Tillage and crop rotation are two production practices that are vital for good soil health. While they are vital for productive farming, they are also important for home gardeners who grow their own food on larger plots. There are different types of tilling methods, some intensive and some not.
Whichever type of tillage you opt for, the general consensus is that you should wait a while before planting. The only type of tillage that allows you to plant right away is the no-till method. For other types, some experts recommend waiting one or two weeks while others say you should wait months.
What is tilling?
Tilling involves turning the soil to prepare the soil for seeding. It also helps to control weeds and pests and has been used for crop farming for a very long time.
Tilling is particularly helpful if you are preparing a new field or large garden bed that has never been planted before. But tilling must be done the right way.
The USDA warns that if tillage is too intensive, it can have negative effects like increasing the risk of soil erosion leading to the runoff of nutrients into nearby waterways. It can also cause greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere.
The aim of tillage is to enable the soil to retain as much organic matter as possible. This protects the soil from wind and water erosion.
It also helps to mix crop residue, nutrients, and organic material into the soil. And it tends to keep the soil dry before seeding. That said, it is important to till until the soil is warm and dry.
The least intensive form of tillage is known as no-till. The most intensive form is the conventional form of tillage.
Farmers decide for themselves how they are going to prepare their land for planting. This includes the depth of tillage as well as the number of times they till the land before planting.
Home gardeners generally only opt for tillage if they have larger properties. Then, it is usually no-till or shallow tillage to a depth of 1-4 inches. Deep tillage involves turning the soil deeper than 10 inches, so there is quite a difference.
Either way, a caveat is that while tillage kills weeds at the surface, it brings weed seeds to the surface. Because weed seeds remain viable in the soil for many years, you may find weeds germinating that you have never seen before!
Tools for low and no-till gardening
We’ve come a long way since the days when Native Americans used handheld digging sticks for tillage. Then came methods that used animal-drawn implements to do the job.
As the oil and gas industry developed, mechanization replaced draft animals. Today mechanization is incredibly sophisticated, but primarily used by farmers and some homesteaders rather than home gardeners.
Many farmers and homesteaders also use rototillers that are available in different sizes. This is typically a gas-powered piece of equipment that is pushed by hand. It incorporates blades that churn up the soil and break it.
Today, tools for low and no-till gardening are designed to reduce any disturbance of the soil. They also minimize the risk of compacting the soil.
According to Nate Bernitz from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Extension Program, the three best tools for this kind of domestic tillage are broad forks, wheelhouses, and rakes. You can also use a Tilther, which is ideal for suppressing weeds without disrupting the soil and is often used by market gardeners and other serious food growers.
A broad fork has prongs on a toolbar that has a handle. You step or jump on it rocking back and forth to eliminate the compaction of the soil.
A wheel hoe is designed to penetrate about 3 inches into the soil, so it works well for weed control. A rake is also useful, though Bernitz says tillage is better if you are direct seeding rather than transplanting seedlings into your beds.
Even though you don’t till the ground in the usual way, gardening doesn’t negate the need to turn the soil and aerate it where you are going to plant. You can do it with a garden fork and spade, and with a hoe.
When to till your garden?
Bernitz explains that a critical element of low till gardening is to cut your plants at the soil line when you “put your garden to bed” in the fall. Don’t pull them out by the roots.
You will find that the roots decompose naturally over the winter and spring months, adding organic matter to the soil. You must, though, remove the plant material that you have cut to minimize disease and insect issues.
Then, in the spring, you can till the soil more thoroughly. Start by using a broad fork to alleviate compaction. Then dig in the soil amendments you have chosen to use, including compost and fertilizer, and prepare the beds for planting.
Jodi DeJong-Hughes, a University of Minnesota Extension educator, and Aaron Daigh, a soil scientist from North Dakota State University recommend tilling in the spring. They say that if and when you till in the fall, it’s good practice to leave 40-50% residue. You can then remove this when you till again in spring.
How to till your garden?
We have already mentioned some of the common hand tools used for tilling and how to use them. elaborate on shallow till and no-till methods.
They recommend field cultivation, a common secondary tillage practice that is used just once in the spring before planting. It incorporates broadcasted fertilizers and crushes smaller clods of soil.
They also like the idea of tandem disking, which is used to prepare smooth seedbeds in spring and incorporate broadcasted fertilizers. However, it should only be used for secondary tillage to prevent the risk of crop residue blowing or washing away.
No-till, on the other hand, doesn’t involve any primary or secondary tillage. Instead, it leaves the soil as undisturbed as possible for the whole year. Unlike low till methods, crop residues can be left on the surface of the soil to increase organic matter. This also helps to decrease soil erosion and improve the retention of moisture.
Sometimes people talk about no-till gardening as lasagna gardening because the planting area is layered with organic materials, including compost, layers of newspaper, and mulch.
No-till gardening certainly takes a lot less work than even low-till gardening. Also, there is no need to wait to plant seeds or seedlings.
When to Plant After Tilling?
So, how long should you wait to plant your veggies after tilling the soil? Or can you plant immediately after tilling?
Generally, you shouldn’t plant immediately after tilling the soil. Apart from anything else, waiting a while allows the organic materials and nutrients to break down in the soil.
You also should never plant if the soil is very wet. You need to have the soil dry for planting.
Opinions vary, but most people suggest waiting 1-3 weeks before you plant after tilling, particularly in spring. Some say that you should wait a few months before planting if you till in the fall. That makes sense since we usually plant most of our crops in the spring – except for cool season and cover crops.
It is common practice to sow seeds for garden cover crops early in the fall. These literally cover the ground when the main crops you want to grow aren’t growing
Cover crops include legumes like peas and clover, rye, oats, and tillage radish. Their main value is to provide essential nutrients to the soil.
By planting them in the early fall, cover crops will establish themselves before winter. When cover crops die they decompose and add organic matter to the soil.
Then you can plant your main crops in spring. If you don’t sow a cover crop, it’s important to mulch the soil with compost, straw, or a leaf mulch that can be created using shredded fallen leaves and grass clippings.
Some gardeners choose to grow cover crops in summer too, in between spring and early fall plantings of cool season crops. It’s your choice.
Tillage is great for turning the soil with added nutrients and improving its quality of the soil. It is also a good natural weed control method that can help to minimize if not eliminate the use of toxic spray weed killer.