When you think of having a garden it’s fairly well established. In the spring you turn the soil over because it got all compacted down over the winter. Then you plant your seeds. They will grow up over the season and in the fall you harvest the last bits from your garden. Next you pull out the rest of those plants and toss them on the compost pile. The plot then gets ignored until the spring. I mean, that’s how the big guys seem to do it, and they know what they are doing, right?
There is life in that soil
So your soil has a rather busy life of bacteria, fungus, protozoa, nematodes as well as beetles and worms and such. When you get your soil nice and healthy all of these things can help keep your plants growing strong. A healthy soil also helps sequesters CO2. The worms and other bugs crawling through help to keep your soil well aerated and keeps the soil broken up. Also properly tended soil can be used to store nitrogen for other crops to use at other times in the year.
Some problems with tilling
At times tilling is great. When you are just starting a garden plot tilling can be a wonderful way to get the ground prepared for crops. The issues start to come if you keep doing it year after year. If you till you are destroying that complex system of life that is in your soil and it has to start again. Many times those who till ever year will add in more fertilizer and other additions to the soil each year. That might not be too bad until people start adding in more chemicals.
Also when you till since you are getting all the earthworms and other life out of that section of soil you get your ground nice and broken up at the beginning but there isn’t a strong population there to keep at it. This means that as you get rains or step on your growing areas you end up compacting the soil. The more compact the soil the harder time plants will have getting roots through the soil and they won’t grow as big or as healthy. Additionally compacted soil can’t accept as much water, so at a certain point it won’t matter how much you water or if you get a good rain, the soil won’t be able to take as much water and it will be easier for your soil to dry out.
Now it follows that if your soil is dry that it is easy for the top layer to be able to blow away in the wind or be washed away when you do get that heavy rain. Most of your nutrients for the crops you are growing are in that top layer of soil, and if it is eroding away there go your nutrients. Also when you till your soil you bring new weed seeds up to the top layer, where they will begin to grow.
Tilling does have upsides
When you are first starting your garden tilling is probably the best option. A no till garden relies on good soil, but not everyone starts with good soil. Tilling for your first year is a good option to break up new soil for a garden. You’ll find plenty of rocks and roots that you can see about dealing with before you have your garden started. However after a few years if you keep taking care of your soil you’ll find that your garden is much healthier if you aren’t tilling every year.
So how can one go about no till gardening
While it is not hard it is not work free. Assuming you are starting from a garden plot already (I am, I’m starting already having some raised beds), then you just need to “top dress” when you add in new compost, mulch or composted manures. That is simply adding those on top of the soil, instead of digging or tilling them in. You will want to keep a layer of mulch on top of the soil. That much will help limit the erosion and help water retention.
Also, you don’t want to be stepping all over your growing beds. I know some people will not care when they decide that they will just till it up later, but now that you’ve embraced no tilling you don’t have that as an option. If you simply must step on the beds it might be a good idea to a stepping stone in the areas that you find yourself or others stepping frequently.
What of cover crops?
Cover crops are great! I will be planting some in my garden this fall. Some such as oats and clover and rye will help to put nitrogen back in the soil. Just plant them after you harvest the rest of your garden. Remember that you still want to have a good mulch layer down as your cover crop grows. Then you can leave your garden all winter. Now your garden is no laying bare all winter. When you approach your planting season you’ll want to cover your beds with a dark plastic weighed down with rocks.
The heat will help break down your cover crops. As an added benefit this will heat your bed to about the same heat as a “hot compost pile”. In these you have a lot of good bacteria and fungi. Lastly this help to cook any other weed seeds as well any larva from pests. You will want to make sure that you plan out when you need to plant, since it will take about 2 weeks to break down those cover crops.
What can I use as mulch?
There are plenty of options for you. A part of it will depend on what you have the best access to. In the fall you can use leaves of trees, but you’ll want to have something else to break them up or they can become matted. You can use newspaper, but its best to not use any that are printed with colored ink, also you need something to weigh down your paper. You can use wood chips if you have a good source or them. Some will use hay, but you need to be careful since that can introduce new weed seeds into your garden. Plenty of people will use straw since it has had the seeds removed already.
When it come times to plant simply push the mulch aside where you’d like to plant and then dig a hole just enough to plant the seed or the transfer plant. As it grows up you can put the mulch back in place. You’ll find that your soil health will help grow bigger better plants. And since you aren’t bringing new weed seeds up to the top ever year there will be less weeding. Of course there will always be wind and bird spread seeds.