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As the weather begins to warm up, I’m already eagerly anticipating the day when I can finally get in my garden to plant. In years past, my husband and I had some serious struggles when it came to tilling the garden.
Our property, when we first purchased it, existed almost entirely on thick, sludgy, clay soil. With plenty of rocks mixed in for good measure, of course. Whenever we went in to till during the spring, it was almost guaranteed that we’d have to wait a few more weeks for the compaction to loosen back up from where we had driven the rototiller or tractor across the ground.
Tilling can definitely be useful in the short term, helping to incorporate new organic matter into a garden bed or fallow plot. Tilling helps you work material down into the soil, encouraging plant roots to crawl downwards in search of nutrients.
However, till too deeply, and you can damage the organic structure of your soil. It’s all too easily to destroy valuable microorganisms and earthworms, as well as to introduce unwanted weed seeds.
While tilling definitely has its place in conventional agriculture, it’s something that my husband and I try to avoid whenever possible. When you till, you pull up many of the microbes and microorganisms in the soil that can’t live on the surface. They are then killed, harming your soil integrity in the process.
In the last few years, we have built our soil so that it is more porous and nutrient-dense than it was once, allowing us to plant with minimal tillage involved.
Consider these tips to help get your garden going in the spring – without destroying precious soil life.
Why Do We Till?
Before I can talk about the many alternatives to tilling, I think it’s beneficial to review all the reasons to till in the first place. For starters, tilling helps clean up your garden. It allows more air and water to enter the soil in the short term, reducing compaction, and also warms it for spring planting.
It also kills weeds. This, again, is a short-term measure, because it only kills the annual weeds that are already present and allows new perennial weeds to be seeded in.
Plant in raised beds
Raised beds are the lazy man’s way of gardening without tilling, but they’re definitely nothing to laugh at. They were our first and most trusted way of gardening back when we lived in a rented house, where it wasn’t possible to till the soil at all.
They allowed us to start planting directly where lawn had once been, only by building beds and then filling them with mulch and soil to suffocate the sod.
Although there will be some expense involved in building the beds and filling them with soil, the soil is much easier to turn every year and won’t be susceptible to many of the problems faced by traditional planting – such as weed seeds and soil compaction.
You can add more soil as it becomes depleted, and that’s really all you will need to do. You can also use any of the other tips I’ll tell you about in this article on raised beds, too.
Another alternative to planting in raised beds is to plant using raised soil beds or mounds. This requires you to only work the soil that you intend to plant in, so you can focus on adding organic matter and cover crops to that small pile while leaving the walking rows between your plants just for walking.
You won’t need to till the soil, as you can keep weeds out with organic mulch. This will keep your garden looking tidy without requiring you to till up massive portions of soil that will never even be planted in.
Grow a cover crop
Cover crops have so many benefits in the garden. This year, we planted winter peas in the fall. The seeds lay dormant all winter and now, in early April, they are just beginning to emerge. Yes, even before the weeds!
This means we won’t have to get into the garden to till in order to bust up sod or weeds. We can just lightly turn the winter peas over into the soil and get to planting. Plus, the winter peas introduce nitrogen into the depleted soil, which is something it needs after heavy planting in years prior.
You can either bury your cover crop with a heavy sheet of mulch, or you can cut them immediately above the crowns (this works well with plants that are tough to kill without tillage, like vetch or rye). You can even use chickens to naturally till in your cover crops!
You don’t have to use winter peas, either, if those don’t work for your current plan. Other good alternatives include Daikon radishes, red clover, hairy vetch, annual ryegrass, and winter rye.
Add some compost
Over the years, your soil will naturally become depleted. You lose pounds of soil every year to things like wind and water erosion and other factors.
Adding organic matter is a great way to reintroduce nutrients, improve soil structure, and keep soil microbes active. By introducing compost, you improve the fertility of your soil and reduce the likelihood of erosion.
Tilling without adding compost can cause a decrease in organic matter over time. Your soil will suffer, particularly in regard to its ability to retain water and nutrients, as well as to hold up to the stressors of erosion. When your soil is left bare of organic matter, anything you add to the garden, including water or fertilizers, will simply run right off.
Incorporate sheet mulching
I’m absolutely obsessed with how beneficial mulch can be in a garden! I used to think that the life of a gardener had to be relegated to weeding, weeding, watering, weeding, watering, and…more weeding.
Mulch eliminates the need to weed constantly, as it helps to suppress weeds before they can even emerge. It also moderates the levels of moisture in your soil, preventing problems caused by over- or under- watering.
It also can remove the need to till. Applying a thick layer of mulch (anywhere between twelve and fifteen inches!) helps insulate the soil and provides earthworms with a great environment to till the soil for you.
You can use any kind of mulch to accomplish this purpose, and laying down multiple layers of mulch throughout the garden’s many seasons can help preserve it through the changing climates.
For example, mulching in the fall can protect any cover crop seeds you have planted, as well as any perennials that you need to nourish, while mulching in the spring can act as an organic pre-emergent herbicide.
I prefer to sheet mulch in my garden. I use long strips of recycled cardboard covered with hay or straw to accomplish this. It cuts down on weeds and also helps to preserve soil structure as it breaks down.
Use a broadfork
Using a tool like a broadfork or deep spader can serve as an effective -albeit labor-intensive – alternative to driving a rototiller or tractor over your soil.
These tools get deep into the soil, helping reintroduce air and water in heavy soils. Broadforks can be expensive, as can deep spaders, but they are highly effective at loosening up compacted soils in the spring.
A major benefit of using a broadfork or deep spader is that you can use these tools when the soil is still wet. Tilling when the soil is wet, particularly when it’s clay soil, causes long term damage to your soil’s structure, and this damage often persists for years at a time.
Instead, you must wait a few weeks to plant or seek out alternative methods – like manually turning the soil with a lighter tool – to introduce air and nutrients.
Let the chickens do the work
Chickens offer a fantastic alternative to tilling, and are particularly useful, as I mentioned, when you need to turn cover crops under. While chickens cause some minor disruption fo soil life, going after earthworms and beetles that are necessary for soil health, they offer more benefit than they do harm.
This damage is only inflicted in the top few inches of soil and is quickly reversed by the fact that chickens leave behind plenty of waste to fertilize the soil and add microbial life.
Chickens are great garden tools because they help loosen and aerate your soil while at the same time working to fertilize it. As you likely already know, chicken manure is a great source of fertilizer, and its benefits cannot be overlooked in your garden.
Lay down some plastic sheeting
I’m a huge fan of using sheets of black plastic in the garden. These perform several purposes. Where we live, the soil often is not warm enough to plant in until May or June. This presents a problem when you are growing plants that require exceptionally warm soil or need a long time to grow to maturity.
Black plastic helps warm the soil and also suffocates weeds so that you can get in there to plant much sooner than you would normally be able to.
You can cut holes in the plastic to plant your seedlings, or simply roll up the sheet when you are ready to plant. I like to plant directly in the plastic, as it provides warmer soil for plants that like the heat, such as peppers and tomatoes.
When you grow plants that come back year after year, you don’t need to replant in the spring. That sounds obvious, but this is an often overlooked method of preserving the integrity of your soi land keeping it fertile and aerated for future use.
Perennials help maintain nutrients in soil and preserve soil life, so whenever possible, try to plant crops that will continue to come back, season after season.
Here’s a tip that may sound odd, but actually makes a ton of sense – let potatoes do your tilling for you. You can get significant production out of a new patch of ground in the first season simply by planting potatoes. Seed your potatoes on the established sod and cover them with a thick layer of mulch.
The plants beneath the potatoes will eventually suffocate and die, and as they do so will release a ton of nutrients for your potatoes to feed upon. The potato roots will then help speed up the breakdown and loosening of the soil.
You can keep adding more mulch to keep the potatoes covered, and then when they are ready to harvest, all you need to do is push the mulch aside.
While tilling may be a necessary evil at times, if you can avoid tilling your garden whenever possible, you’ll preserve a great deal of soil health -and save a ton of time in the process. Get to planting sooner, and protect your precious soil microbes with these tips.
What are methods do you know for adopting a no-till system of agriculture? Be sure to let me know in the comments, and subscribe to our email list for all the latest updates and discounts. Be sure to follow us on Instagram (@jrpiercefamilyfarm) and Pinterest (J&R Pierce Family Farm) for regular posts, too! And thanks for reading.