The Basics of No-Till Gardening

The Basics of No Till Gardening
This post may contain affiliate links. At no cost to you, I may earn from qualifying purchases made through some links. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site!

I vividly recall my dad dragging out a heavy tiller and repeatedly tilling up the weedy soil to plant our vegetable garden each when I got married and moved to a suburban house with a nice-sized backyard, I did the same. (And by "I," I mean my husband. Haha!) I sowed seeds and eagerly waited for them to come up. (Yes me; not he!) But the weeds came up first. Not too easily discouraged, I pulled them and waited for my desired veggies to emerge. They did - but so did more weeds. 

I tried to keep up with those weeds - really, I did. But eventually, they got the better of me. Little did I know that tilling brings seeds that were too buried in the soil to naturally germinate up to the surface, where they happily begin growing.

Thankfully, my next try at a garden was a lot more successful - because by then, I'd been introduced to no-till, no-dig methods. ("No-dig" refers to the traditional method of double digging the soil before planting. Basically, it's the manual method of deep tilling. It does not mean the gardener can't dig into the soil to plant - or remove - something.) 

I was attracted to no-till methods for the same reasons I still use them in my garden today: 

1. It's a lot less work. It doesn't require any type of machine to prep for planting (nor fuel to run that machine), nor does it require difficult manual labor. Over time, it saves a tremendous amount of labor because the soil requires little to no prepping and so little weeding is necessary.

My first no-till garden.

2. It's better for the soil. In nature, most seeds and roots settle into soil that's largely undisturbed - certainly not deeply tilled or dug. This undisturbed soil is packed with beneficial microorganisms...all of which are disturbed or even killed by deep digging or tilling. Mycelium— the fungal network below ground that helps plants grow - is also damaged by digging and tilling. In addition, no till methods prevent erosion and compaction that makes it difficult for plants to take up nutrients and water. And unlike tilling, which destroys humus (and therefore requires plenty of soil amendments), no-till methods actually help create this important part of the soil.

3. Weeds are much less likely to germinate in undisturbed soil. Those weeds that do pop up are generally very easy to pull out by hand, due to the layers of organic matter on top of the soil. Or, if you don't want to bother with such pulling, you can merely smother out the weeds.

4. Less irrigation is necessary because there are organic layers covering the soil, retaining moisture. 

My current no-till garden.

Now, none of this is to say that tilling might not be smart at times. For example, my garden area was originally packed with invasive blackberries. Before establishing the garden, my husband not only mowed everything down, he tilled certain areas so that the most persistent weeds (and their roots) could be removed. However, once those areas were covered with layers of organic matter, tilling was no longer needed - or beneficial.

And before you start telling me no-till methods are just trendy and not worth trying, let me assure you that variations on the no-till method have been around since at least the 1940s book Ploughman's Folly, which quickly led to studies by Purdue University that came out in support of no-till methods. Other famous proponents of no-till methods include Ruth Stout (who published multiple books written in the 1950s-70s, including The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book), Patricia Lanza (who wrote Lasagna Gardening in the late 1990s), Paul Gautschi (of Back to Eden fame), and market gardener Charles Dowding (who's written multiple books, including Organic Gardening: The Natural, No-Dig Way). And then there's little ol' me, who's been using no-till methods for most of my gardening career.

The science is there to back up no till claims (you can start researching that here and here)  - and the productivity and health of no-till gardens certainly shows that the method works.

No-till methods produce big, beautiful produce.

How to Get Started

The basic principle of all no-till methods are - obviously - to not till or double dig...but how does one achieve that? Various proponents use slightly differing methods. Ruth Stout put hay and sometimes leaves on top of her soil; Paul Cautschi uses wood chips; Charles Dowding uses compost. But truthfully, any organic matter can go on top of the soil to create a good no till garden (as Patricia Lanza hinted at with her layers of organic matter spread like lasagna filling on top of her soil).

But this organic matter laid on top of the garden isn't just a one time thing. You have to keep covering the soil, for two reasons:

#1, because the organic matter acts as a mulch to retain moisture in the soil and keep weeds down.

And #2, because the plants you grow are continually sucking nutrition out of the soil, so you need to add nutrients back into the earth.

In an established no-till garden, fertilizing is rarely, if ever, necessary. Instead, focus on feeding the soil by, once or twice a year, putting organic matter on top of it, to naturally decompose. This organic matter can be nearly anything you have on hand; you do not need to buy anything to have a successful no-till garden.

It's highly unlikely you don't have at least some useful organic matter in your own yard, but if perchance you don't, then you can round it up from your neighbors, your municipality, or from local businesses. Look for:

* Vegetable and fruit scraps from your kitchen. (You can compost these in a bin or pile, or you can simply bury them in the garden.)

* Dry leaves. When leaves fall in the autumn, gather them up and pile them onto the garden. It helps if you first run over them with a lawn mower so they decompose faster, but that's not absolutely necessary. You can also turn these leaves into leaf mold - but again, that little bit of extra work isn't required.

* Yard trimmings. Pulling leaves off your Brussels sprouts? Trimming a bush? Removing yellowed leaves from a broccoli plant? Need to get rid of the season's corn stalks? All these trimmings can be laid directly on top of your garden soil.

* Grass. When you mow, use the bagger, then spread the grass out thinly. Let it dry a little, so it isn't clumpy, then put it on top of your garden soil.

* Wood chips and sawdust. Local arborists often give wood chips away for free; so do mills and municipalities. Sometimes they even deliver!

* Compost. Make yours at home with kitchen scraps and yard trimmings. Use a bin, if you're concerned about pests getting into it or neighbor complaining. Can't afford a compost bin? Use a plastic garbage can with holes drilled all over it. Some municipalities also offer residents free compost made from grass and brush trimmings.

* Worm castings. Worm bins are cheap to create and cost nothing once you establish them. 

My no-till garden, early in the spring.

* Newspapers. If you still get one that has only black and white ink, these can be laid down directly on the soil, then covered with more organic matter. Or, you can shred them and put them in your compost.

* Farm waste. Spent hay or straw from barns can often be had from local hobby farms for free. Just make sure the hay or straw is organic.

* Manure. Rabbit, sheep, and goat manure can be applied directly to the garden without composting it. Other livestock manure needs to compost a bit first. Again, manure can often be had for free from local hobby farms, but I also know gardeners who keep a rabbit or two as pets just so they can use their copious amounts of poop in their gardens.

* Cover crops. For just the cost of a seed packet, you can plant something that will prevent soil erosion during the winter, then can be cut down and laid directly onto the soil to feed it.

* Roots. Instead of pulling out the roots of plants when they are spent, leave them in tact. As they decay, all the good nutrients they pulled from the soil will go back into the earth. (If the roots are in the way of new plants you want to add to the garden, dig them out...then throw them in the compost pile.)

Some people claim it's just not possible to collect enough organic matter for a large garden. I say, keep asking around. Most people are delighted to give you their fall leaves or grass clippings, for example. I've even seen bags of dry leaves offered up for free on Facebook Marketplace. 

In addition, there's no law that says you have to cover your entire garden with organic matter all at the same time. Instead, apply whatever you have on hand, and make a note of what parts of the garden didn't get covered. Next time you have organic matter on hand, lay it on the portions of the garden that were neglected last time.

Planting out the garden in early spring.

So, How Do I Plant?

A lot of people are confused about how to sow seeds or plant seedlings in no-till gardens....because they are taking the "no dig" name a little too literally.

To direct sow seeds, you can either insert your finger into the soil to create a hole for larger seeds that are more deeply sown, or you can use your finger to create a small furrow in the soil to plant smaller seeds into. In either case, once the seeds are at the correct depth, just use your hands (or a hoe) to cover them up with soil. (Be sure to tamp down the soil firmly, so the seeds have good contact with it.)

For plants, use a shovel, spade, or your hand to dig a hole of the appropriate size. You don't need to dig a large hole to "loosen the soil." Just dig it big enough that you can spread the roots out as needed. (Remember that over-digging actually harms the natural life in the soil.) Plop the plant in the hole, and push soil around it, making sure to to press down a bit so that any air pockets in the soil disappear.

Remember, the no-till, no-dig method is meant to minimize damage to the soil, but it doesn't mean you can't dig holes for planting.

How to Convert Your Garden to No Till

To convert your garden to this method, start by smothering the weeds. Mow or weed whack them low to the ground. If you have difficult-to-get-rid of weeds, dig them out or till lightly and pull them out, getting as much of their roots as possible. If this sounds like a lot of can be. But remember that this is a one-time deal!

As long as the weeds or grass haven't gone to seed, there's no need to haul them off somewhere. Let them sit right where they fell. As they rot, they will feed the soil.

Now lay down something that will block light from the weeds and grass. I recommend corrugated cardboard, in double layers, overlapping. The cardboard should have no printing on it, or should have only black ink markings. Do not use cardboard that is slick, has colored ink, or is bleached any color, including white, because non-organic chemicals are used on such cardboard. If you prefer, you may also use multiple layers of newspapers instead of cardboard, but be sure to use black and white, non-slick pages only. 

To find enough cardboard for your garden, look in local Facebook groups for people giving away moving boxes, or contact local businesses (especially appliance and furniture stores) to ask for whatever they have. You can also put an ISO ("in search of") post in local Facebook groups.

Adding a new section to my garden by laying down cardboard.

Some people are concerned that cardboard isn't organic because they've read that pesticides are sprayed on them (which has been debunked by multiple sources) or that the glue that's used to hold them together is not organic. There may be variations from country to country, but the USDA’s National Organic Program allows for the use of brown cardboard with black lettering on it. In addition, The ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture Program has done research into the different chemicals used in making cardboard, including those used for coatings, inks, and glue. They found that brown corrugated cardboard is the least processed and is benign in the garden. (Brown cardboard is simply recycled paper to which natural starch has been added, that is then pressed into shape.)

Assuming you're using upcycled cardboard, be sure to remove all labels and tape (which may contain plastic), as well as any staples, before you lay it down in the garden. 

Once your smothering material is laid down and watered, cover it with more organic material. There are lots of ways to go about this. If you have the money, and you want an instantly great garden, you can buy good organic garden soil in bulk and lay it over the cardboard. Tada! All done.

New garden beds made by laying down cardboard, mulch, and compost or soil.

But you can also lay other organic matter on top, as long as it completely covers the cardboard with at least 4 inches. (The cardboard will decompose rather quickly, allowing plant roots through, if needed.) If you don't have enough homemade compost to lay on top of the cardboard, try lasagna gardening (also called "sheet mulching"). The trick here is to alternate layers of carbon-rich materials (or "browns," as they are often called in composting; these include dry leaves, straw, hay, and sawdust) with nitrogen-rich materials (or "greens," like grass clippings, produce scraps, garden trimmings, weeds, and manure). The brown layers should be about twice as thick as the green layers and the finished lasagna should be about two feet tall. (It will shrink down in just a couple of weeks.)

Now cover your pathways with cardboard and organic matter like wood chips or straw. 

Your no till garden is now ready for planting!

To see how I created my current garden using these no till methods, click here.

Later in the year...

What if My Native Soil Is Lousy?

No-till methods are perfect for gardeners who have naturally lousy soil on their property. Our homestead has heavy red clay soil that almost nothing but weeds thrives in. But using no-till methods allows me to grow a highly productive garden.

It really doesn't matter if your soil is clay, sand, hard-packed, or full of rocks. With this method, you create new, better soil on top of whatever is native. (If you have large rocks in your soil, I'd remove them first, but if the rocks are smaller, just add lots of organic matter on top!)

Maintaining a No Till Garden

Very little maintained is required in a no-till garden, aside from continuing to layer organic matter on top of the soil once or twice a year. However, should some weeds pop up, you can either hand pull them (most will come up easily), or you can choose to re-smother them. To mother, simply lay more cardboard on top of them, then cover that with organic matter. The benefit of this latter method is that as the weeds die, they actually put fresh nutrients into the soil.

No-till gardens are beautiful and require much less work!


Related Articles:



No comments