Tilling the land has been a common practice in industrial farming for quite some time. The concept essentially boils down to loosening up the soil to allow for good seed to soil contact and good germination. Which results in good crops, but there is a downside. Learn more about why and how to garden with little to no tilling.
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No till or low till gardening and farming were actually the norm across the globe for countless millennia. In fact, due to the industrial revolution and the changes in chemical manipulation, tilling the soil is a fairly recent phenomena. Prior to that, no till or low till was what everyone did because we simply did not have the technology to turn the soil over, especially in large quantities and at the scale we see today in modern agriculture.
Farming vs. Gardening
The history of farming and gardening really go hand-in-hand since large scale farming was born out of the birth of human civilization. As nomadic peoples began to settle and use seed and soil to feed their people rather than hunt or gather it (though many indigenous cultures did and continue to do both) there was an explosion in tool use, technology and scaling up. As people were freed from the constant need to find food, the brain along with the technology quickly allowed for people to stay in one place, cultivate the land an animals around them.
Since those times (around 10 to 20 thousand years ago), we have been manipulating the land to feed, clothe and house us. The increase in scale attempted to override nature through technology and has since caused a lot of damage to the environment. There are different ways to change your landscape while not contributing the loss of fertile soil and appropriate water channels. No-till and low-till methods in gardening is one way to do this.
What is “No-Till”?
Simple put this is the method of using other resources to build your soil and make seeds and plants happy without the need disrupt the structure of your soil. Plowing or tilling has been around for 10,000 years but really became widespread and global around the 18th and 19th centuries. Tilling involved turning over (not removing) the top up to 12 inches of soil in order to get delicate seeds into the dirt without competition with other plants.
Tilling also aerates the soil and warms it up, which is especially important in the spring in areas of the world where the cold keeps planting outdoors impossible to do early enough for a true harvest. Now that we understand tilling, we essentially use the absence of this to create a no-till (or low till) garden.
How to start with no-till gardening?
Luckily there is some good information out there. First I will recommend some resources for you, then I will explain what I do. There are many different ways to go no and low till in your own garden. A wonderful place to start is with No Dig Gardening by Charles Dowding.
As with so many of the practices in gardening, we have adapted larger agricultural practices (which focuses on efficiency, profits and scale rather than taste, freshness or nutrition) into the garden. When beginning your no till gardening journey, begin by observing and taking notes.
In general, you should aim for a year of observations before manipulating the land. If you do not have the time to wait, you can always start by installing raised beds and rows. You will need quality soil and compost that you can use the lasagna gardening method. The final top layer (first few inches) should be loose and available for planting almost immediately.
Permanent Raised Beds or Raised Rows
Sometimes, especially if you are growing food, you do need to balance efficiency with available resources. One way to solve this is to use a variety of “bed” methods in gardening. Hugerkulter is one way to do this. It uses a variety of organic matter to form a raised bed that is not moved or rotated. Instead, every year, nutrients are added in the form of compost, organic ammendments, and animal manure that is safe. The soil is only lightly disturbed in the top few inches for seeds or seedlings to be planted.
In The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier covers the details of the standardized market row sizes of 30 inches wide. This allows for much of the work of harvesting, weeding, depositing mulch/compost and planting to be done by hand and with hand powered tools. Staying small like this is perfect for even a backyard gardener for growing their own food with some of the efficiency found in market gardens.
Mulch, mulch, mulch
A key component of no till is the use of mulch. There are many kinds of mulches you can use. This includes hay and compost. The key is to have walkways (where your foot traffic will cause compaction) to be separate from the growing area. This allows the soil to stay relatively loose. Once plants are started or transplanted you can use mulch to keep moisture in, temperatures stable and soil structure in place. Rather than exposed directly to the sun, wind and rain. Over time the mulches will break down allowing for more nutrients to enter the soil.
Alternatively, people use row covers, plastic mulch and landscape fabric. If you do not have easy access to compost, it may be hard to make sure there is enough nutrients available. This means you may need to add amendments, particularly organic matter, in other ways. Definitely you can add organic fertilizers and vermicompost.
Our No-Till Garden
We have 7 raised beds in wooden frames and 4 – 30 inch row raised in-ground beds separated by 18 inches. This adds up to a little more than 300 square feet of gardening space. In addition to these gardening areas, the chickens move in a mobile chicken tractor. The chickens add fertilizer, turn the soil, eat weeds and bugs throughout the yard area which in turn helps the in-ground garden beds. Their bedding and feces are composted with kitchen scraps and dried pecan and oak leaves.
The chicken manure needs to compost for at least 6 months to not burn the plants. We start building the compost in the fall and usually by late spring it is ready. A new compost is started for the spring and summer which will help the plants that we plan for fall planting and harvest. We tilled the area originally to clear it but now it is only to help with weeds (I pull them or use a hula hoe) and a little hand digging to plant seeds.
Regularly I need to make sure there is mulch in between the rows to keep weeds at bay. Then make sure the plants have the nutrients and water they need to grow. Usually this helps keep the harmful insects at bay but I also use hand pick off bugs, fostering homes for beneficial insects, companion planting and trap crops. We do not use an herbicides or pesticides in the garden.
All of the systems help grow food and flowers in my backyard!
You can find me and others at the hop!