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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
When Tilling Soil May Help
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.
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.
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.
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.
Don’t miss these related articles!
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- Companion Planting 101 (with printable companion planting chart)
- Composting 101: Why, What & How to Compost at Home
- Vermicomposting 101: How to Create & Maintain a Simple Worm Compost Bin
- How to Amend & Fertilize Garden Bed Soil Before Planting