Till Vs No Till: Which Is Best?
What's the best way to prepare the soil for vegetable plants to grow?
Vegetables use up the soil’s nutrients, which need to be replaced for next year. Thus, you want to add nutrients to the soil that feeds the plants. You want to make the soil loose enough to put in seeds or young vegetables.
How do you make the healthiest soil for plants to spread their roots and absorb food and water?
Some gardeners use tilling, the traditional approach to improve garden soil for vegetables. But what is tilling? It is breaking up the ground by digging the soil 8–10 inches deep and turning it over.
Gardeners debate whether or not tilling is a good practice for renewing soil that has been depleted of its nutrients. This article will provide some points on both sides of the fence. Which makes sense for your gardening needs?
Reasons to Till
Here are some of the main reasons why tilling might be a good idea, along with some directions on how to best do so.
It adds nutrients.
- Dig in organic materials such as compost or fertilizer. Add lime to change the pH level of the soil.
- Turn over cover crops planted at the end of last season to control erosion from wind and rain. This speeds the plants' break down. It returns nutrients like much-needed nitrogen to the soil.
- Plants still standing at the end of the growing season in fall, when turned over, decompose more quickly to supply nutrients to the soil.
It loosens soil.
- Break up hardened or compacted soil including clay; make soil particles smaller.
- Start a new season by loosening the soil for seeds or transplants of young vegetables.
- Soil aeration so plants' roots can get air, sun, water, and nutrients.
Some additional reasons to till.
- Remove weeds and their roots.
- Create a new garden bed in the yard.
Reasons Not to Till
- It disrupts soil structure. Very simply, soil structure is the combination of mineral particles, organic matter, water, and air. Digging and turning soil loosens it but also destroys the complex structure that is already there.
- It disturbs and kills earthworms. Earthworms tunnel through soil, consuming organic matter that becomes nutrients and minerals in soil. Their tunnels allow water and air into the soil. Digging ruins tunnels.
- It increases water runoff and soil erosion. Wind blows organic matter away along with topsoil. Nutrients that feed the plants are carried into water systems like creeks and streams. Nutrients wind up in the wrong place. Instead of feeding plants, they pollute water ecosystems.
Additional reasons not to till:
- It brings dormant weed seeds to the soil surface, causing them to grow.
- It creates extra work in the garden—backbreaking work at that.
Are There Other Ways to Improve Soil?
Before you decide whether or not to till, here are a few alternatives to tilling that improve garden soil. Building healthy soil structure takes time. It’s the most important part of tending the garden. Plants thrive in it. It lightens the carbon footprint.
Adding Organic Matter
Spread a couple of inches of compost on top of the soil. Let rain, worms, and soil microbes do their job to break down the material to feed plants.
Each vegetable plant has different nutritional needs, pests, and diseases. Switching locations between plants in the vegetable garden the following year improves their chances to thrive. Additionally, pests and diseases don't have much time to develop.
Scientists have actually found which plants are beneficial to each other. For example, this year, plant tomatoes in section A of the garden. Tomatoes consume nutrients they need and leave behind those they don't. Next year, plant beans in section A to consume nutrients left behind by tomatoes. Tomato plants can go in another section. It's sort of like swapping lunches in grade school. Everyone gets what they want.
Aeration (Increasing Air in the Soil)
The freeze/thaw cycle breaks up soil. Worms create passageways as they move through the ground. Even dead roots of plants leave tunnels once they decompose.
Pull weeds by hand, making sure to get the roots. Use a weed fork to get at deep roots like a dandelion’s. A 2 to 3 inch layer of mulch prevents weed growth.
Growing Crops on Top of the Ground
- Raised beds sit on top of the ground with borders made of untreated wood roughly 11–12 inches tall. Fill them with organic rich soil. Add fresh organic matter on top every year. (Note: Raised beds also refer to box-like structures on legs in varying heights created for those who need to stand up or work from a wheelchair.)
- Containers including bags, sacks, and hollowed straw bales when filled with organic rich soil provide options for planting. Layer on top of the ground, beginning with several sheets of newspaper or cardboard. Pile on organic rich soil to make a garden bed.
Creating a new garden for the first time requires some serious digging and tilling. After that, build soil by layering organic material on top every year.
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.
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© 2019 Juli Seyfried