Stop Tilling Your Vegetable Garden!

Don't Till Garden
Permanent beds & paths in my old garden.

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.

Why Not to Till Your Vegetable Garden

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.

 

Why not to till your garden

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 paths? All you need to do is keep them mulched so they don’t grow weeds.

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.

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Comments

  • After reading yours and other information about tilling. I am not going to till my garden, as much. I will have permanent bed areas and a well define walkway. Also going to do cover crop and mulch. I really like reading your blog.

    • Awesome, Tenshi! That’s what I love to hear! I think you’ll find it to be a lot less work as well.

  • Hi,
    Very good advise. I like this part, “just dig a hole for your seeding” very simple.
    One thing I like to know do you put any fertilizer in the hole?
    Dennis

    • Dennis – Great question! I will often add a handful of high quality compost into the holes with my seedlings. Because I’ve had soil nutrient issues in the past I also have a mix of amendments I add to the planting hole.

  • I was set for winter, left my spinach and Kale going, best part is no holes in the leaves now, beautiful plants, but this morning when I went to pick, a rabbit jumped out of the straw I have, ready to finish when we get a decent frost. They love the small spinach leaves. Snow predicted for Friday, what a wonderful fall we have had.

    • Sue – If you’re having rabbit issues you could try using some row cover to protect the plants from hungry winter rabbits. It has been a great fall so far here in Madison. But, I think it’s time for winter!

  • On this beautiful fall day I harvested broccoli, swiss chard for my quiche, fresh parsley and there remains the Brussel sprouts. Newly dug potatoes and squash are in baskest in the shed. Fresh veggies for days to come.

    • That’s so wonderful, Jean! It’s so fun to have food at this late time of the year. The late fall garden is actually my favorite time of season. Thanks for sharing!

  • […] Stop Tilling Your Vegetable Garden! – From The Creative Vegetable Gardener […]

  • We compost all year and in the spring we put most of this compost onto the garden bed and then till it into the soil. After many years of doing this our soil is very rich for growing the veggies. How can we mix the compost into the soil if not by tilling it. (We have a square garden patch, but make raised rows for each type of plant eg. tomatoes , zucchini, onions etc with an mulched path between each row.)

    • Hi Carolyn- You don’t really need to mix the compost into the soil with a tiller. You can just top dress the soil with a few inches of compost every year. Or use it as mulch after you plant in spring.

  • I have been studying a program in Africa which is a Zero tillage program. Started by Brian Oldreive he started the program on his own farm and now he has gone on to help hundreds of people. Farmers who have adopted this method produce 40% more cereal than farmers who plough the land, It was originally called Farming Gods Way, They changed the name of the program, as it was felt that, you didn’t need to be a Christian, to participate in the program. Visit their website to see the wonderful work they are doing
    http://www.fffzimbabwe.org/

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