To till or not to till the garden is a question gardeners in the past did not have. Growing up on a homestead, our garden has been always cleaned up, fertilized with composted manure, and turned over. We did that every spring. Teens and young adults in our rural town would form work crews to help to dig the gardens of those who were not able to do that by themselves. Digging up the garden seemed to be a necessity of life. Today rototillers have replaced these working volunteers, doing the job much faster, with less manpower, and yet it still is a big job. But …
Is digging and tilling necessary?
The ‘No Dig’ gardening movement is growing with great results. One of the acknowledged ho dig gurus is Charles Dowding. In his many books, he shows how no dig gardening saves time and labor. In return, it produces a better harvest and creates a richer soil with very few weeds. Who doesn’t want this kind of results?
Let’s look at the question, to till or not to till the garden, closer. Here we try to explain when tilling could be a good idea, and when it can and should be avoided.
You should not till your garden when …
… you want to build up a great soil for many years to come. Even though tilling can help you to plant an immediate garden, it will ruin your garden soil in the long run. It makes the soil harder.
Intense gardening in the same spot, year after year, is only possible if you do not disturb the soil with constant digging and tilling. Roots in a tilled garden always hit the hardcore at a certain depth, then they split and compete with each other. Seeds from weeds brought up through the tilling will grow and after a few short weeks, the freshly tilled garden is just as hard, dry and weedy as it was before the tilling. A real vicious cycle. You can break that by covering the soil and by stopping the tilling.
You do not have to till your garden when …
… your garden soil is covered. For covering use natural mulch such as compost, rotted manure, wood chips, straw, or seedless hay. You will need 1-2 inch (3-5cm) of compost mulch to cover the soil in late fall.
Compost seems to be the best and easiest cover to work with. It can be an all plant compost or a mixture of well-rotted manure and compost. In dry climates, wood chips work well for mulch, make sure you use the right woodchips for the garden because you will be planting into them in spring.
The cover will keep the soil moist and soft and the weeds down. In spring there is no need to till or dig the garden. As soon as the snow melts, you can start planting. The soil will not dry out, weeds will not grow, and all you would need is raking the compost surface before planting, to disturb and kill any tiny weed seedlings.
If you feel like the soil is too hard you can work it with a Broadfork, or simple garden fork. Do not turn over the soil. After a few years of adding mulch, we find that this step is not needed. The covered soil is maybe not as soft as freshly tilled soil at the top, but is much softer all throughout than tilled soil will ever be.
You can till your garden when …
… you have a new garden area. Most no-till gardening methods recommend just to cover the area with cardboard and/or newspaper, add compost and mulch and it is ready to be planted. Brett L. Markham in his book Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre compares double digging a new garden to a no-till garden system. In 3 years there is no difference, but he says digging helps to speed up the process.
So if you start a garden in a weedy and hard area, and you are still at least a few weeks away from planting time, you can till it, cover with cardboard and/ or newspaper (optional) and mulch it. In a few weeks, you will have great soil to plant in. However, do not use a tiler if you have nasty weeds that multiply through roots. Here it really is better to dig, not to till, making sure all the roots are gone otherwise you will multiply the weeds. See also how we converted a hay field into a garden.
You should till the garden when …
…the garden is bare, with some weeds, dry and hard, and it is time to plant. This is the situation of most traditional gardens. My parents’ garden looked like this every. single. spring. Maybe your garden looks like this, too.
This is the time to till your garden for the very last time. Tilling brings immediate results. Till it and plant. But after the harvest in fall you can convert your garden into a no-till garden. If you cover your garden, you will not have to till it ever again.
After the harvest in fall you can change your garden into a no till garden.
Hope this helps you to understand tilling and no tilling a bit better and helps you to have a better garden with less work.
See how we replaced our lawn with food production.