Many are looking to implement the most effective and eco-friendly methods available to grow their own food, which is why no-till gardening needs to be talked about more.
No-till gardening is a method of building and maintaining healthy soil to grow food successfully, without disturbing the delicate web of life in the soil. This method is easier on the gardener and the earth. Also, it has been found to yield as much or more produce as commercial agriculture methods that involve tilling.
If you’ve been intimated by the idea of no-till, or think it won’t be as effective, that’s okay. In this article, you will learn step-by-step how to implement this method with success.
What Is No-Till Gardening?
The no-till method mimics nature. In essence, no-till gardening takes away all practices involving soil disturbance. No-till means no digging up, turning over, or stirring of the soil. The principles of decomposition and the hard work of soil microorganisms are relied upon to build and maintain healthy soil.
By not turning over and churning the ground, the soil structure has a chance to stay intact and soil microorganisms that are crucial to the soil health can establish themselves without getting interrupted.
By improving and maintaining the soil’s structure, you increase the soil’s ability to absorb and retain water, cutting back on your irrigation needs. You also increase the soil’s ability to produce nutrient-dense crops.
With the use of mulching techniques, adding compost, and planting cover crops you can build and maintain a healthy soil structure, improve crop production, and all the while not harm the earth.
No-till techniques will help to “fluff up” your soil. Roots need space to grow, and if your soil is hard and compact, those roots will have a hard time, resulting in stunted growth. In contrast, if you have sandy soil, it will not retain water or nutrients well, also resulting in poor growth.
That is typically why gardeners and farmers till, to break up the soil, boost fertility, and make it more suitable for plants. But it has more lasting harmful effects than positive ones. The methods of no-till gardening produce better results in the long term.
The ideal type of soil for most plants is called “loam”. It’s a balanced soil with lots of organic matter that retains water, has good drainage, and has lots of nutrients. By sheet mulching and not tilling, you can achieve this for your garden.
Many people are interested in getting back to basics in the garden, and the no-till method is a great place to start. Put away your plow, hoe, and spade, and get ready to let nature do what it does best.
In this article, I’ll explain how to start a no-till garden from scratch, and what to do if you already have a garden established that you want to stop tilling.
What Is Tilling?
Tilling is the word used to describe the process of preparing the soil for planting. Tilling a garden is done by overturning, digging, and stirring soil with tools or machines.
The method of tilling dates back 10,000 years. As plow designs and production improved in the 18th and 19th centuries during Europes Agricultural Revolution, tilling became increasingly popular as it was seen as an easier way to plant more.
Tillin is now the go-to method for commercial farms to prepare and plant their fields. Although it’s destructive, many farmers and gardeners rely on tilling. It allows them to prepare large swaths of land and have seemingly good results exemplified by good crop growth.
This method is used to grow crops quickly and easily. Breaking up the soil releases locked-up soil fertility. By overturning and stirring the soil, it gets flushed with air, which in turn boosts the soil life. Tilling also increases the surface area of the soil by breaking up clumps. Soil microbes have a field day with all this oxygenation and new space.
This process induced by tilling is beneficial, but only short-term. During the first seasons of a tilled field or garden plot, growth will be prolific from the blast of nutrients that comes from invigorated soil life.
But the amount of nutrients released is far more than what the plants can even utilize. This unused fertility will get washed away in the next rain. This then gets the farmer or gardener in a cycle of needing to till to boost soil life and fertility season after season. Unfortunately, after several cycles of this process, the soil becomes completely depleted.
This forces farmers and gardeners to then start using chemicals and fertilizers to mimic healthy soil.
If you look at examples in nature, you will see that nature doesn’t till, it was solely a human invention that has led to soil degradation.
So, this is a larger problem in commercial agriculture, but we contribute to it with our small, home gardens as well. Tilling is like a shortcut way to grow a lot of crops, but it works against nature’s cycles and eventually ends up harming the very soil that we rely upon.
There is a solution though, and that is no-till gardening.
Read also: How to Till a Garden
No-Till Gardening For Beginners
Step 1 – Choose a Site
First things first, you need to know where you will be creating your no-till garden. Whether you have an old lawn, a piece of bare land, or a plot laden with weeds, you can implement the no-till method.
Depending on what you want to grow, choose a site that gets at least 4-6 hours of sunlight per day, as this is the typical light requirement for most plants.
Step 2 – Gather Materials
As mentioned above, the process of decomposition will be your best friend in your new journey of no-till gardening. By adding layers of organic material and letting them decompose and work themselves naturally into the soil, you will build the quality of your soil. Healthy soil is the foundation for a successful garden. The better your soil, the better your yields of produce will be.
Part of having a successful garden is supporting the continuation and growth of the myriad of beneficial microbes, fungi, insects, and worms that all help to create healthy soil. Adding organic matter helps “feed” these microorganisms and has also been proven to increase water retention ability, biological diversity, and fertility.
There are many materials that you can use. Look around you and see what is available. Fall is a great time to start your no-till garden as there will be a lot of “green waste” and leaf fall at your disposal.
Here’s a list of good material to gather and use:
Many of these items will either be free or very affordable.
Step 3 – Layer Materials
If you are starting with a plot that has grass or weeds, don’t worry. They will actually become a helpful part of the system. I’ll explain, by layering organic materials on top of grass or weeds, they will eventually die off due to lack of sunlight.
Being smothered by cardboard or other organic material, the roots of the grass or weeds will start to decompose build soil life. A lot easier than digging up all those weeds, right?
Note that if you’re dealing with tall and thick weeds that you can weed-whack them down to the base and leave the green waste there, it will all decompose.
Now that you’ve chosen a site and gathered your materials, it’s time to start layering. This is a method called “sheet mulching” or, commonly referred to as the “lasagna method”. The idea is that you add layers of organic material directly to the site where you will be planting. These materials will decompose, increasing the amount of organic matter in your soil and adding nutrients.
I will take you through the ideal way to layer your materials. If you’re missing one or two of the materials suggest, don’t worry, just work with what you’ve got.
1. Put down a layer of cardboard or newspaper. This will help suppress the weeds. Wet this layer to prevent everything from flying away, and also to speed up the decomposition process.
2. Next, add soil amendments. Which ones you use will depend on your soil’s needs. This may be bonemeal, lime, rock phosphate, blood meal, kelp meal, and so on. Test the pH of your soil to determine which amendments will be most helpful. As a rule of thumb; acidic soil will need lime, alkaline soil will need gypsum or sulfur.
3. Now it’s time to pile on bulk organic matter. You could use yard waste, leaves, spoiled hay, wood shavings, finely ground bark, or a combination of these. Grass clippings can be used as well, just make sure you mix it with a high-carbon, or brown material, to avoid a stinky situation. Wet this layer thoroughly.
4. The next layer is compost. You may have some from your home pile, or you may need to purchase some from your local landscape shop. Spread a layer that’s 1-2 inches thick. Wet thoroughly.
5. On top of the compost spread a thin layer of manure.
6. The final layer is any seed-free material that you have available. Typically people use straw but you could use bark, sawdust, pine needles, or leaves. Makes this last layer 6-12 inches thick. Give this last layer a really good soaking.
Step 4 – Let Nature Work Its Magic
As I mentioned, fall is an ideal time to start a no-till garden. In the fall you will have more organic material available to you as things are naturally dying back. You will also have increased rainfall, which will help keep your sheet mulch wet, helping everything decompose more quickly.
Now that you have your layers of organic matter on your growing site, all you need to do is wait. Waiting six to eight months is ideal, as it will ensure plenty of time for all of the layers to decompose and be incorporated into your soil. After the recommended waiting period, your plot will be ready for direct planting.
What you will end up with is that desired loamy soil. Your soil will be enriched with nutrients and happy, undisturbed soil life. The structure of the soil will support plant growth, provide nutrients, and retain water. The result is a sustainable plot that you can continue to care for. You will reap the benefits of prolific produce that are the result of your healthy and fertile soil.
Note that it is possible to plant before your sheet mulch has fully decomposed. Simply push the layers aside until you reach the layer of compost and plant directly in it. The roots will be able to penetrate through the newspaper below. If you used cardboard, simply cut an X in it at the planting site to allow roots through more easily.
No-Till Gardening For Established Gardens
If you have an established garden and want to implement no-till methods to continue or improve your production, you’re in the right place to get a step-by-step guide on how to go about it.
Step 1 – Start Mulching
Mulch is any weed/seed-free organic material that you can add to your garden, typically around mature plants or throughout garden beds. Mulch helps to retain water, reduce soil erosion, and suppress weeds.
Typical materials used for mulching include:
- Pine Needles
Try to alternate your mulch with green, or high nitrogen materials, and brown, or high carbon materials. This will ensure that you are maintaining a healthy balance in your soil. You can mulch anywhere that you will be planting, and even in your rows to keep the weeds down there. Simply push the mulch aside when putting plants in, and then place it back gently around the base of the plant.
Note: If you are direct seeding, don’t cover the seeds with mulch. This can be too heavy for them and make it hard for them to sprout.
After some time, the mulch will decompose, adding to your soil’s organic matter content. Also, in addition to a smothering effect, by not digging and mulching instead, you avoid bringing weed seeds to the surface and eventually can get most weeds under control.
You will need to continually add mulch to your garden. The mulch will eventually start to decompose and you will notice when it is time to add another layer.
Step 2 – Chop and Drop
The chop and drop method will make your work as a garden much easier, and improve the quality of your soil as well.
When it comes time to harvest the last of the produce from any given plant, simply chop the plant down at its base, instead of pulling it up. Then you “drop”, or leave, the green matter right there where you chopped it. This process is gentle on the soil and allows for more organic matter to decompose right into your garden beds.
This method can be applied to weeds as well if they have not gone to seed. If they have gone to seed remove the chopped/pulled weed and dispose of it.
Also, the roots of the plants you chop and drop will remain in the soil and decompose, further adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil, benefitting all the microbes, fungi, and critters hard at work making your soil fertile.
Step 3 – Use Cover Crops
Cover crops are used to build/maintain soil and smother weeds. Their foliage protects the soil from eroding in strong winds or rain and adds nutritious organic material in the fall when they die back. Cover crops are used on beds or rows that are not currently being used for your typical produce, or that need a boost of fertility and organic matter.
The roots of the cover crops penetrate deep into the earth, loosening up compact soil. They draw up nutrients and play host to soil life. They have a myriad of benefits. Here are some cover crops to try this season:
For Cool Weather:
- Fava Bean
- Hairy Vetch
For Warm Weather:
- Black-Eyed Peas
- Sunn Hemp
Let your cover crop grow until the flowering stage. At this stage, slash down the plants and let the foliage decompose on site.
Although tilling has short-term benefits, it will end up costing you more money and more labor and eventually render your soil depleted of nutrients and microorganisms.
The no-till method will reduce your labor hours in the garden and improve the quality of your soil, in turn boosting production. The more you work with nature, the more your garden will improve.
By adding layers of organic matter to your garden, you work with nature’s principles and cycles, not against them. By not digging up and churning your soil you will build the structure of the soil, improve water retention and get weeds under control.
Try out these no-till methods and enjoy a bountiful garden!