Question: I’ve been hearing a lot about “no-till” gardening in the last couple of years, and would like to know more about the practice. Would it work in my backyard gardens? Is no-till more appropriate for growing vegetables than in my flower beds? I’ve heard no-till is better for soil structure, which apparently is becoming a bigger issue as well. Will no-till really help reduce run-off, soil erosion, and reduce the need for weed control?
Answer: While gardening, farming, and cropping have been around for thousands of years, practices and processes have changed as new information is gleaned, we’ve become better stewards of our existing resources, and attitudes and abilities result in ‘perspective modification’. As recently as 1943, a book titled “Plowman’s Folly” by E.H. Faulkner suggested plowing was a major contributor to soil erosion, but didn’t offer workable alternatives to the practice. Seventy-five years later, debate still wages regarding the virtues of tilling or not (no-till).
Realistically, home gardeners seeking to convert traditionally tilled gardens to the no-till category may find it necessary to start from scratch. But prior to that point, does your gardening dilemma or situation lend itself to no-till?
Whether planting a vegetable garden, herb or flower beds, or edible/ornamental shrub area, tilling should be used for specific purposes. If soil is very compacted and/or has a high clay content, initially tilling or rototilling the area may be advisable. Refrain from tilling when soil is wet as that action destroys soil structure and results in soil being more compacted. If the area is fairly small, double-digging is a great way to rotate soil and provide an upper body/cardio workout! If tilling must be done, balance that damage by growing a cover drop in the area to be tilled as it will add organic matter and help rebuild soil structure.
Please note that no-till doesn’t mean ‘no work’. As mulch breaks down and becomes soil, new mulch needs to be added. If done periodically, that activity will keep soil from compacting, which it will do if its surface is exposed to heavy rain and overhead watering. If mulch is not replaced and soil is compacted, tilling may be needed to break up soil prior to planting, which defeats the intention of no-till gardening.
No-till in a nutshell? Once the garden, bed, or planting area is established, the surface is not disturbed again. Amendments including compost, manure, peat moss, lime, and fertilizers (organic or synthetic) are top dressed instead of being tilled into the soil. Top dressing means materials will work into the subsoil by rainfall, irrigation, and activity of subsoil organisms i.e. earthworms. Mulch takes care of most weeds, those that are blown in by wind or distributed by birds and other animals can be hand pulled if done when plants are still small and soil is moist.
The following links to no-till sites might be helpful in deciding ‘if’ and ‘how’ a no-till practice can be attained and maintained.https://www.tenthacrefarm.com/2015/11/transitioning-to-a-no-till-garden/
You might start with one bed or area of your garden to determine what works best for your specific conditions, expanding as experience and familiarity with your soil is gained. But before starting a no-till garden or bed, a soil test should be part of your ground work!
Garden Talk is written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. This column includes research based information from land-grant universities around the country, including Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities. Email questions to Sallie at firstname.lastname@example.org or call #205-879-6964 x11.
The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (Alabama A&M University and Auburn University), is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Everyone is welcome!