I get why you till. There’s something in all of us gardeners that leaps with joy when we see a freshly tilled bed. That rich, dark, blank canvas beckons us to come on over and work our vegetable magic. We imagine ourselves gently planting a seedling in the fluffy soil with no straining or digging necessary.
But, garden fantasies aside, tilling the garden every year is a terrible idea in practice. Not only are you destroying the soil structure, creating a hard pan, and bringing weed seeds up to the surface – you’re also creating more work for yourself.
Inevitably, within a few days of tilling there will be a torrential downpour that completely erodes and compacts your freshly tilled garden. It’ll look like a war zone of flattened, soil splattered plants with a depressing system of rivulets running everywhere.
A tilled garden near my community plot after a big rain storm.
Gardeners who till each season tend to favor a flat style of gardening. They don’t lay out their beds and paths. They just plant in random rows and walk all over the garden all season. This means the soil around the plants is being compacted. The result is less soil drainage and less room for the roots to grow.
An example of the flat style of gardening. There are no defined beds and paths.
Tilled gardens usually have a lot of exposed soil. Bare soil = weeds no matter which way you look at it. Without mulch you’re going to be spending a lot of summer Saturday afternoons weeding the garden. And that’s a complete waste of time.
The solution is to stop tilling right now. This spring, establish permanent beds and paths in your garden. The beds can be reinforced like a traditional raised bed, or lined with logs and rocks, or even just mounded soil beds. Creating beds allows you to focus all of your energy on the part of the garden that really matters – the area where you are growing food. Who cares about the aisles? All you need to do is keep them mulched so they don’t grow weeds. (I like woodchips.)
Next year, when it’s time to plant, all you’ll need to do is go out and gently move some mulch aside and dig a hole for your seedling. No wrestling with machinery, no cursing a big rain storm, and a lot less weeding on Saturday afternoons.