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How to Create a No-Till Garden: Healthier Soil and Less Work

Bill is a writer with his own garden, and he has a wealth of useful tips about composting.

A no-till berry patch

A no-till berry patch

What Is No-Till Gardening?

No-till gardening, also known as no-dig gardening or no-plow gardening, is the practice of avoiding the intentional disruption of soil. Rather than using plows, spades, hoes, or other tools to routinely “turn over” soil, it is more or less left alone.

Additionally, many no-till gardeners choose to leave the roots of spent plants in place. At the end of the growing season, we cut plants out at the soil line (or just below the soil) with pruners or a small hand saw—rather than yanking out the entire plant and root system.

The Benefits of Not Tilling

It has long been known (think the Dust Bowl of the '30s) that too much plowing, or tilling, of the soil destroys the topsoil and robs soil of its nutrients. It has also long been known (think hundreds of years) that the soil found in forests is some of the healthiest soil you will find on Earth. Combine those two pieces of knowledge and you have the impetus for the no-till movement.

A quick list of the benefits would include:

  • Less soil compaction
  • Less soil erosion
  • Less evaporation
  • Healthier soils
  • Lower costs
  • Bigger yields
Cardboard can play an important role in no-till gardening.

Cardboard can play an important role in no-till gardening.

How to Start Your No-Till Garden

I want you to remember three words: cardboard, compost, and mulch. Make an acronym out of them if it helps—CCM, like some '60s rock band or some obscure Russian agency without the sickle and hammer. If you can remember those three words, you can have healthy soil without once picking up a hoe.

Step-by-Step Process

The process goes like this:

  1. Choose a site for your garden (or work with an existing one).
  2. Cover that site with cardboard in the fall.
  3. Cover the cardboard with about three inches of compost.
  4. Cover the compost with a layer of mulch (straw, woodchips, etc.).
  5. Do nothing else until springtime, at which time you will . . .
  6. Plant.

Let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail.

1. Choose a Site

When I say “choose a site,” I’m not talking about some 20-square-feet of dirt. I’m talking any site! It can be an existing patch of lawn if you want, or some rectangle out in a field somewhere. It makes no difference. Just stake out your garden “site” and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised by how easy this is.

Having said that, if you have an existing garden, you can certainly use that rather than making a new one. This process works fine on existing gardens as well as on undisturbed land.

2. Cover With Cardboard

If you think about it, cardboard is just organic matter. It will decompose quite easily. Just let Nature do her thing.

It is important what type of cardboard you use in your landscape. Any cardboard that is not heavily printed, has no tape, no shiny finish, is unwaxed and plain brown is considered clean and okay to use. Some tapes will breakdown, such as the brown paper tape with strings through it. Otherwise, keep it simple and only use the basic type of cardboard or you will be pulling tape and plastic finish out of your new areas.

The only word of advice I would give you is this: spray the cardboard with a garden hose once you lay it down. This will assist in the “breaking down” of the organic matter.

3. Compost

We use compost we have been making throughout the year. We just pour it on top of the cardboard. If you do not have a composting method at home, you can purchase good, organic composts at any gardening store. Don’t be shy here. Put a good 3-inch layer, minimum, on top of the cardboard.

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An additional tip: if you have access to rabbit droppings, add that to your compost layer. Rabbit droppings are slow-release and some of the best fertilizer available.

4. Mulch

We prefer straw for this mulching layer, but we have also used leaves quite often. The last couple of years we have gone around the neighborhood in late October and gathered up leaves when the neighbors rake their yards. They are happy to get rid of them, and we are happy to have them. Just spread those leaves on top of the mulch and, again, Nature will do the rest.

5. Wait

Now for the fun part of this no-tilling process: just sit back for six months and wait. If you live in a dry area, you will want to keep the new garden moist. Living where we do, in Western Washington, this is not a concern, but if you live in Arizona, or Texas, have a hose handy.

6. Plant

Late March or early April, it is time to plant. You now have two options: you can either remove the remaining cardboard, and then plant your seeds in the new, rich soil, or you can leave the cardboard, punch holes in it, and plant the seeds, or seedlings, in the holes. Either method works fine.

I’m a bit lazy with this step. It’s easier for me to just remove the remaining cardboard. I don’t have the patience to punch holes, but that’s just me. Leaving the cardboard is probably better, since that cardboard will continue to break down during growing season.

You will notice immediately a large population of worms. That is a sure sign that your efforts have been rewarded. Worms are your friends. They aerate the soil, and worm castings (poop) will continue to feed your soil.

The results

The results

The End of the Growing Season

At the end of summer, when all of your veggies have been harvested, go out into the garden and cut the existing vegetation down to the soil surface, leaving the roots. Then you are ready to start the process all over again.

A Bounty Awaits You

The difference in abundance is very noticeable. We could tell a huge difference the first year we tried no-tilling. The harvest was larger in sheer numbers, and the vegetables were larger and healthier.

Please note that not once did I mention fertilizers. We are organic gardeners. We do not use fertilizers or additives. Our main problem, and I say this with all honesty, is slugs. If we ever conquer the slug problem, our garden will be a showcase, but we will not use any product which is not organic, no matter how many slugs we have.

Limitations

Yes, there are limitations to this method, size being the major drawback. If you are looking to make a garden, say, 20’ x 40’, this method will work fine, but if you are thinking of making a quarter-acre garden, you will be collecting cardboard for months in preparation. I’ve seen it done. I know of a friend online who collects cardboard from a furniture retailer, huge sheets of cardboard, and he has no problem covering a quarter-acre, so it is possible . . . and I have read of commercial farmers using this method, but . . .

It's just not practical for most people if they want to farm very large tracts of land!

And There You Have It

I swear by this method. I’m 72 now, and I have no desire to turn soil over with a shovel or hoe. I actually hate weeding, and the no-till method saves me hours of weeding as well.

I’m being paid by no one for promoting this method of gardening. I firmly believe this is the best method of preparing soil, and I’m confident it will grow in popularity as word spreads.

Give it a try! Start collecting that cardboard now! Start spreading the word. Let’s get a revolution started!

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.

© 2020 Bill Holland

Comments

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 30, 2020:

I've heard of that approach, Becky, but never tried it. Perhaps it's time for me to give it a go. As for rabbits, I haven't found a way to stop them yet. They are persistent little buggers for sure.

Becky Katz from Hereford, AZ on November 29, 2020:

Bill, My dad always poured some beer into tall cups to get rid of slugs. He buried the taller red plastic Solo cups in the dirt, with just enough sitting above to allow them to ooze in. Just an inch of beer and they will plop right in. Then they couldn't get out of the cup and you can dispose of them. Works for snails too. We don't have slugs down here, just ants. I have problems with the rabbits and birds eating my veggies before they are ripe. I drape netting over everything and they still get into them.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 28, 2020:

Thanks, Meg, for being persistent in finding this article.

To my knowledge, all cardboard will do is suppress weeds. It won't kill them. Eventually they come back. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but there you are. :(

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on November 27, 2020:

It's amazing. I saw your article yesterday but could not find a way to comment. Looked back again today and now it IS on the feed and near the top. Have you ever used this method for getting rid of perennial weeds? I have a flower bed infested with wild garlic. It takes over everything and the amount of weeding is ridiculous! I thought maybe the cardboard, compost and mulch might get rid of it for good? Have you ever tried that?

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 27, 2020:

Thank you Peg! When it comes time to plant this spring, get in touch with me if you have questions.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 27, 2020:

Thank you Devika! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on November 26, 2020:

I love this idea for easier gardening. I know what I'll be doing with my carboard boxes now. Thank you!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 26, 2020:

Hi Bill a wonderful step by step guide. You share informative and well-researched hubs.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 26, 2020:

Good for you, John! No fertilizer or pesticides ever. Glad to hear that.

Thanks for stopping by. This is our day of thanks, and I am grateful for your friendship.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 26, 2020:

You are very welcome, Linda. I hope you like the results. Start saving up cardboard now.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on November 25, 2020:

Great advice Bill. I have always used the method of no-till gardening. Now we live on a town block I bought above ground garden beds...but cardboard in the bottom and then filled with good quality potting mix, planted the vegies and then mulched. We have a snail infestation so these raised beds are needed to stop them from feasting on the vegies.

Also totally organic here, with no fertiliser or pesticides.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 25, 2020:

No-till gardening sounds like a great idea! I'm already thinking about where I could do it in my garden. Thanks for sharing the information, Bill.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

It seems, Denise, we are never done with "live and learn." :) Happy Thanksgiving, and blessings always.

bill

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

Thank you Pamela! Happy Thanksgiving to you as well.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on November 25, 2020:

I love this method. I wish I had known about it when I had a garden. It would have saved me many back-breaking hours of prep work before putting in my veggies each spring. Someone told me I should mulch in the fall so I wouldn't have as much work in the spring but when I tried it I didn't mulch deeply enough and the cardboard would have made all the difference. Oh well. We live and learn.

Blessings,

Denise.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 25, 2020:

This is an excellent article if you want to have a good garden. I like the stop-by-step instructions you wrote. Great article, Bill. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

It is my pleasure, Ann! I'm amazed it took me this long to discover it. It's been around for a good twenty years now, working quite well on some farms in the east.

Anyway, good luck with it, and have a great weekend.

bill

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

Mr. Happy, you are correct. Farmers around here use huge sheets of that stuff. You can see them everywhere you drive this time of year.

Thanks for mentioning that. Have a great weekend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

Good luck with those deer, Linda! I have yet to find a foolproof method of keeping them out of something important.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

It is my pleasure, Umesh! Thank you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

You are doing it correctly with the perennial gardens, Heidi. You don't need my advice.

I wish I had a big rotating composter. It sure would help. Maybe I'll buy one with income tax return.

Happy Thanksgiving, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

It will work for that purpose for awhile, Peggy, and then you'll have to add more cardboard. Good luck, and Happy Thanksgiving, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

Thank you Robie! We lazy people must stick together. It gives us more time to write if we aren't digging dirt. :)

Ann Carr from SW England on November 25, 2020:

This is great, bill! Never heard of it, but it sounds fun and certainly seems sensible and good for all sorts of reasons. I never use pesticides either, or fertiliser. I prefer natural progression. As you say, the forests manage much better 'in the wild' and that's what I want to follow.

I shall be keeping this article on my desktop and trying it out. Thank you for sharing it!

Ann

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on November 25, 2020:

I've seen people use some sort of tarps too, or plastic kinda of thing to cover their land, as weed barriers. Well, they're made from polypropylene or polyester to be exact. They do work though, cutting-down that annoying weeding time.

Anyone can do this indeed and there are no bad side-effects from what I know. Thanks for sharing your gardening knowledge. It is appreciated.

Cheers!

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on November 25, 2020:

Bill, I'm all for doing nothing for six months. I had never before seen this explained in so much detail. You've got me sold on the process--now, if you can just come up with a way to keep the deer out of the pea patch.

A very good article, (and I'm surprised it's still here for comment. )

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on November 25, 2020:

This is a very intetesting article. Thanks for telling so much about no-till gardening.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

Thank you Rosina! I hope they find it useful.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

You are very welcome, Chitrangada Sharan! Best of luck to you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

It will work on compacted soil, Eric, and I wouldn't weed at all. I've seen it work on near-desert soil, so it should work for you.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

I guess it does sound like a lot of work, Manatita, but compared to tilling, for me, it's a walk in the park. :)

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

Thanks Bill! Leaving the plant roots in the soil just makes the soil healthier. Try it! And Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on November 25, 2020:

Well, I'm all for the leave it alone deal! Actually, that's kind of what I do with our perennial gardens. We mulch them over with chopped leaves in the fall, but leave the plant parts to decompose over the winter. Then we clean it up a bit in the spring and it's all good.

BTW, we do have a big rotating composter for plant and food scraps. It is amazing how much waste is diverted from landfills by just this simple activity.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 25, 2020:

My little garden area is tiny, and it is pretty much used year-round, but I might try the cardboard anyway in between plants to keep from weeding the garden. Thanks for the idea.

Robie Benve from Ohio on November 25, 2020:

Thanks a lot for the great info Bill, I have one garden area that I was too lazy to till this fall, I might try this no-till method, it makes a lot of sense.

Rosina S Khan on November 25, 2020:

The no-till method seems a great way of gardening with minimal effort. I would definitely spread the word among my family, friends, and relatives. Thanks for sharing, Bill.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on November 25, 2020:

A very well explained article about No tilling gardening. Makes sense to me, because of the so many benefits for the soil and the environment as a whole. I would like to try this out in my little space.

Thank you for sharing your experience. A valuable article for everyone.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on November 25, 2020:

Way cool. I wonder when I do it here in the Coastal desert. I will research and ponder. Does this work in compacted soil? Do you need to really weed thoroughly if you had weeds in your garden. I kind of keep them around for hopefully pest food.

manatita44 from london on November 25, 2020:

Not my forte, but the results look great! Reading through it sounds like lots of work, yet comparing this and forest soil and their results do make lots of sense. I just chop of most things from the garden (Front-door) and let them die naturally. Makes me a tiller ... a bit.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2020:

The older I get, Liz, the more I love this method. I'm all for no digging!

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on November 25, 2020:

Great tips, Bill. I started using cardboard last year in the garden and it works great. I have not tried cutting the plants down to soil level and leaving the roots, but I will certainly try that next year. From the picture it looks like your garden had a pretty good year. A happy Thanksgiving to you.

Liz Westwood from UK on November 25, 2020:

I had not come across this method of gardening before. Thank you for the clear explanation. It definitely sounds like it is worth trying. You make a compelling case for it.

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