Many homeowners follow a spring cleanup checklist and an item frequently on this list is tilling your soil. But before you bust out your rototiller or employ the services of a company, learn more to decide if the practice will help or harm your soil.
Why tilling is not good for your soil: Tilling is actually not very good for your soil. It may break up the soil for easier planting but in doing so, can lead the area prone to soil erosion. Tilling can also unearth dormant weed seeds which will quickly grow. The use of heavy machinery to till soil can destroy the habitats of important insects and disrupt the ecosystem of microorganisms.
What is the major problem with tilling?
The major problem with tilling is that it is simply not necessary. While tilling can help break up compact soil and make it easier to start your spring planting, there are better methods to achieve these results.
Adding mulch to the top of your garden in the later fall or early winter is a much better alternative. Bark mulch and straw, combined with the natural organic layer from dead leaves, will begin the cycle of adding nutrients back into your garden. This layer will also keep the soil better contained so it won’t erode as quickly.
Even though tilling is seen as part of the natural cycle of gardening, new practices, such as adding mulch, are proving to be much more effective.
Reasons why you shouldn’t till your garden
Loose soil is good as it helps plants spread their roots. However, when you loosen the soil too much, it can more easily erode.
Soil will have a natural layer of organic matter, including fallen leaves, which actually helps to bind the soil together. When this organic matter is disrupted, soil can be more easily washed away.
If you live in an area that has frequent heavy spring rain, you want to be mindful of soil erosion. If the soil is too loose, it can be washed away with a few downpours.
Trapped inside your soil can be dormant weed seeds. These weed seeds are biding their time, waiting for exposure to light so they can propagate.
While tilling can help break up the root system of weeds, which is commonly cited as an advantage of tilling, it can also encourage the growth and spread of weeds.
If you till a patch of soil, be extra vigilant about weeding as you will often find a lot of new growth in recently tilled areas.
Addition of mulch
If you mulch your garden in the fall, you are essentially negating the need for tilling. Mulching and tilling are counterintuitive and you will do your garden a disservice by performing both tasks.
Mulch helps to increase the moisture level in soil and will naturally build up organic matter in your soil. As a result, your garden will be less waterlogged and have more nutrients in it.
All these benefits are traditionally seen from tilling, so the action becomes unnecessary. In fact, most modern gardeners will ensure they add mulch in the late fall as a better practice than tilling in the spring.
Temporary soil fertility
One of the main reasons for tilling your soil is that it spreads nutrients around. The organic matter that is at the top can be moved deeper into the soil so that plants and their roots have more access to it.
However, constantly disrupting this soil can actually damage the delicate ecosystem of your soil. In that soil live plenty of insects that are essential to the fertility of your garden. If you use machinery that is too powerful, you can end up killing worms, bugs, and microorganisms that keep the delicate balance of your soil in check.
Not enough water
Soil needs water to keep all the important microorganisms alive. If your soil dries out quickly, these microscopic organisms can’t adapt in time.
While tilling is used to break up snow and ice and help the soil drain properly before planting, it can disrupt the homes of all the insects and microorganisms that live in the soil.
If you are worried about drainage problems in your garden, it is far better to address the situation and amend the soil rather than till it every spring.
No long-term gains
While tilling can make sense when you are thinking about the immediate future, in the long term, it doesn’t offer enough benefits to your garden. Tilling can make plants more efficient, but it will deplete your garden of nutrients which means you will need to spend more time adding fertilizer at a later date.
There is a never-ending list of chores to be done with gardening. If you can eliminate one, wouldn’t that be great? Tilling is hard work and requires that you either rent or own a rototiller.
The alternative, adding mulch, is easier as mulch is very lightweight. Do yourself, and your back, a favor, by switching methods.
Which is better, tilling vs no-tilling?
Tilling has its benefits but they are all short-term. Tilling will help prepare your garden to be planted and will help it drain after the winter season.
However, tilling also disrupts the microorganisms in your garden. It can cause soil erosion and bring about weed growth.
If you are setting up a new garden, then it makes sense to till it to prepare for planting. However, if you have an established garden, tilling is not necessary.
The better alternative is to add mulch to your garden. Do this in the later fall and it will help increase moisture and nutrients in your garden. Then, in the fall, you don’t have to worry about any back-breaking labor.
Tilling has long been a common occurrence in the spring but new gardening practices are changing the way we think. Adding a layer of mulch in the later fall will provide the same short-term benefits as mulching as well as help create a delicate balance alive in your soil.