To Till Or Not To Till – That Is The (Gardening) Question.

If you’ve been around gardening for very long you know one of the biggest debates in gardening is…

To Till or Not To Till

There are many ideas about gardening. One is should you till your garden or not. The pros and cons of each method are discussed to help you decide which method is best for your garden, permiculture principals of mulching or traditional plowing and tilling. Make the most informed choice for your organic vegetable garden.
DepositPhoto ID95092570 vitart & ID 5446471 StephanieFrey

 

This post is not to “decide” it once and for all. It’s to tell you the pro’s and cons of both methods, and let YOU make the decision as to what is right for you.

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What is No Till and Why Use it

No till is a way of making a garden without using a tiller, plow or double digging. It is not what most would call a “traditional” gardening style. The thinking behind the no till garden is that the soil is alive. It contains billions of creatures from earthworms to one celled organisms, and includes fungi and bacteria (some good and some bad). The thought is that by constantly turning and stirring the soil, you are killing or at least disrupting these organisms, which can cause imbalances. Many believe no till is more like nature. Take a tree for example. Leaves fall to the ground which the organisms break down. Then the tree can use what is left as food. No one digs around it. This is part of the thinking of permaculture. The idea of no till is not only to not  turn the soil, but to always keep it covered with mulch such as wood chips, leaves, cardboard and manure. Amendments are laid on top of the soil, not turned into it.

Lets take a look at the pros and cons of a No Till Garden.

Pros

  • Take advantage of the soil building organisms
  • Increase the number of beneficial soil organisms
  • Conserves water
  • Reduces erosion (both by water run off and wind)
  • Roots are left to decompose, leaving air passages and nutrients
  • Higher crop yields in low moisture soil
  • Once established it is very easy to maintain
  • Weeds and grasses with rhizomes are not cut up thus producing more weeds
  • You can use permaculture or hugelculture
  • Make and encourage natural fungal connections
  • Over all soil health will improve over many years
  • Long term work gets easier and soil gets healthier

The dust bowl of the 1920’s is blamed on a severe drought coupled with large amounts of tilled farm land and wind. The results were devastating. But what about your garden?

Cons

  • It takes years before the full advantages of building the soil are realized
  • It can take a lot of time to track down supplies and mulch such as cardboard, leaves, wood chips and manure.
  • It can take a lot of time to spread the quantity of mulch that is needed
  • If you have to buy wood chips they can be quite expensive
  • Weeds can be a big problem the first few years of a no till garden
  • It takes years to soften clay soils
  • It’s hard to plant seeds in a deep mulch
  • Soil still gets compacted and will need to be broadforked
  • Increased moisture may increase fungal disease
  • Soil warms up and drys out more slowly in the spring

Summery: In the long run the soil will likely be healthier and easier to tend. That is not the case for the first few years. With this method patience is a virtue.

What is Till and Why Use it

A Tilled garden is just what it sounds like. You build a garden by tilling, plowing or in other ways digging up your soil. You often use this time to incorporate amendments into the top few inches of the soil.

Lets take a look at the Pros and Cons of a Tilled garden.

Pros

  • You can use large equipment like a tiller to turn under weeds and cover crops
  • Destroys pest shelters and disrupts their life cycle
  • Exposes pests to predators (birds) and drying out
  • Distributes soil nutrients throughout the soil making them available quickly
  • Aerates the soil
  • Makes it easy to direct sow.
  • Buries crop residue and manure
  • Soil warms up and drys out quickly
  • organic mater decomposes faster when mixed in the soil
  • Short term more productive

Cons

  • Destroys fungal networks
  • Soil is left exposed to the elements causing erosion
  • More fertilizer is needed
  • Weeds grow back quickly if left uncovered
  • Brings buried weed seeds to the surface where they can sprout
  • Loses water quickly
  • Disrupts life cycle of beneficials
  • Cost of equipment to till can be high
  • Cuts up rhizomes of weeds, increasing that type of growth
  • Damages soil structure
  • Water compacts unprotected soil
  • Plants get splattered with soil when it rains increasing soil borne diseases
  • Hard pan can develop below tillage depth
  • Long term, work does not get easier and must be repeated year after year

Are there any other options? Yes, there is also minimum tillage.

The idea behind minimum tillage is to till, plow or double dig the first year, incorporating a large amount (25-50% of the volume) of amendments into your soil. Then in subsequent years you practice no till or minimal till (only tilling in cover crops in the top two inches).

Pros

  • Provides a good base for future years of no till
  • Improves structure and aeration of clay
  • Improves moisture and nutrient retention of sand
  • Gives the opportunity to improve nutrient levels and PH by tilling in rock dust and lime or sulfur
  • Speeds up the soil fertility for the no till method

Some will tell you that a tiller should never ever be used on your garden. Others will tell you that’s the only way to have a successful garden. Who’s right? Only you can decide. Some environments and circumstances will lend themselves more to one method than the other. Don’t let others make your decisions for you. Decide by what is right for you, now and in the future. Your experiences will help you determine which way is best.

Want to read more opinions about this subject? Here are a few I found useful.

The Low-Down on Double Digging – From The Permaculture Institute.

Till vs. No-Till: 6 Reasons I’ve Decided To Go Back To Tilling My Garden – From Morning Chores

Stop Tilling Your Vegetable Garden! – From The Creative Vegetable Gardener

5 Ways To Till A No Till Garden – From Attainable Sustainable

However you decide to garden…May it be Just Ducky!

Check out these gardening books to learn more.

 

 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Terry Black Sr. | 7th Feb 17

    Hello Ms. Mary,
    Good debate on tilling.. I’d like to toss in my two cents or is that $1.50 nowadays? Have you ever walked through an old “woods” or a forest? Notice how soft the “floor” is? Mother nature “tills” the grounds here in Pa with freezing/thawing cycles, the mulch she creates with the fallen leaves and branches is usually quite thick, the soil is black n’ rich and full of nutrients. So I think the question is more about time in that do you have time to wait for Mother Nature to create the proper soil conditions for a garden or do you speed it up by tilling and adding nutrients?

    • Mary | 7th Feb 17

      Excellent way to put it! If your soil is already fairly good, the permaculture no till method is a good way to go. If you have sand and marel like I do you need to incorporate something into it or you will be waiting 10 years before it will grow anything.

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