel with carrot greens sprouting out of the top in the background, along with various other pollinator plants, trees, and shrubs.
Cutting out old broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower stalks post-harvest, leaving the roots and soil undisturbed. Then, we simply plant the incoming new seedlings around the nub left in the soil – or work around it.


Compost, fertilizer, and mycorrhizae

Add organic inputs to the top of the soil routinely, at least once or twice per year. Great examples include aged compost, leaf mold or dry leaves, pine needles, fine bark or wood chips, or other natural mulch materials. Twice per year (when swapping out crops between seasons) we add a fresh inch or two of compost to the top of our raised garden beds. Additionally, we sprinkle on a number of mild organic slow-release fertilizers like kelp, alfalfa, crab, and neem meals. For more details, see this article: “How to Amend Garden Soil: Before Planting or Between Seasons”.

Come planting time, we add worm castings and mycorrhizae in the planting hole around the rootball of new seedlings. Worm castings are a form of mild slow-release fertilizer that also improves soil structure. Mycorrhizae are microscopic fungi that colonize plant roots, and essentially extend the surface area and function of roots. The symbiotic relationship between mycorrhizae and roots increases the plants ability to uptake nutrients, water, and more. That is just one more reason to leave the roots behind!

We also nourish our soil and plants with several other natural concoctions. Every few months, we make a batch of actively aerated compost tea to feed to the fruit trees and garden bed veggies. The greenhouse seedlings and anything newly-transplanted receive dilute seaweed extract and/or an aloe vera soil drench. We even forage for stinging nettle around our property to create fermented stinging nettle tea. All of these goodies work together to keep our garden lush with life – without the need for tilling or Miracle-Gro.


A liquid measuring cup full of actively aerated compost tea is being held at the edge of a raised wooden garden bed full of bok choy plants. The sun is shining in, casting light onto the compost tea.
Homemade aerated compost tea – full of gentle nutrients and beneficial microbes.
A three part image collage, the first image shows a garden bed that is empty of plants yet is full of soil. There  is a whitish dust spread throughout the top of the soil. There is a wheel barrow next to the garden bed, as well as various marigolds. The second image shows a blue bucket sitting on top of an empty garden bed, a hand is holding a measuring cup of sorts directly above the bucket where the measuring cup and bucket both contain various amendments used to feed the soil and the plants that will soon be planted in it. The third image shows the top of a garden bed, the soil has been sprinkled with the amendments, and a gloved hand is starting to scratch the amendments into the soil, mixing it into the top inch or so. Using slow mild, slow release fertilizers are just one of the ways to increase microbial life in no-till gardening.
Add a combination of alfalfa, neem, kelp, and crab meals to the top of our no-till garden beds, lightly scratching it into the soil surface (and then watering) rather than digging it in.
A Vitamix blender full of blended aloe vera leaves with water is being held outwards. Below the blender are two five gallon buckets full of rain water. Beyond the blended aloe is a garden full of flowering perennials, annuals, vegetables in raised garden beds, cacti, shrubs, vines, and trees. No-till gardening is the main method used on this property.
Mixing up a few 5-gallon buckets of fresh homegrown aloe vera to water select spoiled plants with. Learn more about growing and using aloe vera in the garden here.


Worms

Worms are little miracle workers in a no-till garden system. They naturally aerate soil, move nutrients around, break down organic matter, and create new fertilizer – worm castings, aka worm poop. That stuff is black gold! Native earthworms will likely find their way into most in-ground garden beds, or into raised beds that are open to the earth below. If you stumble upon earthworms in your yard, toss them into your garden area!

In contrast, our raised garden beds are fully contained. We lined the bottoms with commercial-grade landscape fabric to block the noxious weeds in our yard, along with wire hardware cloth for gopher control. Because they can’t get in on their own, we add a small handful of worms from our vermicompost bin to each bed when they’re first filled with soil. (Note that compost worms are not the same as earthworms, and can be considered invasive if allowed to infiltrate natural environments.) The poor silty, sandy native soil outside of our garden beds was also in desperate need of help! When we first moved in, it appeared completely devoid of life. I never saw worms in it. So, we added nightcrawler earthworms to the areas where we planted fruit trees and shrubs.

I highly suggest Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm to source various species of worms for your garden, or to start a worm compost bin! Learn more about how to create and maintain a simple tote-style worm bin here. It’s the method we’ve used for over a decade, even while living in an apartment!


Two hands held together, cupping a large pile of european nightcrawler earth worms. The hands are poised over a garden space. Worms are nature's tiller, an excellent ally when utilizing no-till gardening.
A handful of European nightcrawlers, before adding them around the base of numerous fruit trees in our yard.
A little demo from our YouTube channel: clearing old bolted leafy greens (grown over winter) to prepare the bed for spring and summer crops.


When Tilling Soil May Help


Starting fresh

It is awesome to follow a mostly no-till philosophy, but there may be a time and place when things could use a fluff. Particularly if you’re just getting started with a new in-ground garden bed where the soil has less-than-ideal composition. It will be beneficial to work in aged compost, quality bagged soil, or other natural materials like leaves or fine wood chips into clay, rocky, or very sandy soil at first. No need to dig down too deep. Incorporating quality materials into the top six inches of otherwise crummy soil should be sufficient. Then, continue to improve it no-till style from the top down thereafter. 

Tilling up a lawn area to make space for a new garden is another totally acceptable time to till! However, if seedy weeds are present, sometimes tilling can actually make them even more prolific. There are several other effective ways to kill or remove grass to grow food instead, as we explore in this article.

Established beds may need a light tilling on occasion too. For example, if you find that your soil is too dense or rocky to easily grow carrots, who otherwise prefer deep and loose sandy soil. In that case it would be warranted to mix in some horticultural sand or potting mix to loosen the soil in that area. Or, to dig around to remove unwanted rocks.


Removing pesky or diseased roots

If you’re attempting to rid your garden of something invasive, persistent or that otherwise spreads by runners, it is wise to pull those roots out. For example, a plant like mint, certain weeds, or something that is especially good at growing back from suckers. Removing the roots from an obviously diseased plant may also help prevent the spread of disease elsewhere.


Root-knot nematodes

Another time the no-till method may be unfavorable is when there is known infestation of root-knot nematodes. These are microscopic pests that feed on roots, causing tell-tale nodules and sometimes stunted or unhealthy plants. Removing infected roots, tilling, and exposing the nematodes to air are ways to reduce a root-knot nematode population. However, they’re hard to battle with tilling alone! Other ways to reduce root-knot nematodes populations include solarization, companion planting with French Marigolds, and the use of beneficial nematodes.

We applied these beneficial nematodes to our garden bed soil. They greatly reduced the population of harmful nematodes along with white curl grubs. Solarization is the process of covering the soil with plastic for many weeks during hot summer weather to essentially cook the living daylights out of it. It can be effective at killing nematodes, and everything else in the soil… The roots of French marigolds are toxic to root-knot nematodes, so those are especially important roots to leave in place! Learn more about companion planting for pest control in this article. 


The roots from a harvested tomato plant are shown. They have many knots, knobs, and irregularities amongst them due to root knot nematode damage. A hand is being used to hold a tangle of the roots towards the camera. Digging up diseased or root rot infected plants and removing them is a good idea, even when practicing no-till gardening.
Root knot nematode damage on tomato plant roots.


Cover Cropping


An article about no-till gardening wouldn’t be complete with notable mention of cover crops! The practice of cover cropping is used in regenerative and sustainable farming to improve soil fertility and quality, reduce erosion, suppress weeds and pests, and promote biodiversity. In fact, select cover crops such as legumes, clover, buckwheat, or rye are often grown with the primary intention of soil improvement rather than producing edible crops. Legumes, including beans, peas, and vetch are known for their ability to fix nitrogen (or draw it in) from the atmosphere and add it to the soil. They do this through a specialized rhizobacteria on their roots. 

That said, growing cover crops is an excellent way to naturally enrich soil without the need for tilling and other conventional farming methods. You could plant cover crops to improve a soon-to-be new garden area. Or, grow cover crops in established garden beds between seasons or other crops.  Fava beans are our favorite cover crop of all. They are low-fuss, have beautiful flowers that bees love, produce delicious fat podded beans, and the entire plant is edible! We periodically grow fava beans around our fruit trees, in open spaces, and in our raised garden beds, doing our best to rotate locations and beds each year. Learn more about growing (and eating!) fava beans in this article. 


A corner of a yard is shown with a patch of fava beans growing to a height of about four to five feet tall. They are all flowering but no pods are visible yet. There are also various trees planted nearby, an avocado tree is directly behind the favas, a loquat tree is off to the right, and a small fig tree is directly in front of it. There is bark mulch surrounding the area and a wooden fence is the back drop behind the plants and trees. Growing nitrogen fixing crops and green manure crops in and around fruit trees will increase the microbial life in the soil when using no-till gardening.
A stand of fava beans growing in a previously ignored and fairly lifeless corner of yard. We had just planted a few small fruit trees in this sloped corner and were working to improve the surrounding soil structure and nutrient content.
An upended fava bean plant's roots are shown, they have tiny nitrogen nodules affixed to the roots.The nitrogen nodules look like pieces f perlite stuck to the fibrous roots. There are fava bean plants growing in a raised garden bed in the background. Growing cover crops and nitrogen fixing legumes is a great way of utilizing no-till gardening.
Not to be confused with root-knot nematodes! Uniform nitrogen nodules affixed to fava bean roots – the work of rhizobacterium that draw in nitrogren from the air.


And that concludes this crash-course on the benefits of no-till gardening.


Cleary we are fans of no-till gardening around here. I mean, what’s not to love? It is a simple, natural, effective, and incredibly easy way to maintain an organic garden. I hope you enjoyed the read, and learned a few new things along the way. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below. Also, please spread the word on no-till gardening by sharing this article! As always, thank you for being here and tuning in.


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15 Comments

  • Dan Collins

    The most informative post about no-dig gardening I found on the internet. I am completely new to this kind of gardening and I surely have learned a lot from this post. Thank you so much and I hope to read more posts from you soon.

  • JR

    Great article! Curious if the same concepts apply to container gardening, e.g. 10 gallon fabric grow bags. Can I simply cut the old plants off at the base and re-use the soil, etc. with the proper amendments applied to the surface?

  • Heidi

    Hi! I have Two questions. Quarantine gardener here so very new. I currently only have one large raised garden bed for my veggies. My sunflowers (which were SO happy 🙂 are looking done and so I was thinking of cutting them down and growing corn instead. I’m in coastal San Diego, so zone 9/10. If I cut them down at the soil line as you suggest, will the allelopathic qualities of the remaining sunflower roots interfere with my other veggies? The beans I tried to grow in the same bed died and my bell peppers are barely producing, so I was thinking it was possibly because of the proximity to the sunflowers.

    2nd question—I saw U mentioned Bermuda grass in another comment on here. I have SUCH BAD Bermuda grass and I’d like to start a cut flower garden in my yard and I’m afraid the Bermuda grass will ruin it. I put cardboard and my aforementioned raised garden bed on top of a portion of it and it grew THROUGH IT 😳. How’d you get rid of yours or are you still finding it growing in spots? Any suggestions? I’ve solarized it, and used a professional tiller and am now hand digging roots left behind. After the tilling it started re-growing fresh and green like nothing happened. 😳 it’s the plant from hell lol.

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hello Heidi, we have never noticed or thought twice about planting sunflowers next to other vegetables. This year we had a large sunflower growing in a raised bed full of beautiful carrots that we harvested a couple weeks ago, it just isn’t something that we have experienced in a memorable way. Though I believe people consider beans and potatoes to be “foes” of sunflowers more than other vegetables. If you are concerned you can pull the sunflowers out of the soil and forgo cutting them out at the soil line. In regards to your second question, we have had the greatest success with keeping grass that has been removed at bay by covering our soil with commercial grade landscape fabric. You can find more in depth information along with other various ways to remove your grass here; How to Kill or Remove Grass (& Grow Food Not Lawns!). Thanks and good luck!

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hi Jay, we rotate our crops each season as in, we try not to plant the same vegetables in the same garden beds each year. An example would be in our winter garden where one year we plant bok choy and asian greens in a bed and the following year we plant radishes. Hope that answers your question.

  • Tomislav Prsa

    Hi Deanna, what do you suggest doing in the spring when planting cover crop over winter (I purchased one based on your suggestions)? Do you think chop and drop method would work, even with things like clover? And do you think it would be an overkill to plant a cover crop in all of the garden beds that won’t have a fall crop? Thanks for another amazing post!

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hello Tomislav, absolutely clover will work. Look around at what cover crops do best in your particular climate but adding cover crops to any garden soil that doesn’t have vegetables growing in it is a great idea. Look into fava beans for an edible cover crop as well. If your location is too cold to grow most plants over winter I would try to sow the cover crop seeds right after your last frost date to help enrich the soil before your spring crops are ready to be sewn or seedlings planted out. Good luck!

      • Tomislav

        Thanks Aaron! Cover crops and fava beans it is then! Thank you both for all the gardening tips and tricks, your content is really great to follow and extremely useful!

  • Hannah G.

    Do you still recommend this practice for gardens in Zone 5/6 that freeze over in the winter months? How do you prepare the soil in the spring without tilling?

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Planting cover crops such as oats, mustards or annual ryegrass in the early spring will help “till” the soil before you plant out your vegetable plants. Also, winter rye, winter wheat, and hairy vetch may be good options to plant in late fall to overwinter in your garden and can survive fairly cold temperatures.

  • Shabnam Naz

    Thank you for this informative article, absolutely in love with your blog. You share so much beneficial information. I’m thinking of making my very first raised bed on one side of our grass lawn. Would it be a good idea to dig it up a bit and also what would you advise on how t and what to layer it up with?

    • DeannaCat

      Hey there! So, it depends on your type of grass. Ours was VERY weedy, full of crab grass or bermuda grass, so we had to remove it as well as lay down thick butcher paper and landscape fabric below the beds to stop it from coming up from the bottom. But the average lawn probably doesn’t need something so extensive. I wrote an article dedicated to removing/smothering/killing or otherwise covering grass to grow food instead. Take a look at that article here – I think it will give you some good options, ideas and plenty of photos to decide what would be best for your situation. Good luck and have fun!

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