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I am in LOVE with no-till gardening! It has changed the way I think about gardening. I used to think it was necessary to till the soil to make it healthy. That is not even close to being true. I also used to think it was beneficial to add lots of fertilizer to make plants healthy. That is also false.
When I learned about no-till methods to gardening, it sounded too good to be true. But let me tell you, it works! It takes some work up front to get a system in place, but then you save time. A LOT of time! How many hours do you spend weeding each week? For my 700 square foot garden, I used to spend probably up to 20 hours a week weeding the garden. It was a never ending battle. With my no-till garden, I spent maybe a couple of hours weeding for the entire year. A weed here or there that I plucked as I was picking my produce was the extent of my weeding.
There are many no-till (also known as no-dig) gardening methods out there. (If you are new to gardening, check out my beginning gardener tips here). You will have to decide what suits your needs the best. Every culture has a form of no-till gardening. No matter where you are, the benefits of no-till gardening are the same. Here are some of the essential benefits of why you should consider no-till gardening.
Why you should consider a no-till garden:
- Less work! This, for me, is the number one benefit. I don't have to weed or water my garden as often as I would with a conventional garden. With conventional gardening, weed seeds are tilled to the surface. The dormant weed seeds never make it to the top layer of soil with no-till. They are smothered by mulch if they do make it to the top. I can spend time normally spend weeding and watering doing other things. I don't know about you, but having that time back in my life is priceless.
- Nourishes Soil Biology: You will have healthier soil. Without tilling, you are not destroying the fungal networks, bacteria or earth worms in the soil. These help plants absorb more nutrients and water through the soil as well as fight off bacteria you don't want in your garden. (By the way, healthier soil = less work!).
- Less Amendments: Forget about fertilizing! As the mulch breaks down, the clay or sand in your soil will become more like the loam that we are always striving to achieve. You won't need to add a lot of amendments as time goes on and your soil becomes healthier. I NEVER recommend using chemical fertilizers. There are organic and natural amendments that serve the same purpose but have less impact on the environment and on your health. To learn more about fertilizers, check out this post. (Again, less amendments = less work!)
- Decreases Soil Erosion: You are not disturbing the soil, so it does not wash out like it does when you till. All the compost and mulch you add keeps the dirt from washing out or blowing away. In fact, the longer you go without tilling, the more easily your soil will absorb water because the soil is so much healthier. (Less runoff and less watering = less work!).
No-Till Gardening Methods:
There are many different no-till methods out there, and you have to pick the one that will work best for your space and your situation. I chose to use a deep mulch method based on Ruth Stout's book "Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent". Sheet-mulching is popular right now as well, with different methods like lasagna gardening and Back to Eden gardening.
In sheet mulch methods, such as Back to Eden gardening or lasagna gardening, you will place a layer of cardboard or newspaper directly onto the area you want to become your garden. This layer will kill off grass and weeds. Organic material is then added. Depending on the method, you will use things like wood chips, manure, compost, grass clippings, hay, straw and leaves.
I've read a lot of rave reviews about these types of sheet mulch methods. It is best to start these gardens in the fall so everything has time to break down. If using cardboard, I would be careful about making sure there are no chemicals on the cardboard. The cardboard could also cause issues with drainage until it is fully broken down in the soil.
To learn more about lasagna gardening, check out "The Art of Gardening - Building your Soil" by Susan Vinskofski. In this book, Susan outlines the origins of lasagna gardening as well as the process she uses to create a successful garden. Not only that, she offers tons of information about building soil, saving seeds and growing all sorts of vegetables. She also sprinkles recipes throughout. Plus, it's illustrated with beautiful paintings. Definitely a must read for any level of gardener.
In deep mulch methods, such as Ruth Stout's method, you can put down a layer of compost or manure and then heavily mulch (about eight to twelve inches) with organic materials such as hay, straw, leaves, grass clippings or a combination of all of these. Ruth Stout didn't have a compost pile. She just added compostable materials directly in the garden. If weeds pop up through your mulch, just add more mulch to smother them.
Over the past year, I have employed the deep mulch method in my garden. Check out my post all about my first year with a no-till garden here. My garden had less weeds and has grown more vegetables. I didn't have any diseases in my garden and didn't use any pesticides. I used some organic fertilizer at the beginning of the growing season but didn't have to add anything throughout the season.
Unlike Ruth Stout, I like the idea of having a separate compost area to put kitchen scraps, leaves and plant debris. Once the compost is ready, I can top dress my garden by placing the compost on top of my mulched garden. The rain will wash it into the soil over time.
Which No-Till Method Should You Choose?:
In addition to different types of sheet mulching and deep mulching, there are numerous other methods available. What you choose and how you use it will depend on your individual situation. You can use the above methods directly on the ground (even right over your lawn) by turning your current soil into the perfect soil over time. You can also use these methods in raised bed gardens.
Alternative methods to mulching include things like square foot gardening, the French intensive method, straw bale gardening and even container gardening. The most important aspect of no-till gardening is to find a way to disturb the soil as little as possible to keep it healthy.
No matter which method you choose, make sure that you are sourcing materials that have not been sprayed with chemicals that may impact your plants. By staying local, you can find out how the materials were grown and harvested. For example, make sure no herbicides were sprayed on the hay or straw you are using as mulch. There are many stories of whole gardens being killed due to herbicides in mulching material. Don't let this deter you, but just use caution and ask questions.
Once you have chosen your method, it's time to take the leap. Not tilling the garden has been a game-changer for me. I learned the standard way of gardening. My thinking was that tilling was just a part of gardening. What a chore to wait until the garden had just the right amount of moisture to drag a loud tiller through it to disturb the soil. And I used to take the fall leaves OUT of the garden. Now, I put them in the garden as a natural compost. Don't even get me started on the weeding! No-till gardening has changed my life by taking the task of weeding away. And for those of you who like to have a neat garden, no-till methods still give you that clean look.
Not tilling the garden gives back to nature instead of just taking away. By adding mulch and compost to the soil, I am providing an ecosystem where healthy bacteria and critters can thrive. In turn, I am providing healthy, fresh food to my family. Try it out! Let me know how it goes!