The Benefits of “No Till” Gardening

Michelle RobertsGardening

Tessa with the broadfork

By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is the easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.
~ Confucius (551-479BC).

When it came to planting a garden, it used to be that we pulled the tiller out in both fall and winter and diligently turned the soil over and over thinking that we were creating an ideal planting medium, a “well mixed” loamy soil. Hopefully some compost was incorporated into the mix and in the spring some supplements too.  It was unthinkable to “not till” the garden bed. Yet, here we are in 2013, doing all we can to leave the soil “undisturbed.”

 Why the big change? It was just another practice we had to take a good hard look at when we started down the path of  growing organic produce by working in harmony with nature instead of against it. It is true that if the plot being planted has never been gardened before, you may need to turn it under initially to loosen it up and let some air in as well as create more pathways for water and roots. However, if you have the time to wait, a better way,even for first time plantings, may be to super load the plot of ground with wood chips and compost which will choke out any growth and allow Mother Nature to go to work creating a rich loamy soil to grow in. Unfortunately that may take 2 – 5 years to create, but it is possible.

Garden Tiller

If the goal is to work in harmony with nature, we have to allow nature’s tillers to do their thing. We have over 20 raised box gardens on our farm. Between the boxes wood chips were laid down to prevent weeds and such from growing. It has been about 10 years now since the wood chips were originally put down. A few years ago I began noticing that the wood chips no longer kept the weeds out, and as I hoed between the rows, there were tons of earthworms under the top layer of wood chips. Additionally, there was beautiful dark soil beneath that layer. I remember thinking back then that the wood chips had amazingly become soil which seemed healthier outside the beds than it did inside the beds. I began to toss the rich soil under the wood chips into the beds.

Earthworms in Garden

Through observation, experience, and lots of study, it has become apparent that the damage created by tilling and plowing are greater than the benefits they provide. Undisturbed land absorbs 30% more CO2 than conventionally tilled land. Tilling creates soil erosion, water logging, too much aeration, hard pan layers, ( that is where a hard layer develops just below the typically tilled soil – water and roots cannot penetrate that layer) and excessive damage to earthworms, microbes, and the communities of living things in the soil that help plant growth. More energy is required to till and all that driving or walking across the planting area serves to compact the soil in those areas. Plus that, all the weed seeds get turned to the top again and so do the rocks.

On the other hand, there are numerous benefits to “No Till” gardening. Less work is involved. Less fertilizers are required as the plant residue is helping to feed the soils and the communities of microbes and earthworms are left intact. Resources are conserved because energy is not consumed by plowing or tilling. Weed seeds and rocks are not turned to the top which helps cut down on labor. Soil structure is left intact and so are not subject to erosion by wind and water.

Garden tilling with a Broadfork

Verticle Tilling with a Broadfork opens the soil with very little damage to the connections going on down under.  It’s the same principle as aerating your lawn.