No Till Gardening
By Majo Bates, Master Gardener
I want to share a few things to encourage you to garden with less work. I have realized that I don’t have to work so hard to achieve a fruitful harvest and lovely blooms in my garden. As the limitless energy of my youth gradually gives way to the physical realities of mid-life, the slow reality of experience eventually led to awareness that less work can result in greater crop yields and blooms on my flowers. Maybe some commonsense, sustainable practices that all but eliminate the use of fertilizer, pesticides, tillage and perhaps most significantly, wasteful effort can be used for all of us this spring and summer.
I have learned that a large majority of farm operators use the no-till method of planting their commodities. It saves them a lot of work and money. So, I think we “home gardeners” can be wise to use it too. No-till gardening is a series of methods in which the soil is never disturbed, thereby protecting the complex subsoil environment for the benefit of growing plants. Amendments such as compost, manure, peat, lime and fertilizer are simply added to the top of the garden beds, and over time they will be incorporated into the subsoil by watering and the activity of subsoil organisms. There should be no need to dig anything into the soil.
By switching to no-till methods, I won’t have to do the heavy tilling or shovel work which so many gardeners suffer through each spring. I will need to ensure the beds remain well mulched and take care to never step on the beds.
Most 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.
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 materials in layers, the underlying soil surface remains spongy, making it easy for the young roots to newly planted seedlings to work through the soil. This is similar to the way soil is formed in nature.
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 this comparatively undisturbed environment, and by encouraging the buildup of beneficial soil fungi.
If we have a good supply of mulching materials and reapply them as necessary throughout the growing season, we can enjoy the benefits of a productive garden with less work in the spring, less weeding and less water used throughout the summer.
I’m looking forward to spring this year and some no-till gardening methods that I plan to use. Happy gardening—ya’ll, and God bless.