Type “what is no-till gardening?” into a search engine, and you’ll get a lot of confusing results. Some will tell you in detail how to convert acres of farmland into no-till fields. Others list off all the herbicides you absolutely must have to grow in a no-till garden. It can be overwhelming, especially when all you want is a clear answer to the question: “what is no till gardening, and is it for me?”
What is No-Till Gardening?
In simplest terms, no-till gardening is just gardening without tilling the soil. People go about the process in a myriad ways, but it all comes back to leaving the deeper layers of soil alone.
That’s it, really. If you fill raised beds with manure and compost, or plant potatoes in piles of straw on untilled ground, you’re a no-till gardener! So, why is there so much confusion?
Well, no-till gardening has gotten more popular recently. Even huge, agri-businesses are trying it out. As fossil fuels get more and more expensive, farmers and gardeners are looking for ways to cut their reliance on tractors, tillers, and other machines.
So no-till gardening has to go big or go home. Adjusting something as straightforward as this farming method to fit a large-scale operation is challenging. No-till works best in gardens and on small-scale homesteads. To work successfully on an agri-business farm, you need to absolutely overload on dangerous herbicides and fungicides.
Because the ground is less intentionally prepared for planting, in big operations, no-till growing can overwhelm your plants with weeds and diseases.
But you’re not an agri-business. You’re just an average gardener, so let’s look at how no-till growing would work for you!
While there are countless different ways to approach no-till gardening, one particular method stands out. In fact, the simplest and most effective way is just to build a bed on top of your soil and fill it with compost, manure, and dirt. Many no-tillers chose to put down landscaping fabric, newspaper, or cardboard between the ground and the growing medium to discourage weeds.
Other growers will skip the bed-building altogether. They just dump some manure or mulch on top of the soil and cover the whole area with landscaping fabric. Then, they poke holes in the fabric, and pop in a plant. The landscaping fabric warms the soil, reduces weeds, and prevents erosion.
Some no-till gardeners use a pitchfork to aerate their soil. If your soil is very compacted, this is an essential step. Simply poke holes in the soil at regular intervals to aerate. The one rule of no-till gardening is: avoid turning over the soil.
No-Till Gardening Versus Low-Till
Some growers are transitioning to low-till methods instead of no-till. A low-till, or conservation-tillage garden is one where only a small area is overturned. These furrows are long, thin, strips of garden where you plant your seeds. They’re surrounded on either side by untilled land.
Conservation-tillage is an ancient way of tilling the soil. An ox- or horse-drawn plow cuts a deep swath in the earth and seeds grow in these long rows. The ground on either side is untilled, and firm enough for people and animals to walk on. Conservation-tillage is a fantastic option for gardeners would want the best of both worlds.
It’s easy to grow a low-till garden, even without a horse to pull your plow! Harrows, cultivators, and chisel plows can open up thin strips of land for planting without tilling up the ground around it.
Is That It? Can it Really be That Easy?
Yes and no. If you spend a lot of time reading up on no-till gardening, you’ll find that there are thousands of tips, tricks, and adjustments in this method. You can no-till in so many different ways, and the process can be as easy, or as complex as you make it.
Gardeners who have been growing no-till gardens for years say the method gets easier every year. The longer you practice this growing method, and the more often you add compost to the beds, the better your garden will be. But getting adjusted to the method does take time, and it can be frustrating, especially if your plants are overwhelmed by weeds or damaged by disease.
Why no-till at all? Tilling has been the time-tested method of growing for millennia, so why change now?
Well, along with reducing your dependence on fossil fuels, a well-tended, no-till garden has other perks.
No-till gardening is a great way to conserve water. The top layers of mulch and compost retain water better than tilled soil. Your no-till garden will need fewer waterings. This is fantastic in areas prone to drought.
It’s also helpful for older gardeners, busy gardeners, and those who travel often during the growing season. You don’t have to pay as close attention to watering, because your garden retains water.
No-till gardens sit on top of the soil. The layer of mulch, compost, or manure coating the soil holds on to moisture better than tilled earth, and the ground underneath is kept cool and moist.
At first, a no-till garden seems like a lot of labor. You can’t just start up the rototiller and carve out a garden plot. But no-till gardeners say the practice saves labor in the end. There is significantly less weeding, and plants can be left in the ground to die when the season is over. This creates natural green manure, allowing nutrients to replenish the soil.
The garden itself requires only reapplications of mulch to keep up production. No need to till and re-till each year as the earth packs down.
Saving Biological Diversity
One of the most lauded benefits of no-till gardening is that it sustains the soil’s natural diversity. No-till gardening provides a healthy environment for all the organisms in the earth. The homes of worms and other beneficial creatures are sustained by this low-impact gardening method.
Of course, this benefit comes with a downside. No-till gardens can have issues with pests, disease, and over-grown weeds. It’s important not to jump into the low-maintenance phase of no-till gardening too quickly or your garden will be overrun.
No-till gardening isn’t all flowers and butterflies. Along with some of the challenges of transitioning to no-till gardening, the method itself has some persistent flaws.
The water-retaining abilities of mulch can be a drawback as well as a benefit. If your growing season is especially wet, the extra water retained by the mulch can cause rot or mildew issues in your garden. If you’re going to try no-till growing in a wet climate, make sure you’re can cover your garden to protect it from too much rain.
Even in moderate climates, a few days of heavy rain can damage your garden. It’s a good idea to go out after a storm and aerate the plants a bit. Rake the mulch layer around to encourage air flow around the plants and prevent rot.
You’re growing plants on top of another in the no-till system. Once one plant is finished, its left to compost in the garden, adding to the nutrients in the soil. But not all plants are healthy after a season of growing, and if you leave diseased plants to decay in the field, they can spread their sickness to the plants around them.
No-till gardens are often stricken with sick plants because of the amount of living organisms in the soil. Its so important to use healthy compost and remove sick plants entirely from the bed to keep your garden healthy.
There’s no denying that no-till gardens can look messy. They can be neat as well, but you aren’t likely to get a curated garden look from a no-till garden. With plants living and dying and rotting away all down the garden row, no-till gardens are more functional than attractive.
If you crave neat rows and structured beauty, the no-till method is going to be continuously frustrating.
Is No-Till Worth it?
With all the talk of diseased plants, over-crowding, and the promise that it will, eventually, get easier, is no-till gardening a reasonable option?
That depends on you. This farming method is a long-term process, and it is going to be full of growing pains and potentially disappointing years. It can be very frustrating to transition into no-till gardening from conventional gardening, and you may decide to give up entirely after the first year.
For all the hype, no-till isn’t really any better or worse than conventional gardening: it’s just different. Different methods work well for different people. If you’re converting a wide expanse of land to garden, without the aid of a rototiller, no-till may be the best option for you. But, if you’re been growing successfully in a conventional garden for years, it probably isn’t worthwhile to switch methods.
You can always try a small patch to see how you like it. If it works for you, great! If it doesn’t, at least you tried, right?