For most gardeners, tilling your garden is just something you always do in the spring. But what if there was a different option? We’ll go over the differences between till gardening and no-till gardening and what their pros and cons are.
Till vs no-till gardening: Till gardening is when you dig up the top layer of your soil and remove any old plants. No-till gardening is when you simply add layers of compost and mulch to your existing gardening. While till gardening is often better if you are planning a new garden, no-till gardening is preferable if you have an existing garden.
What is Till Gardening
The most traditional approach to gardening is when you till your soil. This can happen either during the spring when you get your garden ready for planting or if you are creating a new space and need to clear a patch of your yard.
Till gardening requires the use of some sort of tool to break apart the top layer of the soil. This can be as simple as a shovel and a rake or as invasive as a rototiller.
Generally, if you are tilling your garden to prepare it for planting in the spring, you will use a shovel and rake whereas overly compacted dirt that has not been in use for a while will need a rototiller or similar machine.
Types of Till Gardening
The first time you break through your garden in the spring is considered primary tillage. There may be plants left behind from late fall or winter that need to be dug up.
Furthermore, the soil will settle and become more compact over winter, especially if you have a lot of rain or snow. Primary tillage will break everything apart and move the soil around to make it easier to plant.
As its name suggests, secondary tillage comes after your initial, primary stage. This is less intense and can often be targeted to more compact areas.
With secondary tillage, you are looking for clumps of soil that are still compact or sturdy roots that need to be removed from the previous year. Secondary tillage doesn’t take as much time as primary tillage does and isn’t always necessary, depending on your soil conditions.
Things to Consider with Till Gardening
Ideally, you only want to undergo tilling once in the spring. Therefore, you need to time it right.
The soil should be starting to warm up and you don’t want any snow or ice still in the ground. However, you don’t want to wait too late as this is an important step to take before you start planting.
It is also best to avoid tilling when the ground is wet. Wet soil will become compact and all the effort of tilling will be for naught if your soil simply settles into a compact layer.
You also don’t want to till right before it rains a lot. That loosened soil is more susceptible to being washed away, and it can result in major soil erosion.
Tilling can be hard work. You need to use a sturdy shovel and then rake everything over to even out the land.
Anyone with back problems should avoid tilling as the constant bending over can cause a lot of strains. The same goes if you have respiratory problems as it takes a lot of effort.
What is No-Till Gardening
There is a new movement that seeks to promote not tilling your garden. In essence, this means you do nothing with your garden.
It almost sounds too good to be true but there is some science that supports no-till gardening. And, if you don’t have to put in all that effort, maybe it is worth considering.
With no-till gardening, you build up layers of nutrients that then slowly break down into the soil. These are then transplanted to the root system of your plants, so they still remain healthy.
No-till gardening is harder when you are starting with a new garden patch but it is still possible. However, you will need to be prepared and start a few months before you actually plant anything.
First, clear the area for your new garden of any large rocks or debris. Then, add a thick layer of compost to suppress weeds and stop grass from growing. You can also lay down cardboard as it will cut off sunlight in the area.
Forms of No-Till Gardening
One major issue with any garden is the growth of weeds and if you want a speedier way to achieve a no-till garden, you can start with herbicides. These will kill the weeds in your way and let you get down to gardening right away.
Then, you can still use herbicides once your plants grow to further help with weed suppression. Of course, if you have the time, it is better to simply pull weeds once your garden is planted.
The organic approach to no-till gardening is usually the better option. It uses a system of layers, usually compost, manure, and mulch, to suppress weed growth and allow for nutrients to break down into the soil.
Crop rotation and cover crops are also used for organic no-till gardening. You have to be a bit more creative but you will achieve a more bio-diverse soil.
Things to Consider with No-Till Gardening
No-till gardening takes more time. Not labor-related time but actual time as the soil coverage will break down slower than if you are adding nutrients directly into deeper parts of the soil.
Source of nutrients
In order to build up your garden, you will need to add compost or manure, which not everyone has. You will also need bark mulch, which means an extra cost.
Till vs no Till-Gardening – Pros and Cons
Pros of Tilling
There are some soil types that really benefit from tilling. If you have thick layers of clay, then you will want to dig this up and add new soil to make a better mixture for your plants.
Clay not only stops the growth of plant roots but also makes it hard for water to drain. When you have pooling water and compact soil, your plant roots will become soggy and rot can set in.
Compact soil is especially important to amend if you have plants that have roots that grow deeply. Shallow roots mean weakened plants.
After you till your soil in the spring, it is common to add organic matter, such as compost or manure. Once the soil is dug up, you can add these nutrients and mix everything together.
Then, when you go to plant your garden, the roots will be in contact with all these beneficial nutrients.
Tilling your garden every spring might not be the best course of action but if you have a new area you want to transform, then tilling is usually the better choice. It’s simply too hard to let this area turn into a fertile garden on its own.
Not only do you need to spend weeks waiting for the grass and weeds to die through suppression with no-till gardening, but you have no idea what the soil is underneath this top layer.
Tilling allows you to remove the top part of the garden and then see what you’re dealing with underneath. Then, you know if you have clay or sand to work with.
Cons of Tilling
A lot of labor
As we mentioned before, tilling can be a lot of hard work. If you have any health issues, the act of shoveling, usually up to a foot deep, can cause a lot of pain in your body.
Lower back pain happens to the best of us and most people are not in the best shape in the early spring. No matter what kind of shovel you have, you will need to bend over to use it.
Although you can’t see them, there is a lot of life in the soil. All these microorganisms live in harmony, at least until you disrupt them when you till.
Balanced soil that is allowed to connect on its own will produce healthier plants and keep diseases at bay. You can kill tiny insects with all the shoveling, which is vital to a healthy garden.
Spil is meant to stick together. You may think your soil is compact but it could be normal and still perfectly fine for plants to grow and water to drain.
With all that loose soil, as soon as it starts to rain, there will be more runoff and valuable nutrients will be lost. Then, you will need to add more soil to your garden, which means more money is spent.
Tilling can unearth tiny weed seeds that have been blissfully dormant. But, once exposed to sunlight, these weeds will start to grow again.
Even though you are tilling your soil to prevent the growth of seeds, the opposite may happen.
Pros of No-Tilling
No plant removal
Annual plants need to be removed from a garden, or at least that’s what we’ve always believed. Whether you dig them up in the fall or the spring, they need to go to make way for new plants.
However, these plants will actually disintegrate on their own and leave valuable nutrients behind. Instead of pulling them out, cut them down to ground level and leave them where they are.
Trees are wonderful until they shed their leaves and you have to go through the hassle of raking them. While you can let these leaves settle in your garden, if you have a thick patch of leaves on your grass, this can smother the grass so you need to remove at least some of them.
Instead of bagging up these leaves, simply transfer them to the top of your garden. They will turn into valuable leaf mold, which will break down and slowly provide nutrients to your garden.
A layer of leaf mold, together with a layer of bark mulch, will create a very nutritious soil for your plants.
By building up, you can control what goes down. It’s not too hard to get into a routine of adding layers of compost, leaves, and mulch.
Those layers will start to slowly break down and become part of the entire soil system for your plants. All these layers will provide a balanced habitat for your plants.
Cons of No-Tilling
Large root structures
Even though it is nice to let plant roots turn into nutrients in your garden, some plants have very large root structures and if you have a small garden, they can take up valuable real estate.
If you find yourself having to plant around large, dead plants in your garden, or your root vegetables are coming up crooked, tilling, or at least removing these plants, maybe a better idea. You can always place them in your compost and let them degrade in a contained area.
No-tilling gardening can be a lot of work. Even though you don’t have to put in physical labor, it still requires a lot of upkeep.
Many no-till gardeners will add worms to their soil to help break down larger elements, such as root structures and leaves. This is great but it is an added cost, not to mention more labor on your part.
You will need to find worms, either online or at a garden center. Then, you will need to add them to your garden. It’s not a major task but gardening already takes a lot of effort and adding another step may not work with your busy schedule.
Tilling your garden is beneficial if you are starting a new garden from scratch or you have very compacted soil from clay. However, if you can get into the habit of allowing leaves to rot and adding compost and bark mulch, then you will have a nutrient-dense garden with less physical labor.