If you’re a gardener, then you know that getting your space ready for planting is the most strenuous task. Traditionally, gardeners will dig or turn over the top layer of soil before planting to get rid of weeds, and make it easier to plant crops. This also speeds up the decomposition of crop residue, weeds and other organic matter.
We know there is a complex, symbiotic relationship that exists between the soil surface and the underlying micro-organisms, which contributes to a natural, healthy soil structure. Digging into the bed can interfere with this process and disturb the natural growing environment. It can also cause soil compaction and erosion, and worst of all, it can bring dormant weed seeds to the surface where they will sprout.
Benefits of no-till gardening
Promotes natural aeration and drainage. Worms and other soil life are important to healthy soil structure, their tunnels providing aeration and drainage, and their excretions bind together soil crumbs. No-till systems are said to be freer of pests and disease, possibly due to a more balanced soil population being allowed to build up in this comparatively undisturbed environment, and by encouraging the buildup of beneficial soil fungi.
Saves water. Thick layers of mulch allow water to pass through easily while shading the soil. This reduces water lost to evaporation while maintaining a moist growing environment beneficial for root growth.
Reduces or eliminates the need to weed. Most garden soils contain weed seeds which lay dormant until the soil is disturbed and the seeds become exposed to light. With no-till gardening, these seeds will remain dormant indefinitely. Of course, some weeds will appear in the beds, borne by wind or birds. These weeds are easy to remove by hand if you pull them early in the morning or shortly after watering, while the soil is damp.
Saves time and energy. Whether you turn your garden beds by hand or use a gas-powered rototiller, you’ll save energy by using the no-till method. Although some effort is required in gathering materials for mulching, and applying the mulch during the growing season, no digging or turning of the soil is required.
No-till gardening helps soil retain carbon. Healthy topsoil contains carbon-enriched humus and decaying organic matter that provides nutrients to plants. Soils low in humus can’t maintain the carbon-dependent nutrients essential to healthy crop production, resulting in the need to use more fertilizers. Tilling the soil speeds the breakdown or organic matter, which releases nutrients too quickly. A steady, slow release of nutrients is more beneficial to plant growth.
Builds earthworm population. The moist conditions of the soil beneath mulch creates the ideal environment for earthworms, whose activity aerates the soil and stimulates root growth.
Helps reduce soil erosion. A lack of carbon in soil may promote erosion, as topsoil and fertilizers are often washed or blown away from garden beds.
Getting started in no-till gardening.
Prepare the bed before adopting the no-till method. You will need to establish a good, fertile soil structure before you can expect good results with the no-till/mulch method.
Use mulch liberally, in layers. When planting seedlings, pull the mulch back and dig into the surface just enough to set the plant.
‘Top dress’ amendments. Compost, peat, lime, wood ashes and other material are easily added to the bed without digging them in then add mulch to cover.
Cut back on watering. The use of mulch retains moisture, thereby reducing the need for frequent watering.
Cover crops. These can be planted during the off-season for a garden bed as a way of discouraging weeds from becoming established, and to return essential nutrients to the soil.
Avoid compacting the soil. Avoid stepping on the bed, as this compacts the soil.
It should be noted that “no-till” does not mean “no-work”. As the mulch breaks down and settles into the soil, new mulch needs to be added. This should be done in a timely way, because if the soil surface is exposed to direct watering, and heavy rain, it compacts. You may need to break up (till) the soil before planting the next crop, and this defeats the purpose of the no-till method.
In conclusion, no-till gardening requires some experimenting to find the right techniques for your growing area. Ideally, one or two ‘extra’ beds in the garden can be used for testing cover crops and spring planting methods. Over time, the remaining garden beds can be transitioned to no-till. If you have a good supply of mulching materials and reapply them as necessary throughout the growing season, you can enjoy the benefits of a productive garden with less work in the spring, less weeding and less water used throughout the summer.