Tillage makes it easier to incorporate fertilizers and plant small seeds. It also speeds up decomposition of any plant matter you bury in the process. Plus it’s satisfying to see the weeds disappear when you turn them under. But what if you could have a healthy, productive garden without needing to lift a shovel ever again, with less weeds than you have now?
Benefits of No-Till Gardening
A growing number of gardeners are discovering that such a dream garden is possible. Their secret is using no-till methods. There are many additional benefits to your garden when you stop digging.
- A no-till garden promotes a healthy soil food web. When you dig, you disrupt the delicate structure of the soil that has been permeated by worm tunnels, woven with mycorrhizae, and populated by colonies of beneficial organisms of all sizes. No-till methods encourage earthworms and other helpful soil dwellers to flourish.
- A no-till garden is said to have less pests, probably due to the healthy micro-ecosystem in and above the soil which does not have to “start from scratch” after every spring or fall dig. Pests are further discouraged in no-till gardening by implementing crop rotation.
- A no-till garden reduces weed populations. This is because tillage can actually encourage weeds to sprout by exposing previously buried, dormant seeds to a better environment for growing. Tillage also exposes the soil itself, removing natural competition. Further, the heavy mulch in a no-till garden keeps most weed seeds from sprouting.
- A no-till garden uses less water. This is accomplished with heavy layers of mulch which lessens evaporation and shades the soil, keeping it cooler in the hot summer sun. In fact, no-till gardens should be watered less because overwatering will encourage weeds and cause soil compaction.
Starting Your No-Till Garden
- To start your no-till garden, some gardeners will actually begin by digging or double-digging the soil once (and only once! This step will not be repeated in future years).
- Others never dig at all, simply laying down multiple layers of cardboard or newspaper on unworked soil or even over an existing lawn, then topping it with a thick layer of compost and mulching with straw. (Learn more about this method in our video on Lasagna Gardening).
- If you have good soil already and are just transitioning to no-till, you can skip the cardboard layer.
- Lay down your paths and beds immediately. They will be a permanent feature. You should never walk on the beds because you will compact the soil—and with this method you cannot dig it to fluff it back up again!
- If your beds are too wide to reach to the middle, lay down a narrow board in the middle or stepping stones periodically within the bed.
- If you will be using drip irrigation, install that now, so it can water the soil directly, and the mulch above the irrigation will help keep moisture from evaporating. Drip irrigation is the preferred way to water a no-till garden, due to its efficient water distribution and that it won’t compact the soil.
- Mulch heavily, at least eight inches and as much as two feet deep. Straw is the best mulch for no-till. Hay is more likely to drop weed seeds. Leaves, grass clippings, finished compost, mulched yard waste, and forest duff can also be used.
Some no-till gardeners only use compost for mulch, in which case it would only be layered an inch or two deep. Others use an inch of compost topped with a full layer of straw or other bulky mulching material. Either method will provide the benefits of no-till gardening, try them both out in different parts of your garden and see which works better for you! Whichever mulch you use, it will decompose over time, so you will need to replace it whenever it gets thin to prevent the soil from becoming bare and exposed.
Planting and Feeding Your No-Till Garden
Fertilizers, compost and other amendments can be applied by top dressing, foliar feeding and fertigation.
To plant your beds, just push back the mulch enough to plant each seed or transplant. Leave the mulch on the beds everywhere in between. Your veggies will grow up in the gaps you’ve made in the mulch, and the rest of the bed’s soil will thrive under the layers of compost and straw.
In your first year of no-till gardening, your garden may be less productive than you would like, especially if you’re starting from scratch. Don’t worry! Things will improve the second year, once your soil has a chance to adapt and improve with the new method. Just pull or chop whatever weeds manage to grow through the mulch weekly to keep them from going to seed, and the rest will take care of itself.
In the winter, mulch again with as much as two feet of straw or your favorite mulching material.
Instead of straw, cover crops may be used to discourage weeds and to feed the soil over winter. It is also a good alternative to a winter layer of mulch if that method leads to rodent problems in your garden. For no-till gardens, never use a cover crop that contains grass. When you’re ready to remove the cover crop, either hand pull, solarize, or cut it as low as possible (the stubble will decompose over time like mulch).
When spring comes again, add more mulch as needed to replenish what has decomposed over winter, so that your mulch layer is still at least eight inches and up to two feet deep. Then just plant and grow!