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No-till Gardening

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…less work can yield better results

By Greg Seaman Posted Jan 28, 2009

Gardeners traditionally dig, or turn over the top layer of soil before planting to get rid of weeds, and make it easier to use fertilizers and to plant crops. This also speeds up the decomposition of crop residue, weeds and other organic matter. Tilling the soil is often the most strenuous of a gardener’s tasks.

A complex, symbiotic relationship exists between the soil surface and the underlying micro-organisms, however, which contributes to a natural, healthy soil structure. Digging into the bed can interfere with this process and disturb the natural growing environment. It can also cause soil compaction and erosion, and bring dormant weed seeds to the surface where they will sprout.

With ‘no-till’ gardening, once the bed is established the surface is never disturbed. Amendments such as compost, manure, peat, lime and fertilizer are ‘top dressed’, i.e added to the top of the bed where they will be pulled into the subsoil by watering and the activity of subsoil organisms. Weeding is largely replaced by the use of mulch. By adding material in layers, the underlying soil surface remains spongy, making it easy for the young roots of newly planted seedlings to work through the soil. This is similar to the way soil is formed in nature.

Benefits of no-till gardening

Promotes natural aeration and drainage.

Worms and other soil life are important to healthy soil structure, their tunnels providing aeration and drainage, and their excretions bind together soil crumbs. No-till systems are said to be freer of pests and disease, possibly due to a more balanced soil population being allowed to build up in this comparatively undisturbed environment, and by encouraging the buildup of beneficial soil fungi.

Saves water.

Thick layers of mulch allow water to pass through easily while shading the soil. This reduces water lost to evaporation while maintaining a moist growing environment beneficial for root growth.

Reduces or eliminates the need to weed.

Most garden soils contain weed seeds which lay dormant until the soil is disturbed and the seeds become exposed to light. With no-till gardening, these seeds will remain dormant indefinitely. Of course, some weeds will appear in the beds, borne by wind or birds. These weeds are easy to remove by hand if you pull them early in the morning or shortly after watering, while the soil is damp.

Saves time and energy.

Whether you turn your garden beds by hand or use a gas-powered rototiller, you’ll save energy by using the no-till method. Although some effort is required in gathering materials for mulching, and applying the mulch during the growing season, no digging or turning of the soil is required.

No-till gardening helps soil retain carbon.

Healthy topsoil contains carbon-enriched humus and decaying organic matter that provides nutrients to plants. Soils low in humus can’t maintain the carbon-dependent nutrients essential to healthy crop production, resulting in the need to use more fertilizers. Tilling the soil speeds the breakdown or organic matter, which releases nutrients too quickly. A steady, slow release of nutrients is more beneficial to plant growth.

Builds earthworm population.

The moist conditions of the soil beneath mulch creates the ideal environment for earthworms, whose activity aerates the soil and stimulates root growth.

Helps reduce soil erosion.

A lack of carbon in soil may promote erosion, as topsoil and fertilizers are often washed or blown away from garden beds.

Methods used in no-till gardening

Prepare the bed before adopting the no-till method.

With new garden beds you need to establish a good, fertile soil structure before you can expect good results with the no-till/mulch method. The soil should be ‘double-dug’ at least the depth of two shovel blades, and large rocks, roots and other obstructions removed. Be sure to remove any perennial weed roots. Amendments such as peat, lime, vermiculite, compost or other organic material can then be worked into the soil.

Use mulch liberally, in layers.

Mulch is an essential part of no-till gardening. A thick layer of mulch will keep the soil from drying out and crusting over, which restricts nutrient and water flow to the subsoil. It also reduces water loss due to evaporation.Mulch will provide cover for soil insects and often dramatically increases the earthworm population. However, mulches can also introduce weeds to your garden bed. For example, try to use straw instead of hay because fewer weed seeds are found in straw. Leaves, especially from deciduous species such as Maple, add valuable nutrients to the soil but should not be layered too thickly. Thick layers of leaves can form ‘mats’ which restrict water penetration and harbor insects. You can intersperse layers of straw with leaves, for example, to prevent matting.

When planting seedlings, pull the mulch back and dig into the surface just enough to set the plant.

The depth of mulch can be only a few inches when seedlings are first planted, then added in layers as the plant grows. Pull mulch away from the stems of tomatoes, peppers and long-stemmed plants. Beds left over winter can benefit from mulch 12″ – 24″ in depth.

The following lists common materials used for mulches:

  • Grass Clippings – Cut grass before it goes to seed. Fresh ‘green’ clippings will add nitrogen to the soil, which helps plants grow. If you let the clippings turn brown, you will get the mulch effect without adding nitrogen. (As plants begin to fruit, nitrogen should not be added.)
  • Newspaper – Avoid using paper with colored inks; can blow away in the wind.
  • Yard waste – Cut up any branches or woody material.
  • Compost – Needs to be ‘finished’ compost so as not to attract pests. Compost is a good early season mulch, but as the plant begins fruiting, you should withhold sources of nitrogen.
  • Hay – Good mulching material but beware – weed seeds may be introduced.
  • Straw – Good source of carbon; excellent mulching material.
  • Seaweed – Adds trace minerals, deters slugs. Should be applied liberally because seaweed shrinks considerably when dry.
  • Fine bark – Can be acidic. You may need to add lime at the same time.
  • Wood Shavings – Avoid shavings from chain saws or tools that leave oil residues.
  • Leaves – A valuable source of carbon, leaves make excellent mulch. Apply in thin layers, or intersperse with other materials to prevent matting. Sprinkle soil on top if needed to prevent leaves from blowing away in a strong wind.
  • Forest duff – Pine needles, twigs, woody bits are useful, but can be acidic.

‘Top dress’ amendments.

Even a well-established garden bed will need regular amendments added during the growing season, and in spring and fall. Compost, peat, lime, wood ashes and other material are easily added to the bed without digging them in. Spread this material around the plants where needed, and add mulch to cover.

Cut back on watering.

The use of mulch retains moisture, thereby reducing the need for frequent watering. Reduced watering also helps minimize soil compaction and the germination of unwanted weeds. Drip-irrigation techniques are very helpful in this regard because water is delivered to root zones, without being wasted on unplanted areas or pathways.

Cover crops

These can be planted during the off-season for a garden bed as a way of discouraging weeds from becoming established, and to return essential nutrients to the soil. Crops such as crimson clover, oats, rye and hairy vetch are referred to as ‘green manures’ because of the fertility they add to the soil. Rye should not be planted preceding small-seeded crops like onions or carrots.

To replant a bed which has been planted in a cover crop, lay dark plastic sheeting over the bed and weight down the edges with rocks. Heat will build sufficiently to kill the plants, then vegetable seed or transplants can be set out after removing the plastic. Ideally, allow two weeks before planting to allow crop residues to break down, releasing nitrogen for the new seedlings. This method takes time, however, and can conflict with the spring planting schedule. Another method is to hand pull the cover crop where you want to place the seedlings, and cover the remaining cover crop with a thick layer of mulch. Another method is the cut the cover crop to a stubble, then gently work the stubble into the soil with a hoe. This process compromises the ‘no till’ method, but can still be sufficient to allow early planting.

Winter cover with hay.

A simpler alternative to planting cover crops is to place a thick layer of straw and leaves over the garden beds for the winter months. This layer needs to be deep, as much as 2′ deep, to keep weeds for sprouting. In the spring, the pile will be lower. When ready to plant, the mulch can be simply pulled back to dig the hole with a hand spade for the plants. Some gardeners report this method encourages voles and other pests who nest in the straw and burrow into the soil. It is best to experiment with this method on a small part of your garden to ensure its effectiveness in your growing region.

Avoid compacting the soil.

Avoid stepping on the bed, as this compacts the soil. If the bed is wider than 4′, a board or stepping stones can be set in place on the bed. If a board is used, flip it over occasionally to allow the underside to dry out and to expose any slugs or snails.

It should be noted that “no-till” does not mean “no-work”. As the mulch breaks down and settles into the soil, new mulch needs to be added. This should be done in a timely way, because if the soil surface is exposed to direct watering, and heavy rain, it compacts. You may need to break up (till) the soil before planting the next crop, and this defeats the purpose of the no-till method.

In conclusion, no-till gardening requires some experimenting to find the right techniques for your growing region. Ideally, one or two ‘extra’ beds in the garden can be used for testing cover crops and spring planting methods. Over time, the remaining garden beds can be transitioned to no-till. If you have a good supply of mulching materials and reapply them as necessary throughout the growing season, you can enjoy the benefits of a productive garden with less work in the spring, less weeding and less water used throughout the summer.

One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka
The Secret Garden, by David Bodanis
Gardening without work: for the aging, the busy, and the indolent, by Ruth Stout, Lyon Press (1998)
Weedless Gardening, by Lee Reich, published by Workman Publishing (2001)

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  • Greg Seaman

    I agree that for some applications you do not need to double-dig. We are converting part of our lawn to a blueberry patch and have been top dressing with cardboard and mulches, and not digging into the soil. For permanent vegetable beds, however, I have found double-digging useful to clear large rocks and to learn what lies beneath. Once we found a huge boulder that would have been tough to garden over. More often we find large roots from neighboring trees. This led us to, in one garden, dig a trench and line it with a barrier to the roots. In another garden we decided to relocate the bed. We were glad we dug down to find this out. However, this should only need to be done once (if at all).

  • antonio

    I work for the central bank and find that there is an abundance of confetti ( processed non-re-issuable notes) and I was wondering if this could be used for mulching.

  • mike polston

    I cleaned and sowed grass in our regular vegetable garden last week. I plan to no till the garden next year.My question is can I spay the path next year a week or so before digging with round-up

  • Jackie

    I live in zone 5 in NW Indiana. I want to start a no till garden on a grassy area. I have about 6 weeks before there will be no more frost. I don't think I have time to use black plastic or heavy mulch to kill the grass. I was wondering if using a sod cutter to get rid of the of the grass would be feasible. What do you recommend?

  • Paul

    I am not sure of your specific location however in the arid climate of the southwest the effects of drought and poor drainage has left a sodic condition that causes Na induced compaction that is only prevented by a liberal application of gypsum. If the compaction is not dealt with the poor drainage will cause root rot amoung other things. why don't you mention gypsum as one of your organic ammendments

  • dennison

    What should be done with dead plants at the end of a season? My idea was to cut down with a mower (bush-hog) & let them decompose, then to add on top of them my usual mulch of leaves for the winter. Traditional gardening methods don't always agree with this.

    • Greg Seaman

      For the most part, you can pull the plant skeletons and add them to your compost. This is what we do. Big chunks, like broccoli stalks get chopped with a machete first. This is not essential, but it helps speed up the composting.

      Some gardeners will say to not add tomato or potato skeletons, or ftuit tree leaves, because they may carry plant disease. I have disregarded this advice and have seen no bad consequences. If you are concerned, you can add these items to a separate pile and use the compost from this pile for your shrubs.

  • Renee

    I apologize because this is going to be a ditzy question…. I am very new to gardening. My husband and I want a spring garden so he brought a tractor in and tore up the ground pretty good in a large rectangle next he plans to till, is it to late to start no-till? What would we need to do next?
    Thanks for your time.

    • Greg Seaman

      As long as you've already broken into the ground, you should take this opportunity to clear it of large rocks and woody debris. Once you're satisfied the ground is clean enough for planting, you can add amendments that your soil may need, then smooth the soil for planting.
      It is never too late to begin a no-till gardening approach.

  • Flint

    You mentioned a couple of times about how leaves add carbon, and they do but not near as much as woody material like wood shavings. Depending on you rmanagement goals it might not be a good idea to add carbon, typically when a large amount of carbon is added to the soil it will tie up the majority of plant available nitrogen. This happens because microbes will only decompose matter that has a C:N ratio of around 14:1. Wood shavings have a C:N of about 400:1. Nitrogen being the most limiting factor for plant growth, you most likely don't want to tie it to decompose some wood chips.

    • Greg Seaman

      Very good comment Flint.
      In our composting experience, carbon is usually in short supply compared to nitrogen, especially during the winter months. When we do come up with carbon-based materials, like wood shavings, we have to add it in balance with other materials because it tends to clump together if we add too much at once.
      But as you point out, balancing the carbon/nitrogen ratio is key.

  • Marlene

    This method brings gardening within reach for me, as I have physical limitations. The no-till method is such a labor saving solution for me. Thank you and the commenters for a wealth of information here!

  • Swamp Thing

    Very cool – I’m going to try it this year because I had an amazing cover crop of field peas and I hate the thought of losing any of that nutrition. I love my soil!

  • Meadowdoggies

    I have been trying to use a no till method in my raised vege beds for 2 years and have not been very successful unless I mulch heavily with dried up leaves and then 10 or more inches of straw. At this point in the Spring some of my beds are already crusty and hard and really require tilling.How do I mulch sufficiently to prevent hard soil, amend soil and promote worm activity without making the soil too wet and without attracting slugs?

    • Good comment. We think of no-till gardening as a valuable concept which we try to apply to our garden beds, with the understanding that sometimes a bed will need to be tilled if the soil gets crusty or too hard. And some crops, such as potatoes and carrots, will require that the soil is dug into.
      If some of your beds are crusty, then by all means set the hoe into them and break up the surface soil. If you have been using mulch, then it is likely you only need to till the surface few inches. The soil below will still benefit from the lack of intrusion.
      Keep up with your practice of applying mulch, as this will maintain moisture  at the soil surface and will contribute to building soil as it breaks down. If the soil is too wet you may be applying mulch too early in the spring. In early spring we want the sun to reach the soil to help warm it for the first seedlings. If you have a localized problem with slugs or other pests, you can pull the mulch back temporarily. We use seaweed as mulch in areas of slug activity since the salt deters them.

      • cdcphoenix

        I’ve never heard of using seaweed as mulch. I can imagine that slugs and snails would avoid those areas.

        But doesn’t the salt content in seaweed negatively affect the plants?

        I get wood chips from a local arborist, who only brings non-diseased tree wood and leaves. That’s been working wonderfully, with potash added in areas, and rock dust applied liberally throughout my organic, edible cottage garden.

        Thanks for your response. This is a great article.


        • We apply the seaweed directly to the beds and have no problems with salt. However, you could always pile the seaweed and rinse with the hose before applying.
          Thank you for your comments.

  • Thanks Robbie, good point. When we have access to clean sawdust it goes into the compost where we usually need more carbon.

  • Good suggestions, especially your note to add grass clippings in thin layers or interspersed with other types of mulch. This prevents matting.

  • This article was insightful and enlightening. Thank you for sharing such a well written, thoughtful piece about preparing the soil.

  • Wickliffe

    Composted cotton burr is 1% nitrogen, 1% potassium and minimal phosphorous, with a very nice granularity, lots of carbon. Get it by the cubic yard as amendment and/or top-dressing, but it’s available in more expensive 2 cu.ft. bags, also.

  • Sal

    I am confused about something. It talks in the beginning about not disturbing the soil. Then it goes on to talk about double-digging. Don’t these contradict eachother? Couldn’t one just remove the sod in an area and plant right there? Or cover the sod to let it decompose and then plant in that area?

    • Sorry for the confusion. ‘Double-digging’ refers to the first time you are establishing a new plot of ground for gardening. You want to see what the soil is like, break up any compaction, and clear it of rocks and debris.

      Removing or covering the sod for planting is an easy way to get plants in the ground but you have no assurance how they will do. Usually, a new plot of ground requires tilling and amendments before it is suitable for gardening.

      Once your garden plot is established then the no-till approach can be used.

  • Jimmy Yost

    The way I do it is to mow the grass as low as my mower deck will allow, then I stake out the rows with a string and weedeat a foot wide strip under the whole length of the string down to bare dirt. Then I move the string to do the next row, and so on. Then I use a 4″soil sampling auger to dig the holes for the plants. Then after I’ve planted all the plants I put down cardboard around the plants and cover the whole garden (no weeds and no watering). You have to be careful putting down the cardboard so as not to damage the tiny plants. I never put down the cardboard when the wind is blowing because it can shear off the plant I’m trying to work to. I use tomato cages and firewood logs to hold down the cardboard.

    • You have developed your own unique method. That’s the beauty of gardening, it’s a creative endeavor.
      Thanks for your comment.

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