Most green thumbs are really not green but rather black. Yes, success and failure in growing great gardens are mostly in the soil. Great soil = great gardens! Here are 3 no-till gardening methods to have great soil: sheet mulch, just mulch, and square foot gardening. One for each of the following situations: if you need to build good soil, you have good soil, or even if you got no soil to garden at all.
What makes soil so great?
It is not the soil itself – it is the soil life that is the most important element. – Geoff Lawton
When we look at creation, at places where man is not in charge, things grow perfectly fine without tilling. Actually, untouched soil is the most healthy soil there is. Tilling damages the little critters that work so hard to break down organic residue and incorporate it into the soil. These living organisms become an instant fertilizer for the plants. The prompt results make one think that tilling is the best way to garden, however, if we kill everything living in the soil there soon nothing will be left to kill and fertilize the plants with.
Tilling also exposes the soil to the wind, which is especially damaging in the winter. You can see by the brown snow in winter how much topsoil blows off of tilled fields. Many growers have proven that tilling is not necessary, and is actually damaging. So, stop tilling your garden and start a no-till garden today.
Sheet Mulch Garden
With sheet mulching you can build an instant garden no matter what the soil underneath is like. If you have good soil, you will need fewer layers. If you have very poor soil, you will benefit from more layers.
There are many ways to do a sheet mulched garden. You can hardly do it wrong, as long as natural materials are used. Here is an example of a sheet mulched garden:
1. Begin with cardboard or newspapers. Some like one more than the other, some use both. Brown cardboard is what we used. It is easy to get and simple to work with. The cardboard will prevent weeds from growing, and feed the worms in the process.
After we have done it so many times, we would not insist that this step is crucial. It works without cardboard or newspaper too if you add a good layer of everything else. See how we converted a hey field into a garden.
2. Add a good amount of compost and/or composted manure, about 3 inches (ca. 8 cm).
3. Top with mulch of your choice: wood chips, hay, straw, or shredded leaves, another 3 inches (ca. 8 cm).
Sheet mulching also works in raised beds. You can use straw to gain some height, and even layer straw and compost. Sheet mulched raised beds are a great choice if you do not have any good soil to start with.
If you already have a garden plot with great soil and are only looking to switch to a no-till garden, mulching is the way to go. Yes, it is that simple, just cover the soil with a thick layer of mulch and all the tilling is not needed any longer.
Ruth Stout discovered this almost a century ago when her tiller did not come on time, and she was so tired of waiting before she could plant her garden. It was a revolutionary method back then, and just as effective today. Ruth’s “No work” books will inspire you.
For mulch, you can use old hay (make sure it is seedless), wood chips, grass clippings, or any organic matter you have on hand.
Compost seems to be the best and easiest cover to work with in a wet climate. It can be an all plant compost or a mixture of well-rotted manure and compost.
Wood chips work well as mulch in a dry climate, make sure you use the right wood chips for the garden because you will be planting into them in spring.
Also, if you started with a sheet mulched garden, it will become a mulched garden over the years. An annual cover of mulch is needed to retain the effect of no-tilling. Over the years you might need less and less mulch, but to keep the soil covered will always be important.
Square Foot Garden
There are two sides to the square foot garden. For one, it is a way of planting and this is how Mel Bartholomew started it. Instead of planting a garden in long rows with lots of space in between, you plant the garden by using every square foot – hence the name. Any garden that has a fertile soil can be planted this way. You can have a sheet mulched square foot garden just as well as a mulched one.
The All new Square Foot Garden – is a great method if the existing soil is of no use at all, or you build a garden where there is no soil. Here you build some raised beds with new soil. A square foot garden can be built just about anywhere – on driveways, balconies, or small yards.
To start a square foot garden mix together Mel’s Mix:
1/3 peat moss
You can find all of these ingredients in a garden center or Home Depot. You will find all the needed info in Mel’s informative books. These books are great for any beginner gardener because as we said above any garden can be a square foot garden.
Even though all 3 No-Till gardening methods are different, they are all great and successful. If you have experiences with one of these or other no till garden methods, please share in a comment.