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No-Till Gardening: Easier Gardening for Busy People

Updated on August 20, 2019
Doneta Wrate profile image

My husband has been an organic gardener for 60 years, raised many large gardens & read organic garden mag. I have helped him for 30 years


1. No-Till Gardening Creates more Fertile Soils

2. Benefits of No-Till Gardening

3. How to Prepare for No-Till Gardening

4. How to Continually Improve Your Garden over the Years

5. No-Till Gardening Creates more Fertile Soil

6. Video on How to Make a No-Till Garden

7. Links and Resources

1. No-Till Gardening Creates more Fertile Soils

Native Americans practiced no-till gardening. They respected the land and it yielded good harvests for them. Their goal was not to overcome nature, but rather to learn how to work with it and keep its fertility, while preserving the earth for future generations. The Indian tribal lands were fertile, and that is one reason the white settlers wanted them.

No-till gardening is working in harmony with nature. When we look at creation, places where man is not in charge, things grow perfectly fine without tilling. Surprisingly, untouched soil is the most fertile soil there is. Tilling damages the soil food web that the little soil organisms work so hard to create. When the soil food web is destroyed by tilling it becomes instant fertilizer for plants. The immediate results make one think tilling is the best way to garden. However, if we keep on killing the living things in the soil, there will soon will be nothing left to kill and fertilize the plants with. Plus the plants need the little organisms to help them use the added fertilizers.

This article will give some pointers on how to restore the natural order of a healthy garden so you can have improved harvests. Also ideas will be given how to maintain and create more fertile soil.

No till gardening creates better harvests once the soil ecology and fertility are well established
No till gardening creates better harvests once the soil ecology and fertility are well established | Source

2. Benefits of No-Till Gardening

Here are discussed three main benefits of no-till gardening

  1. Less soil erosion
  2. Saves Time
  3. Healthier soil making stronger plants and more fertile soil

Less soil erosion is allowed by no-till gardening. The soil erosion caused by tilling is not readily seen because tilling continually smooths the soil over.. But leaving the ground bare under the wind and rain causes a lot of soil erosion. The dirty snow shows soil erosion by the wind blowing the top soil. Rain washes the top soil into creeks and rivers, sending the top soil and chemical fertilizers down to the ocean where dead zones are created, like at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Only a little slow soil erosion can be caused with no-till gardening. Gullies can be formed since the ground is not being smoothed over by tilling. But there will not be near as much soil erosion. What erosion does happen can be taken care of using four techniques:

  1. use cover crops and grass on the waterways
  2. use high amounts of mulch where gullies tend to form
  3. use low pressure radial tires
  4. change the traffic patterns across the field

Less time is required by no-till gardening. You just have to pass over the field once, rather than three or more times. This can help you get your crops planted before the ground dries too much. With no-till gardening, nature does the prep for you. It does take more time the first season because you have to restore the natural condition of the ground and the soil food web. This takes at least one season. But after that each year the harvest improves as the ground improves from increasingly returning to its natural condition.

No-till gardening creates a healthier soil making stronger plants and more fertile soil. No-till gardens saves the soil in three ways:

  1. tilling causes compacted soils
  2. tilling destroys organic matter
  3. tilling encourages damaging insects

Tilling causes compacted soils. Tillage busts up the natural soil structure. It destroys the fungal networks and sticky exudates of soil organisms that loosely holds the soil together. After tilling the soil, heavy loads such as wheel traffic and heavy rain causes the loosened soil to run back together again compacted more tightly than than it should be. Tillage leads to more tillage, and the soil becomes in ever worsening condition, killing the life that is supposed to colonize the soil and benefit and feed the plants. In a healthy undisturbed soil food web, material is created by soil organisms that helps soil particles bind together to improve aeration, water holding capacity and drainage. Undisturbed soil is a thriving nutrient rich yet fragile ecosystem.

Tilling destroys organic matter. Tilling destroys humus, the organic components of soil that is necessary for plant life. As the rapidly turning tines mix up the soil, much of the stored carbon and nitrogen is quickly eliminated. The rapid introduction of oxygen starts a process where carbon is lost and valuable nitrogen is consumed. The soil after tilling has less fertility than before tilling. This results in the need to add more soil amendments to compensate for what nature would have done for free. By avoiding tillage, soil organic matter can increase. This is the primary factor for productive soil.

Tilling encourages damaging insects. Plants left on the surface of the ground and not tilled under decompose at a natural pace, causing many life forms to increase in and on the soil This creates a healthier field ecology causing fewer flare-ups of damaging insects.

Tilling brings up buried weed seed and creates more weeds
Tilling brings up buried weed seed and creates more weeds | Source

3. How to Prepare for No-Till Gardening

The land needs to set untilled for a while under the proper conditions for the natural soil ecology to be restored that increases fertility and produces more fertile soil. Instructions will be given here how to set up those conditions. It is recommended that no gardening is done the first season. However some gardeners do anyway. If you do plant the first season, remember the harvest will get better with each passing year as the soil food web in the ground gradually establishes again.

The ground preparation for no till gardening is called the Lasagna Garden, also known as Back to Eden. There are four steps to develop the Lasagna Garden.

  1. smother designated garden area
  2. cover with compost or other organic matter
  3. add nitrogen fertilizer
  4. generously water

Smother the designated garden area to kill grass and weeds and soften the area for planting later. Use newspaper or cardboard. Cardboard is preferable because it decomposes better and the earthworms like munching on it better.

Cover the cardboard with compost, wood chips, rotted leaves, or aged manure or straw. A mix of these is even better. Aim to make at least a 6 inch mound once everything is added and piled up.

Add an organic nitrogen source to help everything break down better.

Generously spray everything down with water. A consistent moisture level will be key to steady decomposition. Water again as needed to keep the pile damp.

In a few months, everything will break down, combine into the soil and start making a fertile soil food web of little organisms that work together with the plants. Then pull away just enough material where you want to sow your seeds or plant your seedlings.

It is recommended to wait one season without planting. But not everyone waits. If you cannot stand to go a season without planting, just remember it takes a year or two for the soil to change much so a lot of benefit will be noticed. Improvements will continue for several years as the soil food web continues to develop, and the ground goes back to nature.

If you have pretty good rich soil but want to improve it even more with no-till gardening, a Lasagna garden is not necessary. The garden can be heavily mulched instead with old hay with no seeds, wood chips, grass clippings, or any organic material you have on hand. A combination of organic materials is best.

Restrict traffic to garden pathways between the growing areas to prevent compaction.  Cover the garden pathways with wood chips or straw to help retain moisture.
Restrict traffic to garden pathways between the growing areas to prevent compaction. Cover the garden pathways with wood chips or straw to help retain moisture. | Source

4. How to Continually Improve Your Garden over the Years

Now for some ideas on things that can be done to enable your garden to improve over the years.

  1. plant cover crops off season
  2. cover with compost just before planting
  3. restrict traffic to designated pathways
  4. use chopped herbs as mulch
  5. use a digging fork properly

Plant cover crops off season as an alternative to mulch. Cover crops act as a living mulch layer. Also called green manure, cover crops add fertility to the soil, improves compaction, aeration and drainage while protecting the surface. When ready to plant, mow the green manure and either compost it or just let it lay on the ground and decompose naturally, increasing the life forms in and on the soil. Then plant among the stubble of the cover crop.

Cover with compost just before planting a crop. Cover the garden with a one inch layer of compost just before planting summer crops, and again before the fall planting.

Restrict foot and wheel traffic to designated pathways between growing areas. Such traffic compacts the soil under foot.

Mulch with chopped herbs of all kinds part of the time. Herbs provide extra fertilization and builds the soil. Comfrey is a good example, but most culinary or medicinal herbs will work. If using comfrey, just use the leaves. Do not use the root. Every little piece of comfrey root will sprout a new plant.

Use a digging fork when ready to plant. Do not turn the soil. This will disturb the soil food web too much. Just stick the fork into the ground and gently rock it back and forth. This allows for aeration, improve drainage and excavation of weeds.

This steamy compost heap is full of good soil organisms and will make excellent fertile mulch for the ground.
This steamy compost heap is full of good soil organisms and will make excellent fertile mulch for the ground. | Source

5. No-till Gardening Creates more Fertile Soil

For successful no-till gardening the ground needs to be prepped for one year with Lasagna gardening. This enables the soil organisms to colonize the soil food web and restore the natural fertility of the ground, creating stronger plants and more fertile soil.

6. How to Make a No-Till Garden

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.

© 2019 Doneta Wrate


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