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Want Healthier and More Productive Plants? Transition Your Garden to No-Till in 7 Easy Steps

It might sound a little crazy, but agronomists argue that tilling isn’t the best thing that you can do for your garden. 

In the long run, soil health experts say you’re far better off adopting a no-till or low-till approach rather than heavily tilling the soil with machinery. Why? Because garden soil is full of microorganisms and conventional tilling disturbs the soil microbiome, killing these beneficial microorganisms. 

So what’s the alternative? To do everything but till, and you might already be doing it. 

No-till gardening is a method of soil management that relies on minimal disturbance to the soil. It is sometimes referred to as no-dig gardening or, on a larger scale, no-till farming. Low-till and minimal-tillage farming describe agricultural practices that utilize some tillage. No-till gardening operates under the belief that prioritizing soil health results in stronger, more productive plants. 

If you’re still not convinced, keep reading. You’ll learn why tilling was ever adopted in the first place, and we’ll outline the many benefits of no-till gardening. Then we’ll discuss how to transition your home garden to a no-dig garden!

What is no-till farming?

No-till farming is an agricultural practice that doesn’t depend on heavy machinery to dig deep into the soil. While not a new agricultural practice (cultures have been utilizing no-till practices in some capacity since the dawn of agriculture), no-till farming didn’t really take off in the United States until the 80s, encouraged by federal subsidies.

Many home growers are already no-till, as it’s easier to manage gardens without tilling on a smaller scale. This type of gardening relies on layering organic mulch and compost materials, which helps suppress weeds and improve soil health.

The role of tillage in agriculture

Tillage and cultivation accomplish a few things. First, tilling is most commonly used to prepare the earth for planting by breaking up large chunks of soil into smaller pieces. Turning topsoil under also incorporates nutrients into deeper soil, and the act of cultivation controls weed growth by disrupting weed roots and killing weed seeds.

However, studies have found that digging on a small scale is just as effective as tilling, if not even more so, since it is far less detrimental to the soil. Digging with a broadfork is an excellent way to fluff up the soil and incorporate top-dressed compost and fertilizer deeper down, where plant roots need nutrients. 

The benefits of no-dig gardening

Since it builds healthy soil, no-till gardening is a foundational pillar of regenerative agriculture, a land management approach focusing on interconnected systems rather than isolated segments. The goal of regenerative agriculture is to improve the land while using the land to produce food crops. The benefits of no-dig gardening are many and include the following:

  • Little to no soil compaction

No-till gardening reduces soil compaction, which is the densification of soil that can occur when heavy equipment is driven repeatedly over a piece of ground. Less soil compaction allows for better air and water movement through the soil, resulting in healthier plants and increased crop yields.

  • Improved soil composition and texture

No-till farming helps to preserve the soil's natural structure, which in turn helps to foster beneficial microbial activity. This leads to improved soil fertility and nutrient cycling, which is beneficial for the garden's overall health.

Reduced tillage encourages more decomposition of plant matter on the soil surface, which, over time, enriches the soil with organic matter and essential nutrients. 

  • Increased soil moisture retention

Low-till farming prevents soil particles from becoming too tightly packed, which allows them to absorb and retain more water. This increases the soil's water-holding capacity, which is beneficial for periods of flooding and drought, which are becoming increasingly more prevalent. 

  • Less erosion and surface water runoff

Highly compacted soil is, at the same time, more prone to erosion and less able to absorb surface water runoff. Soil that has a better texture is less likely to be eroded and is better able to retain surface water runoff. Healthy soil is better able to filter water, keeping contaminants out of lakes, streams, and drinking water sources. 

  • Microorganisms in the soil flourish

Tilling kills soilborne microorganisms and has a ripple effect on biological activity in and around the soil. Effectively, heavy tillage renders soil “dead,” and no-till practice has the opposite effect. No-dig gardening practices encourage garden soil that is teeming with life. 

  • Chemical-free weed control 

If done correctly, no-till farming doesn’t require herbicides to control weed growth. Plenty of natural and organic methods suppress weed growth just as well, without the chemicals. Mulching with plant matter creates a barrier that keeps weeds from germinating and spreading. 

  • Healthy plants are more productive

Low-till farming helps to foster healthier plant growth by maintaining the soil's structure and providing better access to oxygen and water. This leads to increased crop yields, as well as increased disease resistance in plants. 

Plants grown in fluffy soil rich in organic matter will develop stronger root systems, allowing the plant to reach its mature size and better handle periods of drought.  

  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions

No-till farming is a great tool for fighting climate change. Not only does no-till farming reduce carbon emissions by not using fossil-fuel-powered machinery, but the soil is actually better able to sequester carbon dioxide. 

  • Saves gardeners money (and time) in the long run

When you depend on tilling, the soil also depends on it. Once you are in the cycle of mechanical cultivation, it is hard to break, although it is possible. 

Even though tilling deteriorates soil in the long run, its immediate effects are helpful, for severely compacted soil—tilling loosens up the earth enough to plant. But eventually, the soil will tire out and transition from a living medium to dead dirt. 

No-till cultivation, on the other hand, actually improves soil over time. No-dig gardening is a lot of work upfront, and the work is harder without machines—but unlike with conventional tilling, you will eventually reach a point where you don’t have to till anymore. The work will already be done. Mulch will suppress the weeds, and cover crops will loosen the soil.

As with anything, no–till farming has disadvantages—namely, it takes time and hard work to establish. It’s not instant gratification; you may not notice the effects of no-till farming until years later. But no-till practices are a long game, and the payoff is worth the investment. 

How to make no-dig gardening work for you

The transition from till to no-till is not easy, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. You can always start with one or two garden beds and work up to more beds as you get a better handle on the no-dig process. But give it a try, and you’ll soon see results.

1. Establish permanent garden beds and paths

The first order of business is to establish where you’re going to grow and where you’re going to walk. You’re going to have to start minimizing soil compaction today, so no more stepping in the garden beds—identify where you can stand and kneel instead. Don’t build a garden bed more than four feet wide—you want to be able to reach the middle from either side. You can use stepping stones on the paths to help distribute weight even more. 

2. Use a tarp to kill the grass

If you don’t have too many weeds, you can weed the area by hand. Alternatively, cover the bed with a tarp slightly bigger than the bed about three weeks before you plan to plant anything. Anchor the tarp down with sandbags, dirt, rocks—really any heavy object you have on hand. When you remove the tarp in three weeks, the weeds and weed seeds underneath will have died back, and the soil will have softened enough to plant in.  

3. Amend the bed with compost

Next, apply a generous amount of organic compost to the garden beds. This is a great time to add lime if the soil needs it or any other minerals, as recommended by a soil test. Be sure to read this article for more information on what to add to your soil and when. 

4. Use human-scale tools to turn the soil

Remove any large rocks from the garden bed, and get to digging! A broadfork is a rectangular tool with several long tines that is designed to aerate the soil without compacting it. 

To use a broadfork, stand facing the edge of the garden bed and place the fork in front of you. Step on the broadfork, pressing the tines into the soil. Now step back and pull the broadfork out of the ground. Step backward, drag the tool a few inches towards you, and repeat the process.

5. Plant or seed the garden bed 

Once the soil has been loosened up with a broadfork or spade, you can plant or seed the beds normally. 

6. Cover the soil with mulch 

After planting, the next step is to mulch around the plants or seeds. Mulching accomplishes multiple objectives in the garden—it helps retain water in the soil, suppresses weed growth, and houses beneficial insects, to name a few. You can mulch with cardboard or landscape fabric, or you can mulch with wood chips or grass clippings—it’s up to you. 

7. Plant cover crops in the fall 

A key component of no-till gardening is cover cropping. Seeding cover crops in the off-season or in between crop successions keeps weeds from taking over, puts nutrients back in the soil, and keeps the soil from eroding or compacting. 

Check out our Farm and Field Seeds for our full collection of cover crops. White Dutch Clover and Hubam Sweet Clover are our two favorite nitrogen-fixing clover varieties for cover cropping, and Buckwheat and Hairy Vetch are known to suppress weed growth and attract beneficial insects. Deeply rooted plants like Daikon Minowase Radishes are perfect for loosening the soil—plus, you get to enjoy the roots as a snack every so often. 

Conclusion

No-till gardening is an effective way to improve soil health and reduce soil compaction. It relies on layering organic material on top of the soil to promote healthy microbial activity and improved soil structure. Low-till farming provides numerous benefits, including increased soil moisture retention, better air and water infiltration, and healthier and more productive plants. Overall, no-till gardening is a great way to cultivate a thriving and sustainable garden.

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