How to Grow a No-Till Garden
Gardening that's easy on the back!
No-till gardening is a WIN in so many ways! It's easy on the back, if you would otherwise dig by hand; it's easy on the earth if you would use a gasoline-powered tiller or a tractor; and it uses the same method that Mother Nature uses herself, so you're working with the forces of Nature rather than against them.
I'll be discussing the how and the why of this method, along with my favorite tools, all along the way using my own experience as examples of some of the ways this can work for you, too. I'm a firm believer in using what you have, because in these difficult economic times so many of us are having to make do with less than we're used to. This philosophy is a double-win too; not only do you feel oh so clever and thrifty, but the results can be better than you've ever had before!
Our 3 main gardening topics
- No-till gardening method
- My 3 favorite no-till gardening tools
- Rugged gardening clothing
Fall cover crop for your no-till garden
your choice of crop will be zone-specific
I can't tell you what to grow in your area, but I can help you decide. If you have garden space ready to plant for a fall harvest of salad greens or kale or whatever, you won't be planting a cover crop there. If you have a spot that needs some work, or a new area that you just layered and think needs some time to develop better soil, that place is where you want to seed a cover crop.
Choose seed that isn't picky about soil fertility, is hardy in your zone through the fall and into the early winter, and that will die down naturally during the winter (is an annual, not a perennial) and provide a nice protective blanket that will continue to break down and nourish your soil come spring.
Oats, barley, radishes, field peas, rye or vetch are just a few possibilities; consider planting a combination such as a grass and vetch or peas in order to add different nutrients.
Cover Crops and other Soil Amendments - adding nutrition to your food by feeding your soil
This is the basic tenet of organic gardening and it fits in a no-till garden perfectly. You plant cover crops and then add your soil amendments on top of that. Simple, and just how nature does it. If some of your cover crop or some weeds persist in growing, just pull up the plants and lay them on top.
A mixture of rye, vetch, fuba bean (field bean), and red clover seeds for a fall planted cover crop.
Late Winter/Early Spring Lasagna Gardening
the lazy woman way
I may be lazy, but I get to write it off as gardening by disturbing the earth as little as possible, which I consider a good thing. This time of year, my raised beds are covered in alder leaves that gravity put there, no help needed from me. Under the leaves is the cover crop I planted. All I did was rake the surface of the soil smooth in the fall, scatter the seed ( a cover crop mixture I bought at my local farm store), and then walk over it to press it into the soil. I watered it every day until it germinated.
The cold temperatures of winter and the weight of the leaves knocked down all the growth. I haven't looked yet to see if there is any new growth, but my plan is the same no matter what. I will simply add some compost and/or composted manure on top. No digging, no hoeing, just add on top. I won't be planting for at least another month, maybe two, so there's no rush.
That whole area of my yard is a low light cool spot. It may be our future fuchsia heaven, since they do so well in low light conditions here. Meanwhile I'm thinking maybe peas and potatoes.
The only garden tool I need this time of year is a good wheelbarrow and my favorite shovel or spading fork, for moving compost.
This style is amazingly easy to dump stuff out of, and it's easy to push or pull. I prefer this to the traditional one-wheel barrow because of the stability.
Lasagna gardening in the spring
I planted almost right away
When you want to plant right away, you have to use layers that will both break down relatively quickly and also not burn the roots of plants. For this type of garden I layered broken down compost, kitchen waste, garden waste, straw, and newspapers. I did this in my yard, right on top of grass.
The ground was moist when I laid down a thin layer of newspapers, wet the paper thoroughly, then added thin layers (layers only thick enough to completely cover the layer below) of compost, kitchen waste, compost, garden waste, and so on until all my materials were used up, then added about 4 inches of compost, a thin layer of garden soil - about 1 or 2 inches, and covered it all with a few inches of straw.
You can use whatever you have on hand: grass cuttings, leaves, straw, seasoned manure, sawdust, and so on. The only rule of thumb is to alternate green materials with brown - grass cuttings with brown leaves, kitchen waste with sawdust, etc. Sawdust is kind of tricky because it needs so much nitrogen to decompose. The only time I've used it is when it was used as bedding in a chicken coop and therefore was well mixed with (very hot) chicken manure. After being cleaned out, thoroughly dampened, and left to season for a month, it was suitable for the bottom layers of a lasagna garden.
When it came time to plant seeds or seedlings, I simple pulled back the straw and planted.
I built this lasagna garden in a dry climate. Now I live in a maritime climate and anything that gets mulched becomes a haven for slugs. This is offset by the fact that the dampness means my garden needs optimum sun and warmth, not moisture retention. I mulch fallow ground over winter but pull all mulch off in very early spring.
Lasagna gardening in the fall
also called sheet composting
I've done this in the fall when I planned on tilling with a tractor in the spring. I layered compostable materials that I had on hand, wetting each layer thoroughly.
What did I have on hand? Half-finished compost consisting of cow manure, garden waste, and kitchen waste; cotton clothing with all zippers, buttons, snaps etc. removed; and newspaper, cardboard, magazines, and old books. I put down a layer of cardboard and newspaper first, then alternate layers of "green" (compost and wastes) with clothing and paper, and finished by covering the whole area with a foot of clean straw.
At the time my garden was about 1/3 of an acre, and this portion was about 1/4 of the total area. When my partner turned it all under with the rotavator the following spring, he said the sheet composted area was the richest part of the whole garden. The rest of the garden had manure spread by hand.
In retrospect, I would not have had that part of the garden tilled at all. I was just in a hurry to make sure all the layers were adequately broken down. Since he was tilling the rest of the garden, it would have been more difficult to rotavate around that area than to include it.
A rotavator is a rotary cultivator. It is used to turn the top few inches of soil and the tines can be so placed as to cultivate an entire area or in between rows of plants. Much less of the soil is disrupted than with a plow. The tractor we used was much smaller than the one pictured, closer in size to a lawn tractor than this one, and the attachment was also much smaller. The whole apparatus did not impact/compact the soil as much as this one would.
Tools for a no-till garden
the tools tell the rest of the story
I have three favorite garden tools - a broadfork deep spader, a hula hoe, and a digging fork with a long handle, sometimes called a spading fork. That's it, besides a common garden rake. I break up the top 6 inches or so just before planting with the deep spader, weed with a hula hoe that lets you get right in close to plant stems and creates a dust mulch at the same time, and use a spading fork for digging up root crops and turning the compost pile.
All of these tools are very ergonomic. You use them standing up straight. No back-breaking bending. Push the spader into the soil and leverage it with the handle. Rock the handle back and forth to loosen the soil. Do the same with the spading fork, rocking it back to loosen and lift your potatoes, carrots etc. Then stoop (bend your knees, not your back) and harvest them.
Broadfork Deep Spader
#1 tool on my list of favorites
I haven't been able to find a picture of this tool that I can use here and I don't currently own one (as I haven't had the opportunity to garden in the last 10 years due to moving around quite a bit), but it's on my list of must-have tools and I have found where one can be purchased. Johnny's sells one exactly like the one I used to own.
Most of these I've found on the market recently have tines that are narrow, pointed, and sharp like knife blades. These would be suited for heavier soils such as hardpan or clay. But if you've constructed a lasagna garden, you won't have those type of soils. The tubular tines of my spader were hollow, making the tool just a bit lighter. The handles and frame of mine were made of angle iron, which makes one think that anyone handy with welding could construct one of these out of scrap.
As you'll see, there is also another model that is almost twice as wide, but I find the use of this narrower one to be all I need and so easy to use, I don't mind using it twice as much. In fact, I'm crazy about the operation of this tool. Push it in with your foot and rock it back, which gently loosens the soil. It's almost like a dance.
It's tool time! - these are my FAVORITES
Is it ok to have a love affair with garden tools? I can't help myself....they're ergonomic and easy to use.
The hula hoe gracefully stirs up the soil, creating a dust mulch at the same time that it slices off weeds below ground level. Just like the dance it's named after, nothing but flowing movements.
You can hoe a wide swath with the full width of the blade, or work the corner into a tight spot right up to the stem of a tender plant.
Cotton Clothing - Recycle it back to the earth when you've worn it out
Cotton is one of the most highly chemicalized fibers. Your skin is the largest organ of the body and is a permeable outer covering -- that means the chemicals in what you wear are absorbed into the body.
Organic cotton clothing is therefore not only healthier for you to wear, but you can safely recycle it into your lasagna garden when it becomes worn, outgrown, or stained. All you have to do is remove zippers, buttons, and anything else that won't readily decompose. I've done this. I was very skeptical. It worked amazingly well over one winter.
A thin, 100% organic cotton women's tee shirt. The scoop neck and shorter sleeves are stylish, and the price is right. When you've worn it out, compost it!