Maybe you’ve already heard about a no-till garden, but don’t really know what it means and are curious to find out. Well, this is the subject of the article of today. No-till gardening is becoming more and more popular. So today we will go over some no-till gardening techniques, what are the pros and cons of no-till gardening, and finally how to no-till garden.
What Is No-till Gardening?
The practice of no-till garden, also called no-dig, happens when you avoid disrupting the soil intentionally. So you put away tools like spades, plows, hoes, and any other tool used to turn the soil over and you leave it to be more natural. Also, gardeners who use the no-till method sometimes leave roots of spent plants there inside the soil. So when the growing season comes to an end, instead of pulling the whole plants out with their root systems and everything, you can just cut them from the point above the soil.
When preparing a no-till garden bed instead of having the amendments mixed into the soil deep, the practice is to add from time to time to the top part of the soil organic slow-release fertilizers, mulch materials, and/or compost. When those things, combined with the roots of the plants that are left in the soil, start breaking down, it causes the soil to rejuvenate and also becomes food for the new plants that are growing there. This is a more natural approach to gardening because if you think about natural environments in the wild like meadows and forests, for example, tilling is not happening there, what is happening is a natural rise and fall process of plant materials, which provide a cycle of nutrients, biomass, and mulch.
The Transition into No-till Gardening Methods
A lot of people think that no-tilling will save them a lot of work and time, and will be easy to transition to, and that is partially true. But if you want to be successful in the long run, there might be a few habit shifts you will need to do in order to get off to a good start.
The land management mindset is one of the things that will be required to shift. The reason why people use tilling is that it breaks up and loosens the soil, turns up weeds, and helps amendments be more quickly incorporated into the soil. The expectation is that loose soil without weeds should be an easy environment for plants to grow in. But in reality what happens is that the fungal networks and soil organisms’ sticky exudates, get destroyed by tilling, and these are the things that give the soil a structure. And a key organic component to healthy plant life, hummus, also gets destroyed by tilling, this is usually compensated by the addition of more amendments to the soil, so you basically have to add stuff that nature would have provided naturally if the soil hadn’t been messed with so much.
The big difference between a garden that manages to survive and a garden that thrives is really in the soil. When taking care of an organic garden, the aim should be to build and maintain a healthy rich soil system, instead of just adding fertilizer to the plants from time to time. There is a whole ecosystem that exists inside your soil, it has a dynamic, it is living and breathing. No-till soil preparation requires this focus on a healthy soil system.
The presence of fungi, microorganisms, earthworms, nematodes, protozoa, are all beneficial and determine the quality of organic soil. They have a way of working together to break the organic matter down, improve the aeration of the soil, provide nutrients, create a good balance of retention of moisture and drainage. Some of them even assist in bioremediation of the soil and removing pollutants that are unwanted.
Benefits of Gardening without Tilling
If you give space for nature to do her work, by stopping tilling, the vitality and health of your garden get a boost. You have probably understood some of the benefits already from what I wrote before but I will make a list with the benefits here:
- It has already been shown in studies that no-till garden beds have increased fertility, biological diversity, water retention, resiliency, organic matter, crop yield, and nutrient cycling in comparison to a soil that is plowed.
- When no-till is used, the natural structure of the soil is maintained. Preservation of air pores inside the soil that is important happens, which causes a reduction of compaction of soil and water runoff. This also means that less water will be needed to irrigate the plants.
- The beneficial fungal, mycorrhizal, and microbial associations that exist within the soil, don’t get disturbed, which allows these critters to keep doing the work they do down there that is great for the health of the soil. Tilling can cause the microbial activity inside the soil to completely stop.
- Over time, the roots that were left in the soil, when cultivating a no-till garden, will decompose, and this will become a free source of nutrients and organic matter for the microorganisms, worms, and other detritus eating beings in the soil. And in the end, the plants will end up fed also.
- Having a garden that is functioning in a more natural way, means that maintaining it will be much easier. A lot of people realize that the more healthy and mature the living organic soil of a no-till garden becomes, the fewer disease and pest issues there are. There are more beneficial insects, and a natural balance is reached.
- After you decide to start a no-till garden, you might have the initial effort of adapting, but then you will realize that your garden will require much less of your effort, physical labor, and time. This means also that the preparation of beds and the planting of new crops will become much easier.
- Removal and adding of plants. When it is time to remove the spent plants from your garden, remember they should be cut at their base close to the soil line, leaving their roots inside, you might be wondering if they won’t get in the way when you plant new crops, but not really, you just need to work around them, or in the worst case they will need to be slightly shoved aside in order to create some space, but they should be left in the soil. You can also choose to grow no-till gardening raised beds. If there is a stalk or root section that is too large and is getting too much in the way then it is for you to remove it, you can add it to your pile of compost, or just bury it in your garden somewhere else.
- Adding fertilizer, mycorrhizae, and compost. Make it part of your garden care routine to add some organic inputs to the soil’s top layer, at least one or two times a year. Great materials for you to use are, for example, leaf mold, aged compost, wood chips, dry leaves, or fine bark, you can also use other mulch materials.
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