The Ultimate Guide to No-Till Gardening
No-Till Gardening has really been making a name for itself recently, for good reason. Not only does the physical aspect appeal to many (not having to till your garden every season) but there are also a lot of benefits to the plants you are growing, and to the soil of your garden. In this guide we unearth everything you need to know to get started with no-till gardening, some tips and tricks to show you the best way to go about it!
What is No-Till Gardening?
Simply put, no-till gardening (also referred to as zero-tillage) is simply gardening where we do not disturb the soil during tillage. Tillage is the preparation of soil for agriculture. Traditionally, soil is tilled at the beginning of the growing season, where you physically disturb the soil with a spade or hoe, disturbing any weeds that have taken hold, and then allowing you to add compost and other amendments. Compost is the best way to add organic matter back to the garden, and is arguably one of the most important parts of no till gardening and organic gardening in general.
Zero Tillage Farming
No-Till Gardening was brought about by bringing a smaller scale practice of no-till farming. It’s essentially the same practice, just at a different scale. There are pros and cons to anything and the practice of tillage is no different. Some studies have shown that no-till farming can be profitable in some situations, while some people believe it increases the use of herbicides due to controlling the weed populations. Regardless, at a smaller scale in a garden bed, it can really work.
The Benefits of No Till
When you till a garden, you break up the soil, mixing up deep soil, bringing up deep soil to the top of the bed. This can disturb any weeds and some pathogenic microbes from taking hold, but it can also have the opposite effect: interrupting a healthy soil system allowing for any pathogens to get in. By using a thick layer of mulch and growing cover crops, you protect the soil below your mulch and prevent weeds from planting roots. By using a thick layer of compost, you can add organic matter and natural fertilizer to your garden beds, avoiding the need to use synthetic fertilizer. There are many benefits to no till, none of which more important than extending your garden soil life span.
Promotes Soil Health
Soil isn’t just dirt you put plants in. It’s a symbiotic stew of beneficial organisms all teeming around in your garden that help your plants to grow. While we commonly think of bacteria, fungus, viruses and insects as bad, there are many that are beneficial to us and our plants, and tilling can interrupt their growth and cause reduced yields. Mycorrhizal fungi are a good example – fungi that form a symbiotic relationship with plant roots and help the plants uptake nutrients, conserve water, and fend off pathogens. However, disturbed soil can impact these fungi, reducing their population and effectiveness in helping your plants grow. Arthropods and earthworms are two more crucial components of a healthy soil and their populations are also severely impacted by tilling. And we haven’t even talked about the billions of bacteria in soil! When you think of the millions and millions of other organisms in soil aside from the plants, and what we are potentially doing to them when tilling, it kinda makes you think twice, right?
Improves Aeration & Drainage
Tilling can reduce both aeration and drainage in soil. While it is thought that tilling can improve aeration by mixing up the soil and adding oxygen to the system, a healthy soil should do this naturally, with plant roots, fungal mycelium and insects producing tunnels in the soil system to promote oxygenation. We use cover crops in the no till garden which can also improve aeration and drainage, as their plant roots help break up soil while still adding structure to the soil.
In order to get the same benefits of tilling without having to, we add a thick layer of mulch in place of tilling. This provides more organic substance for decomposers to break down into nutrients, resulting in a rich soil. Mulch also has another benefit, which acts to conserve water. Thick layers of mulch prevent water from evaporating from the soil, conserving water. Cover crops can also function to preserve water in the garden, but overall if you can reduce your watering requirements, that’s a win all around.
Can Reduce or Eliminate Weeding
Arguably one of the most popular benefits of not ill gardening is the reduction of weeding required. Weeds are an inevitability of gardening, since plants we consider weeds are specifically designed to survive in any environment they can! So while it’s never possible to fully keep weeds away, no till can make a significant difference in the number of weeds present in your garden. Most soil contains the weed seeds that are laying dormant deep inside, and once the soil is disturbed and exposed to oxygen and light, it signals to the weed seeds to germinate and start growing in your freshly tilled garden. Again, weeds are an inevitability, but not ill can significantly reduce the number of weeds present.
The healthiest soils are ones with large amounts of organic matter present, with high amounts of carbon and other organic materials, typically obtained through compost. The best garden is one that can slowly release the nutrients available over time, and a freshly tilled soil will cause certain nutrients to be used up all at once. By using a high carbon mulch such as grass clippings and a thick layer of compost, you can add valuable carbon back to the garden.
Planting cover crops is a crucial component of any no till system. Not only does planting cover crops act to outcompete any weeds that may appear, or sequester nutrients like in the case of clover, they also bring structure to your soil. The plant roots of the cover crop hold the soil together like the rebar in concrete, preventing erosion. There are also some weeds that can be beneficial to no till gardening as a cover crop. During your first year of no till it can be difficult to know what is a weed and what should be left to grow, but you can learn this over time.
While no till is still making a name for itself, there is some pretty compelling evidence that this gardening method is here to stay. The reduction of fuel for tractors at large scaler operations is reason enough for some. But even in your garden beds, less work means more time spent in other areas. With a self-propagating cover crop, there’s no need to sow more cover crop seeds the next year. With fewer weeds to pull, you spend less time weeding. And, with a healthier soil you shouldn’t need to use fertilizer! The only cost is really mulch and any other small amendments along the way.
How To Plant a No Till Garden
While the most basic way to think about a no till garden is simply one that you don’t till, or physically disturb the soil, there are a few different components that you need to consider to replace the purpose of tilling. Again, tilling soil is intended to provide oxygen and aeration to garden beds and wipe the slate clean. However, in a no till garden we are aiming to retain all the microbes and complex organic material infrastructure in the soil without tilling. We do this by applying a layer of compost regularly, adding back valuable organic matter to the soil for the microbes to consume.
If you’re ready to plant your garden and get started on the no till method, there’s a few things to keep in mind. We’ll get into specifics in a minute but in general, with no til gardening it’s important to remember the priority is the soil life. Keeping the microbes of your garden happy is the key to keeping every plant in your garden happy. The key to no till gardening is patience as well, since you need to wait for microbes to decompose any layer of mulch you apply, and a cover crop can take a while to grow in. In general if you follow a few key tenets, you should never have to till the garden ever again!
Prep Your Garden
Before you get started on your no till journey, you’ll want to start with a fresh slate. Raised beds with fresh, fertile soil will give you the best starting ground. Many gardeners also recommend to dig 1-2′ deeper than where the beds sit, into the ground. While you dig down, any larger rocks or tree roots should also be removed. Then, it’s typically recommended to add mulch like wood chips, as well as some peat, lime or vermiculite to produce a nice porous mix of soil with lots of organic material.
Get Ready to Mulch
Mulch is a crucial part of no till gardening, as it performs many functions in no till organic gardening. Firstly, mulch is the best way to add nutrients back to your soil since you aren’t mixing nutrients in when you till. A moist garden means water (and nutrients) can flow effectively throughout the entire garden soil, not just the moist areas.
How to Use Mulch
You can think of this like adding firewood to a bonfire. If you need to add wood to the fire, you don’t necessarily mix the whole fire up, exposing and cooling down the coals before adding wood. You generally add it directly to the top of the fire where the flames are and allow it to burn down to the coals. This is how the mulch acts in the garden too – add it directly to the top of your garden and the microbes and other organisms will decompose (burn) it down into the soil. Mulch is also an effective way to conserve water in the garden.
Common Mulch Sources
There are a many different types of mulch that can be used effectively with the no till method. Here’s our recommended list of mulch to consider using.
Straw, a byproduct of grain crops, is a fantastic mulch material. It’s much less likely to contain any weed seeds, because of the way it is grown and harvested.
Wood chips are extremely common mulches, used extensively in landscaping, though less so in gardening. This is because the dense wood chips take longer to decompose than perhaps the growing season can provide. However, a little bit of wood goes a long way in any no till garden.
Hay is a pretty good material to use as mulch. You run the risk of introducing extra weed seeds into your garden because of how hay is stored and harvested for feed, but otherwise it is a great organic material to use as mulch.
A very popular mulch material, and valuable to the garden due to all of the carbon contained within. You just want to make sure they are appropriately wetted, or slightly decomposed already to avoid them flying away. They can clump in areas as well so apply a thin, even layer.
Grass clippings can be a good mulch layer, however you do run the risk of introducing weeds into your garden, depending on the stage of your garden. While the grass clippings are green is a good way to add extra nitrogen to the garden, great in early development. However, plants don’t need nitrogen during fruiting so it’s best to let the grass brown out if you’re applying it later in the season.
Some folks use newspaper as mulch, and it can be used, though it’s not our favourite. It doesn’t hold moisture the same as other mulch materials and also contains colored inks.
Seeds & Seedlings
It’s important to note that sometimes you may want to sow new seeds or plant new seedlings before you mulch, which is totally fine. You just need to pull back the mulch a little to get right into the soil. You’ll also be adding mulch or other top dresses throughout the season, so just make sure you pull back the mulch from the stems as the plants grow to avoid excess moisture producing rot.
Plant a Cover Crop
Next up, it’s time to plant a cover crop. There is a wide variety of cover crop to choose from, but again, our intention here is to out-compete weeds, and reintroduce nutrients. That’s why a plant like clover is often chosen, since it doesn’t outcompete the other plants in your vegetable garden, it just takes up space that weeds would use. It also fixes nutrient back into the soil. Other common cover crops include oats, rye and hairy vetch.
Top Dress With Compost
Top dressing involves adding any soil amendments that your garden soil might need. This is usually done in the form of compost for organic gardening, however other organic sources of amendments include bone broth, guano, fish emulsion or kelp extract. Top dressing is basically the same as applying mulch, but with the primary objective of adding nutrients vs. conserving moisture. If you’re thinking about trying no till gardening, you’ll want to start a compost immediately, as you’ll want lots of compost throughout the year to help keep your organic garden as happy as possible.
Reduce Your Watering
Because of the use of your mulch and the focus on preserving the soil ecosystem, your no till garden will require less water than you are used to. A vegetable garden can require a lot of water, but with your new no till methods, you’ll need less water than usual. Overwatering your plants will just set you back, so make sure you start watering a little less than usual.
Don’t Compress Your Soil
Because tilling reduces the compaction of the soil by mixing the soil up, it allows for plant roots and fungal mycelium to penetrate the soil and stay healthy. If you’re working in garden beds this shouldn’t be a problem, but if you can’t reach something and have to step into the garden, you’re going to compress the soil so this should be avoided. Using a board that you can lay across the frame of your garden bed should do the trick to avoid stepping inside.
Still Ready to Try No Till Gardening?
No till gardening may seem simpler or lower maintenance, but it’s still a garden with plenty of things to do, and the no till method can leave some frustrated. There is a learning curve, knowing when to apply mulch, how thick of a layer to use, and the time of which you do things can really matter. If you’re ready to try it out, try keeping notes with dates of when you do things, so you can look back if anything goes wrong. Remember, the first year is always the hardest, but if you can put in the time to learn how to compost, how to use cover crops, and all other necessary components, you’ll be rewarded in kind.