No-till vegetable gardening?
No-till better for soil health
Rototillers are a wondrous tool for soil improvement to many gardeners, but some people are leaving the tiller behind for old-fashioned no-till techniques.
Yes, I said no-till. As in: No rototillers allowed. Soil structure is left intact. Compost and plant material are worked into the soil “the hard way.”
Why would anyone want to go to so much work? There are many reasons, but ultimately, no-till gardening is about long-term soil health.
The idea of soil health brings up another point — why should we worry about the soil?
For just a minute, think about soil as more than a void under the grass and garden. Forget about muddy roads and what the dog or kids track in on their feet. Can you remember what soil feels like crumbling in your fingers or between your toes? Remember the deep earthy smell that is unique to healthy soil?
Soil is intricately tied to life. It provides structure to walk on, drive on and build upon. Soil provides habitat for plant and animal life, stores heat and water, and acts as a filter. We are dependent on soil for much of the food we eat and to grow plants that convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.
Although new soil is being made (through weatherization of rocks, not decomposition of plant material), it typically takes 1,000 years or more to form just an inch of new soil.
Also, soil is not just soil — it is a body, an intricate system of chemical and physical processes and of microscopic life. Continuance of those processes and the health of those microscopic organisms contained in the body of soil are essential to sustain life.
In my youth, I heard farmers argue the case for no-till and the benefits to soil, and now no-till is commonplace in agricultural production. But gardeners are slower to give up their tillers.
The basic idea of no-till is to add organic matter (leaves and other plant material) back to the soil without disturbing soil structure. Some common no-till methods for small-scale production are known as double-digging, lasagna gardening and permaculture. (Lasagna gardening is so named because of the layering of soil and organic matter, much like creating a lasagna.)
Tilling, as much as I used to love it, breaks down soil structure and affects the way air and water move through the soil. Over time, it causes a condition known as hardpan, when a distinct hard layer forms at a certain depth under loose topsoil. Hardpan layers typically form at the same depth as a tiller and prevent water from moving easily through the soil profile.
Pulverization is also an after-effect of tilling. When soil is completely broken apart, particles bind together differently. Sometimes this becomes most apparent with the formation of a hard crust on the soil surface.
Another argument against tilling is that it stirs up buried weed seeds. Seeds need light to germinate, so those that stay deep beneath the soil surface will not grow.
Finally, soil in no-till systems typically retains moisture better than tilled soil, so plants generally require less watering over extended dry periods.
For successful no-till gardening, using an abundance of organic matter and mulch is essential. Mix in plant material or compost before planting or spread it on the soil surface. Cardboard and newspaper also break down and benefit the soil, but be careful to weigh them down until they decay. Mulch heavily with leaves, straw, prairie hay, etc., and leave that material on the garden to decay.
Use a tool called a broad fork to lightly work organic matter into the soil. Broad forks have long narrow tines that create openings in the soil surface for air, water and organic matter movement. A pitchfork might also work but is smaller and less sturdy than a broad fork.
I know the idea of no-till might be a little overwhelming. And honestly, tilling once or twice to initially work in organic matter is acceptable. Just avoid the “if a little is good, more is better” mentality — because too much tilling really is a bad thing.
Building soil takes time, and most longtime gardeners build intimate relationships with the plots of ground they tend. But treat soil right, and it is a gardener’s (and farmer’s) best friend.