Maren explains climate, environment, problems and possible fixes and calls you to action.
Welcome to a jargon-free explanation of:
- what "tilling" versus "no-tilling" in a home garden is,
- new methods that agriculture research recommends,
- how the methods work well in home gardens, and
- how the new methods help the climate.
What Tilling Is
Digging, plowing, rototilling, turning over, and double-digging are all synonyms for tilling.
Tilling basically disturbs the top several inches of soil.
You may have been taught that it is necessary to loosen the soil and aerate it so that roots can more easily push through the ground. As a consequence, home gardeners often dug and turned over the soil, exposing moisture, earthworms, bugs, roots and much more.
Actually, human tilling causes a lot of harm to the soil and our climate, as you will see.
It’s time to stop.
What Is No-Till?
- No rampant deep digging.
- No double-dug trenches.
- No plows or rototillers lifting cubic feet sized chunks of earth and turning them upside down.
- No pulling weeds.
No-till is a simple concept, but for many traditional home flower and vegetable gardeners, the digging activity is part of their autopilot behavior. Stopping digging can be as traumatic as giving up sweets cold turkey.
No weed pulling?
In the no-till method, weeds are turned into helpers in the garden when you don't yanking them. The act of mechanical yanking hurts the health of the soil.
So . . .
In "no-till" you chop the tops of weeds and allow them to fall to the ground wherever they drop and . . .
you leave weed roots alone.
You leave the soil beneath the surface alone as much as possible. You'll see why later in this article.
Two Types of No-Till for Home Gardens
There are two approaches for each situation:
- Creating a new garden plot
- Working in an existing garden plot
1. Making a New Garden Plot With No-Till
Think layer cake. Or lasagna. Or a tower of blocks.
Basically, the no-till method for starting a new plot leaves existing soil alone (with two exceptions) and just stacks materials on it.
- Identify the area and remove any shrubs or trees that you do not want. Also, remove large rocks.
- If the ground is hard-packed, poke vertical holes using a pitchfork.
- Cover the area with a triple layer of newspaper or one layer of corrogated cardboard.
- Next, cover the paper with a half-inch (1 cm) of green waste. This is grass clippings or vegetable scraps or leaves.
- Then, cover this with shredded paper, shredded cardboard, or peat.
- Alternate adding green and paper layers. You can build the plot as high as two feet, if desired. Its height will shrink as the pile decomposes.
- For the final, top layer, apply 2 to 3 inches (5-8 cm) of manure, or compost, or purchased garden soil.
- Wait 1 or 2 weeks and then begin planting seeds or seedlings by digging a hole which is only the small, absolutely necessary needed to place that seed or young plant into the ground.
2. Using No-Till With an Existing Garden
In an established garden plot, follow these steps:
- Identify any tree seedlings that snuck in which you do not want. Remove them through digging, yanking, any way possible. (I admit that I am NOT a no-till purist when it comes to junk weed trees. I've removed my share of staghorn sumac, maples, and tree-of-heaven and I believe that yanking a 2-inch tall tree seedling is less harmful to the soil biota than doing major digging later on.)
- If the garden soil seems hard-packed, poke vertical holes using a pitchfork.
- Don't dig up weeds. Instead, snip them off at ground level and let them fall to the surface to decompose. This is called chop-and-drop. I actually use office scissors to remind me that I am cutting, not pulling.
- Surround stalks of your perennial plants with mulch.
- Cover the rest of the bed with mulch and, if you cannot reach in to all parts of the bed without stepping in it, place stepping stones (or boards) for standing. This limits soil compaction to those spots. You do not want to walk on all parts of your garden bed.
- Plant seeds or seedlings by digging only the amount needed to place that seed or young plant.
- Throughout the growing season, continue doing chop-and-drop to any weeds that emerge. They become part of your composting program. Every month, add layers of compost or mulch around the plants.
Agricultural Research Today
Advanced research has revealed these novel steps which make soil the healthiest it can be to support growing food for the world.
First, it calls specifically for plant matter to cover all the soil surrounding the stalks of the intended crop of vegetables, flowers, or trees. This has several purposes:
- The protective plant covering reduces topsoil erosion—by wind blowing it away or rain washing it away. This plant matter mulch results in more fertile topsoil and higher production of the crop
- The protective plant cover keeps more moisture in the soil. Then, less watering/irrigation is needed. Water is not plentiful everywhere in the world.
- Plant and weed residue which are cut down and permitted to drop between the crop plants will decay and decompose, becoming fertilizer.
Second, no-till banishes plowing.
There is no plowing for weed control and no plowing to aid in planting a new crop. Instead of having seeds dropped regularly along a plowed trench, seeds are punched into the ground. Think of a nail gun, or in the medical profession: a syringe. With all of these, the smallest area of surrounding space is disrupted.
Healthy soil already contains a universe of garden and soil helpers.
A Whole Universe of Soil Helpers Underground
More recent research has uncovered an incredibly complex world of beneficial life below the soil's surface.
Microbes, protozoa, fungi, arthropods, insects, beetles, bugs, bacteria, annelids, snails and earthworms and yes, those weeds, have a very effective system for symbiotic living in the immediate inches of topsoil below the surface.
One of their gifts to gardeners and farmers is tunneling. Their activity of tunneling aerates the soil.
Plus, when weeds die they further create channels in the soil as their roots decompose, leaving loosened pathways.
All this effectively aerates the soil better than human tilling does. Ultimately, this creates easy going for the roots of our plants pushing down, for moisture to soak deeply and to drain, and for all these organisms to continue doing their good work.
That's not all! There is another benefit for farms and gardens in nature's system.
All this living, eating each other, excreting waste, dying and decomposing by the subsoil organisms fertilizes crops with a slow, sustained supply of chemicals that nourish plants. When left alone, these natural systems maintain a balance of humus, loose soil crumbs, desirable fungi with fewer pests and disease than tilled land.
One could say that the Creator did great work in designing this system.
Thus, the mechanical disturbance of a plow blade, a shovel, or the yanking of a root are as traumatic to these helper beings as a tsunami is to people living along an ocean coastline. We now know that tilling in a garden hurts the soil and its universe of helpers. It's like shooting yourself in the foot. Not advisable.
No-till farmed land:
- has soil with significantly higher moisture retention than tilled soil. Therefore, less watering and irrigation are needed.
- requires significantly less labor then does tilled land.
- builds soil structure and usually has higher yields than tilled land (from a 25-year study by the Univeristy of Nebraska at its Rogers Memorail research farm.)
Our Climate Is Helped by No-Till
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (a gas which acts like the glass of a greenhouse holding in heat) which has been increasing in the earth's atmosphere.
It is a principal factor responsible for global warming which has caused the earth climate crisis.
1. Plants suck in carbon dioxide. The no-till method allows more plants - specifically weeds or cover crop plants—to grow. This means more carbon dioxide is taken out of the earth's atmosphere.
2. When there is less disruption of garden soil by using no-till, then less carbon dioxide that had been transferred to the soil by the plants (and subsequently stored there) will be released into the air.
3(a). The chopped weeds of the no-till method decompose around the plants and become fertilizer. If nature is providing free fertilizer, then people do not need to buy petroleum based fertilizer products. Fossil fuels are used in the production of fertilizers. Less fertilizer purchased leads to less fertilizer made. This leads to less carbon dioxide emissions from manufacturing it.
3(b). Additionally, the reduced purchasing can mean less consumer travel to buy fertilizer. Thus, the no-till practice eliminates the fuel exhaust coming from consumer vehicles. And, reduced demand will also reduce shipping and the carbon dioxide exhaust coming from shippers' vehicles.
4. Better food yield in no-till soils should/could mean more food grown at consumers' home gardens. As described in item 3(b), that means less carbon dioxide will be spewed by consumers driving to buy produce. Also, decreased produce demand will lead to less shipping and less carbn dioxide exhaust from shippers.
No-till is not no work. Instead, you do different work and less of it!
You will be spreading compost and mulch all around your plants on the surface of the soil. However, the mulch is often there at its needed location via "weed" growth. You just show up and cut it, allowing it to fall.
Why It's Easier
Instead of pulling weeds, carrying them to your compost bin, then later carrying them back to place around your garden - all you do is chop them.
Plus, you will be watering less because that wonderful covering of plant material reduces evaporation in your garden soil.
A Mulch of Compost Covers All Soil
Remember, Some Touching and Poking Are Okay
As you can see, in the no-till home gardening method you do touch soil. However, your goal is to disturb the topsoil as little as possible.
Repeat: the goal is to have no only very mild soil disturbance.
In order to transplant a seedling or plant from a nursery, obviously, you must make a hole for the plant.
Also, if a garden’s soil has become compacted (squished down with little or no channels for air, rain, and organisms), it is acceptable to poke holes throughout the garden with a pitchfork or similar long prodding garden fork.
Of course, this poking should not include standing on every part of the garden plot. This would further squish the soil layers. Place stepping stones, if you must, in order to reach remote areas of the plot.
Applying the Learning
For decades, conservation research supported the practice of never allowing soil to be bare-topped.
The Dust Bowl disasters of the United States occurred in the 1930s. Tons of cleared, fertile topsoil dried up during severe droughts and blew away because nothing was holding it in place or protecting it. What earth remained after all this loss was unfit to grow crops for decades. So, vowing to never have this happen to farmland again, states enacted measures to have farm and construction site soil covered to protect it.
The no-till farming method goes several steps further than century-old conservation plans.
An even more comprehensive, earth-friendly method than the no-till-only is explained in my other article Good for the Earth: How to Make a Climate Victory Garden.
As we learn more, we can change our lawns and fields to support this beautiful earth.
Others Till for Us When We Let Go
The community of life below the soil surface does an incredibly efficient job, as described above.
Re-wire your brain to allow them to do it!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Maren Elizabeth Morgan
Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on June 19, 2019:
Thoughtfully written. My Momma had taught me lots about growing things and encouraged us to use plant matter to help things grow I appreciate you sharing this with us Angels are headed your way this afternoon ps
Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on June 18, 2019:
Thank you, Linda. It was not easy for me to put this into practice. My brain totally accepts it, but my hand still tries to pull weeds.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 17, 2019:
This is an interesting and informative article. I'm glad I read it. I'll keep what you've said in mind with respect to my garden.