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Green Speak

Horticulture topics from gardens to lawns and then some.

What Can No-Till Gardening Do For You?


Growing up and working in my parent's garden, I often remember the early spring when the tree buds are opening, grass is greening and birds are singing. Suddenly, the roar of our massive Honda tiller broke through the serene spring day as it chewed and turned the earth and spewed exhaust into my parents face. At my young age, I didn't have the mass to maneuver the behemoth machine. My mother assured me that turning the soil was better for the plants and kept the weeds down. I often questioned this statement later in the summer as I weeded the hard crusted earth and hauled water to struggling plants.

Today there is a debate on whether we should pursue till or no-tilled gardens. Tilling helps to introduce oxygen and organic matter into the soil profile and aids in breaking up heavy clay soil or areas that suffer from compaction. So why switch to no-till? Well, tilling also destroys the structure of your soil. A loose friable soil is desirable, but be aware that opening the soil up exposes it to air and sunlight which will greatly diminishes your soil moisture. Over-tilled or pulverized soil has smaller soil particles that dry out quicker, and you can easily develop a 'crust' on the soil surface. Additionally, by tilling or 'lifting' the soil you are exposing dormant weed seed that will now germinate. Add in the labor that is required to till and the increased watering and weeding throughout the summer and you've created quite a chore.

The best approach to a no-till garden is to use raised beds. Your initial efforts at constructing raised beds will be greatly rewarded with reduced labor in the long-term. A raised bed's function is to define the planting space by elevating it above the ground plane. This is key because it supports the first rule of no-till gardening, you do NOT walk in the planting bed. Continuous foot traffic in a planting bed leads to increased soil compaction and thereby an increased need for tilling. Design your raised beds to be no wider than you can reach, usually 3 to 4-feet. Raised beds can have any shape or length, but just make sure you will not be tempted to step or walk through them.

Raised beds can be constructed out of poured concrete, concrete block, brick, or wood. It is best to not use pretreated lumber due to the toxic chemicals that can build up in the soil and are toxic to plants and you. An optional step is to till the existing soil if you have hard clay pan. Lay down cardboard or newspaper to suffocate any existing plants such as turf. Fill your raised beds with a majority of compost and some quality topsoil.

Mulch is the second key ingredient to no-till gardening. Compost or shredded leaves are the best options as these biodegrade quickly and will infiltrate easily into the soil profile, reducing your need to till. Mulch your raised beds with compost or shredded leaves at a depth of 2 to 4-inches. Maintain this depth every year as your mulch will continuously compost into your raised beds giving you wonderful soil. Fall is the best time to construct your raised beds as this will give your compost time to break-down over the winter and be ready for spring.

Luckily, our family's gardening experiment evolved with experience and we shifted to a no-till, raised bed strategy. After more than a decade of having raised beds my parents rarely water, never till, and only have the occasional weed pop up. By adopting a no-till gardening strategy you can save water, labor, and time better spent come summertime, like relaxing in a hammock.



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