Historically, at the start of the planting season, gardens and fields were dig and tilled to loosen the earth and prepare it for planting. In today’s tip, we’re going to cover some no-till gardening methods and strategies and why you might want to incorporate these practices into your garden.
Digging and tilling has been a common practice for some of the many benefits it provides, such as loosening up large chunks, aerating the soil, creating a uniform bed into which planting/seeding can be done and digging cover crops under the surface. However, critics point to many disadvantages such as breaking up the microorganisms and microbe community in the soil, bringing weed seeds to the surface, speeding up soil erosion, losing carbon to the atmosphere and soil compaction (especially if done with wet/heavy soil), and the time and energy it can take to thoroughly dig and prep a garden bed.
As a result, a variety of no till gardening methods have been developed, which counteract many of these disadvantages. No-till gardening can promote natural aeration and drainage. For example, by not destroying the top layer of soil, worms, microorganisms, and decaying plant roots work together to form the channels for which air, water, and nutrients can be transported throughout the soil. No till gardening can also help to limit pests and diseases due to keeping buried weed seeds dormant and creating a positive undisturbed environment for beneficial microbes.
Ready to start no-till gardening? Here are few examples of gardens as well as different tips and tactics to keep your garden productive untilled.
Raised Bed Gardening
One of the easiest ways to start no-till gardening is with a raised bed. With a raised bed, you have clear defined walkways and clear defined planting areas that should never be walked in. After planting, simply avoid digging and tilling the raised bed to continue your no-till garden. We’ve been building raised beds since 2009 and you can read more about them here: http://youngurbanfarmers.com/edible-gardens/raised-bed-gardens/
Hugelkultur can be thought of as a modified type of raised bed garden. One main difference is that hugelkultur uses decaying logs as a base and sponge to help hold on to excess moisture. We’ll have more info on hugelkultur in another gardening tip towards the end of this year
Lasagna Gardening (see Tip #230):
Lasagna gardening is another great way to get started with a no-till garden. We’ve written about it already in tip #230: http://youngurbanfarmers.com/tips/230-lasagna-gardening/. Instead of digging down, lasagna gardening is about building up and layering different ingredients to form a strong base upon which your plants can grow.
Mulch will be one of your best friends when it comes to keeping the garden productive. Mulch will help to minimize water loss from evaporation and to provide organic matter when it breaks down over time. When you are planting, it is possible to plant directly into the mulch. Simply use more established transplants, pull back the mulch, plant your seedling, and carefully place the mulch back around your new plant. This may not work for smaller and more tender plants like salad greens and root vegetables, but larger plants like tomatoes and cucumbers can easily be transplanted using this method. Keep in mind that mulch is not mean just wood chips and bark, but anything that covers the soil to retain moisture and prevent weeds. It can include crushed rock, compost, peat moss, straw, and many other materials.
Top dressing with soil amendments like fertilizer and compost is another tried and true strategy. A final tip for those who are into cover cropping is to continue growing your cover crops, then kill them off by laying a thick sheet of black plastic to smother the plants instead of digging or tilling them under.