Most people associate gardening with the repetitive tasks of digging and weeding. The assumption is that digging will provide more oxygen to the soil. And weeding will free up nutrients for the actual plants you’re hoping to cultivate.
However, no-till gardening enthusiasts, who are rising in numbers, will tell you the opposite. Too much digging and weeding may actually be unnecessary at best, and harmful at worst.
Tilling and weeding has been done for centuries with admitted results. However, proponents of no-dig gardening will tell you that tilling and weeding are short-term solutions. That may actually damage the soil in the long-run. Requiring even more work over time to maintain the soil’s ecosystem and health.
Below, we’ll explain what no-till gardening is. Dig a little deeper into the pros and cons, and teach you how to start your own no-till garden.
What does a no-till garden mean?
A no-till garden isn’t just about avoiding disturbances to the soil. But it also involves adding layers of new nutrient rich soil and humus (aka organic composting/non-decomposed plant matter) to your garden bed.
The basic tenets of no-till gardening are as follows:
Do not dig and disturb the soil too much. Digging destroys the soil structure. Which organisms like worms and insects have worked so hard to create. By leaving the soil structure undisturbed, no-dig gardening preserves the tunnels and networks in the soil created by these organisms. Allowing for higher quality soil and more nutrients.
Never leave the soil bare and always add cover material and/or compost. In nature, fallen leaves and dead plant debris cover the soil. Providing not only a protective cover, but eventually also rich nutrients when the organic matter decomposes.
Leave the roots in the soil when harvesting. The roots of harvested plants provide a network of existing tunnels for oxygen and water to permeate. And they will eventually decompose over time into rich nutrients for the next planting season.
Do not walk on or compact the soil. Compacted soil increases soil density. Making it difficult for roots to penetrate the soil to access vital nutrients.
The main theme of no-tilling gardening is to try and imitate nature as much as possible. By naturally supporting the soil ecosystem with organic matter readily available in nature.
After all, no one goes out raking and digging in the woods. Yet nature still manages to support an incredibly diverse ecosystem. Full of plants and life thriving in harmony without chemicals and tools. After all, nature knows best.
No-till gardening pros & cons
No-till gardening isn’t just about being in harmony with nature. But actually produces higher soil quality and better yields. And also saves time and money spent on unnecessary chemicals.
The pros of no-till gardening are many, including:
Less back-breaking labor digging or weeding, as no-till gardening smothers weeds naturally.
Less watering, as moisture is retained better in the organic material.
More porous soil, as micro-organisms and insects are undisturbed. To create tunnels and decompose organic matter.
Less need for fertilizer as organic matter is substituted for chemicals.
Self-regulating soil pH, as earthworms consume organic carbon, decreasing the soil pH naturally.
Less soil erosion as the soil maintains better structure.
Better soil structure and ecosystem as the natural soil is undisturbed but built upon.
More weather resistance as soil protection guards against wind and the elements
Higher yields, resiliency, and biodiversity according to some studies.
No-digging gardening requires a little bit more investment and careful planning. Since decomposition doesn’t occur immediately. Other cons are:
It takes time. While it’s certainly possible to begin no-till gardening immediately. It often takes 3-6 months for organic matter to fully decompose into nutrients.
It’s harder to scale, as it requires constant feeding with mulch and compost. To continually replenish the soil nutrients.
It’s messy and attracts pests like slugs. Which love the messy nutrient-rich garden beds of no-till gardens.
Supplies can be difficult to find when you’re just starting out. Depending on the materials available to line your no-till garden.
Till vs no-till garden
Proponents of a till garden will say that tilling allows the soil to warm up faster in the spring. Tilling, they argue, also increases air in the soil, allowing for bacteria in the soil to be more active.
However, excessive tilling also destroys the soil structure. Which leads to compacting over time, which decreases nutrients. Tilling also leads to significant erosion, which can cause chemical runoff and pollution. Tilling on a commercial and wide-spread scale is also less sustainable than no-till farming. Which produces less carbon and is generally more sustainable.
How to prepare your garden for no-till
You can practice no-till gardening, even if you already have an existing vegetable bed. Just start by continually adding organic plant matter (composted or not) on your existing bed.
Vegetables need weed-free and nutritious soil. Which is why no-till gardening actually begins with preparation to smother weeds. Especially those that lurk under the soil’s surface.
If you’re starting fresh, it’s quite simple and fast to begin no-till gardening using cardboard.
Start by covering the designated area using cardboard or layers of newspapers. This will suffocate any grass or weeds. Next, add on organic matter (mulch or compost) with the larger pieces on the bottom and the finer pieces on top.
You can use any type of compost or mulch for no-till gardening. Grass cuttings, fresh garden debris, herbs, weeds, seaweed, wood chips, etc. Dryer materials such as sticks will help with soil structure. While greener materials will have more nutrients.
No-dig gardening with hay is also possible as a mulch material. Hay is a nutrient-rich material and will smother weeds while retaining moisture. However, hay may contain seeds which may germinate. And also attract pests as it decomposes.
Frequently Asked Questions
You can start whenever! However, it’s recommended to begin in the fall. And allow the winter for the mulch to decompose and settle, before planting in the spring.
Hay is highly biodegradable and takes ~4 weeks to 12 months to fully decompose. Water and rain will help speed up this process. But it’s important for your compost layer to be able to drain as slimy and wet hay does not make for great compost.
Cardboard can decompose fully under soil and water in about 3 months. Depending on conditions, it can even decompose in two months.