No Till Garden: Build Healthy Soil + Get Better Results

woman with large organic garden harvest
This post contains affiliate links.

I get the temptation to till. There’s something in all of us gardeners that leaps with joy when we see a freshly turned 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 and bringing weed seeds up to the surface – you’re also creating more work for yourself.

I’m going to save you from this horrible fate by sharing why you should establish a no till garden and exactly how to do it.

Truth: I’ve gardened for 20 years and have never tilled my garden. And it’s one of the most amazing and productive gardens I’ve ever seen.

Why Not to Till Your Vegetable Garden

A tilled garden near my community plot after a big rain storm.

 

 

All the Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Till

The photo above is from the community garden where I had a plot for 10 years. We were in charge of our own garden plots, so of course I didn’t till. But, lots of people around me did, so I got to see what happened each year.

It usually wasn’t good.

We get a lot of spring rains here where I live in Wisconsin, so often right after someone would till their garden we’d get a huge rain storm which would result in their soil becoming compacted and eroded and often their seeds were washed away. The above photo was from after a rainstorm.

It was painful to watch and reinforced my decision to stick to a no-till garden.

There are many important reasons not to till your garden. Here are the top three you should keep in mind as a home gardener.

You’re destroying the soil structure.
Here’s an excerpt from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service website:

…”tillage destroys a soil’s physical properties and therefore the soil’s ability to function properly.  Tillage destroys and/or depletes the soil’s aggregate stability, structure, pore space, water holding capacity, infiltration, permeability, gaseous exchange and nutrient storage ability.”

These are all incredibly important factors that influence the health and productivity of the plants growing in your garden. If you don’t have healthy soil it’s impossible to grow plants that are as big and productive as they should be.

I like to think about what’s underneath the soil surface in relation to snorkeling. The first time I went to Hawaii and put on a pair of goggles and fins and started looking below the ocean’s surface I was blown away. Sea turtles! Rainbow fish! Pastel coral! 

Wow! There was an entire world under there I had never seen before.

Similarly, what’s underneath the surface of your garden soil is an entire world as well. A single teaspoon of rich garden soil can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and loads of nematodes.

These bacteria and fungi have evolved to have complex and beneficial relationships with the plants we grow. Some of them convert nitrogen into a form that’s available to plants (and vegetable plants need a lot!), others form a relationship with the plants’ roots to help with their ability to access nutrients in the soil, and still others hold soil particles together and prevent erosion.

That’s a lot of important roles being fulfilled by millions of tiny things we can’t even see with the naked eye. 

And what do you think happens to this rich web of life (often called the soil food web) when you run spinning blades through it? It’s like a tornado that destroys house and home. Devastation.

woman in vegetable garden

You’re bringing weed seeds up to the surface.
Personally, I hate weeding and think it’s a completely avoidable waste of time. I do very little over the season in my own garden.

The act of tilling brings many weed seeds up to the surface of the soil – just where they like it! The sun and warmth at the top encourage them to germinate and start growing.

If you left them where they were, in the cool and dark depths of the soil layers, they’d be much less likely to germinate and start outcompeting your vegetable seeds and seedlings. 

You’re making more work for yourself.
Not only are you potentially exposing more weed seeds, resulting in many more hours spent weeding, you’re also creating more work in other ways.

In spring when I’m ready to start planting in my no-till garden I simply walk outside, grab my seedlings, dig a small  hole in my garden bed, sprinkle in some organic fertilizer, pour in some water, and plant the seedling. In less than a minute I’m done.

There’s no wrestling with machinery, waiting for the rainstorms to pass and the garden to dry out so I can till, or laying out my garden beds and paths again and again.

If you want to see exactly how I plant so quickly in spring without a ton of preparation, check out this article and video filmed right in my garden: How to easily and quickly prep your garden beds for planting.

Why not to till your garden

An example of the flat style of gardening. There are no defined beds and paths.

What to Do Instead of Tilling (Hint: A No Till Garden)

Now that we’ve covered all the reasons why you definitely shouldn’t be tilling, let’s talk about what to do instead.

Establish permanent beds and paths
After 20 years of growing my own food, designing many gardens and working with thousands of gardeners, I passionately believe that growing vegetables in some type of raised garden beds is the best route for most people.

In this style of gardening, you work to establish permanent beds and paths in your garden. Your garden has an overall design that doesn’t really change from year to year unless you want it to.

This is in contrast to the flat or farm style of gardening, in which you till up a large square or rectangle in your yard every season. You’re starting from scratch each time, having to reestablish where you plant and where you walk. It can be a lot of work. See photo above.

When you design your garden to include raised garden beds and established paths, you’ll find that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Most of the benefits are the exact opposite of the drawbacks to tilling we discussed above. 

Better for your soil health. 
Having a permanent garden design means it’s very clear where your beds and paths are located. That encourages you to stay on the paths when walking and working, and you’ll be less likely to step into the garden beds.

Walking and stepping on the soil you’re growing food in will compact it over the long term. Keeping yourself in permanent aisles will help maintain loose soil in the garden beds, which will make it easier to plant seeds and plants, remove weeds, and provide space and air for your plants’ roots to grow.

You can also concentrate fertility on those garden beds by consistently adding mulch, compost, cover crop, organic fertilizer, and manure to increase the nutrients available to your plants.

And there’s no need to till these beds which will keep the soil food web in tact and your plants thriving.

spring planting of kale in garden

Less work in spring. 
When you have a permanent garden design, you don’t have to start over from scratch every year. In contrast, when you grow food in the flat style, every spring you have to wait until the soil dries out, get out your tiller, and then lay out your planting beds again.

With a raised garden bed there’s not much prep you need to do to start planting in spring. If you cleared out and mulched your garden in fall, all you have to do is wait for the soil to warm up, and then walk out and start planting.

There’s no wrestling with machinery, digging or flipping over soil, or really any backbreaking work at all!

Less maintenance over the long term. 
One of the great things about having permanent beds and paths is you can easily keep the beds and paths mulched all year round, which will go a long way towards reducing the amount of weeds that grow.

And that means many less hours you need to spend weeding in your garden. You can read my passionate plea to keep your soil covered in this post.

Creates a more attractive garden. 
Permanent raised garden beds create organization and structure in your garden. These are not bad things to have in a vegetable garden because they lend to the overall attractiveness of your garden.

I like to think of the raised garden beds as the canvas. Once they’re constructed, you can take that blank canvas and use the vegetable plants and flowers to “paint” on it to create beautiful and interesting combinations of colors, textures, and heights.

vegetable garden productive

How to Set Up a No-Till Garden

Two common complaints about vegetable gardens are that they’re ugly and it takes a lot of work to grow your own food.

I can guarantee that taking the time to create established beds and paths this season will drastically reduce your labor each year, and create a healthier and more beautiful garden.

I created an entire article that walks you through the process I used to build my current garden from scratch the year  we purchased the house and moved in.

I show you three different options for creating garden beds, discuss the pros and cons of each style, and share the supplies you’ll need. Go check it out here.

carrots geminating from the soil

Other Things Not To Do To Your Soil

Since we’re on the subject of creating a healthy soil ecosystem, let’s discuss some other actions to strike from your garden practices.

Don’t Walk on Your Soil 
Your garden beds should be for planting, never for standing or walking. That’s what the paths in your design are for.  When designing your garden beds, make sure they’re no more than 4 feet wide or you’ll have trouble reaching into the middle and will be tempted to put a foot on that nice, loose soil. No!!!

Never Work with Wet Soil 
After a large rainfall, let your soil dry out a bit before disturbing it with forks, rakes, or other tools. Working your soil when it’s wet can cause compaction, especially if you have clay soil. 

Don’t Invert the Soil Layers with a Shovel 
You don’t need to do a lot of heavy digging when you’re preparing your garden in spring. In fact, you shouldn’t be using a shovel and inverting the soil layers.

Instead, if you’re planting seeds, simply loosen the top few inches of the soil. If you have soil that’s more on the clay side of the spectrum, you can use a broadfork to loosen the soil without inverting the natural layers. 

More on how I prepare my beds for planting in this video and article.

No Bare Soil 
Bare soil is vulnerable to erosion from wind and rain, drying and cracking from heat and sun, and also invites lots of weed seeds to germinate.

This is my #1 tip for organic gardeners! Keep you soil covered with mulches and cover crops as much as possible. Read more about mulching here.

hand planting beets in the vegetable garden

Favorite Tools for No-Till Gardening

The money you save on not having to own or rent a tiller you can spend on quality garden tools that will help you build and maintain an amazingly productive no-till garden.

Digging Fork

I not only have one, but two digging forks hanging in my garage I love them so much. That’s why this tool is #1 on my “best garden tools” list.

When I used to run a youth farming program I would forbid the students from weeding unless they had digging fork in their hand. It’s the best tool for popping weeds out by the roots.

I also use it to harvest carrots and potatoes, loosen up garlic before harvesting, and break up clods of my clay soil before planting.

 

Broadfork

This tool is a splurge, but if you’re an enthusiastic no-till gardener like me, it’s worth it! I treated myself to a broadfork one year for my birthday (I know, I’m a garden nerd!) and use it almost every time I prep a garden bed for planting. 

I like it because it allows you to aerate and loosen the soil with out mixing up the soil layers like a tiller does. In my article and video about prepping garden beds for planting you can see me using my broadfork in the video.

 

Find out more by clicking on the image.

Hard Rake

It’s best not to disturb the soil of your garden beds too much, but a hard rake is very handy when smoothing out the top of the beds when preparing to plant small seeds like carrots, beets, and lettuce.

This tool is always the second one I grab after the digging fork.

I found both of mine at garage sales, but this Fiskars version would look great hanging next to their version of the digging fork in your garage!

Find out more by clicking on the image.

Trowel

Wow! There are so many different trowels out there and I’ve tried many of them. During my garage cleaning frenzy recently I got rid of every single trowel I owned except for this one.

It’s the best, hands down. I will never buy another trowel again. And in fact, I’ve had this one for over 12 years and it’s holding up great.

I like that it’s stainless steel and not plastic. I prefer a more narrow trowel instead of wider designs. The red handle makes it easy to find in the garden when I inadvertently put it down somewhere random.

I use it for everything from planting seedlings in spring to planting flower bulbs in fall.

Made in the US.

Find out more by clicking on the image.

Organic Fertilizer

After working with thousands of gardeners over the years, as well as having soil struggles in my last two gardens, I’m convinced that every gardener should be using organic fertilizer in her garden.

You can read more about it in this blog post.

The above post (with accompanying video) teaches you what to look for in an organic fertilizer when you go shopping. Here’s a brand you can start with.

Mulch

My garden beds are always completely covered in mulch all year round unless I’m waiting for seeds to germinate. The mulch retains moisture so I don’t have to water as much, keeps weeds down so I don’t have to spend hours on my knees clearing out unwanted plants, and breaks down to add organic matter to the soil. There’s not really anything not to love about mulch! 

Read how I use it and which kinds I recommend in this article: Why mulch is the ultimate garden tool

Creating a no-till garden takes some work and planning up front, but in subsequent years you’ll reap all of the rewards we’ve talked about in this article. If you’re someone who’s been tilling your garden, consider experimenting and turning at least some of your space into a no-till area and compare the results. I doubt you’ll regret it!

no-till vegetable garden

Additional Resources For Getting Better Results

Find my favorite gardening supplies, varieties, books, tools and more in my Amazon storefront.

MASTERCLASS
In each season of my Masterclass – Success In Every Season: Get Better Results From Your Garden All Year Long – we focus on exactly what you need to know to be successful. The seasons build upon one another (just like in your garden!) to create a complete toolkit of skills that will set you up for a more joyful gardening experience

When you make smarter decisions in your garden, you end up having more success, which means gardening is a lot more fun. Read more about it here.

GARDEN COACHING
Get personalized advice on your struggles, goals, and garden aspirations with a garden coaching session, either in person or virtual. Read more about them here

BOOKS
gardening planning book

 

 

Set yourself up for a successful season with the Smart Start Garden Planner. It keeps garden planning practical, down-to-earth, and fun!

Get a sample of the book so you can peek inside here.

 

.

SHARE IT ON PINTEREST

 

Learn how to get better results.

Let's starting with talking about the top 5 mistakes most gardeners are making.

Comments

Leave a Comment

[email protected]
© 2021 Creativevegetablegardener.com. All Rights Reserved. | Design by Rebecca Pollock + Development by Brandi Bernoskie