Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Guest Rants, Real Gardens

Stop Tilling Your Vegetable Garden!

Backyard After 2

Permanent beds and paths in the author’s garden.

Guest Rant by Megan Cain

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. Let’s put aside the fact that you’re destroying the soil structure, creating a hard pan and bringing weed seeds up to the surface. Just as important – you are creating a lot more work for yourself. The act of tilling might bring some satisfaction, but it’s what comes afterwards that makes your gardening life a little more work and a little less fun.

Inevitably, the night you till there will be a torrential downpour that completely erodes and compacts your freshly tilled garden. It will look like a war zone of flattened, soil splattered plants with a depressing system of rivulets running everywhere.

Gardeners who till 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.

Tilled gardens usually have a lot of exposed soil. Bare soil = weeds no matter which way you look at it. Without mulch you are going to be spending a lot of summer Saturday afternoons weeding the garden. And that’s a complete waste of time.

The solution to these problems 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 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.)

And then at this time of year every season, all you’ll need to do when you are ready to plant 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 more beer drinking instead of weeding on Saturday afternoons.

Megan Cain helps people create gardens that feed their bodies and souls through her business The Creative Vegetable Gardener in Wisconsin.

Posted by Megan Cain on April 10, 2014 at 7:30 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Guest Rants, Real Gardens.
22 Comments

22 Responses to “Stop Tilling Your Vegetable Garden!”

  1. Cindy says:

    Your garden is lovely. I have never tilled. I’ve always had permenant beds. I don’t have to find a place to store a tiller, or spend time renting one and hauling it back and forth.

  2. Brad says:

    I volunteer in a school garden that never tills and uses LOTS of mulch. (free from local tree trimmers). We’ve had great results with very few weeds and robust vegetables. I’m totally sold on this method. We get to enjoy the fun part of gardening without most of the toil.

  3. gemma says:

    I’ve never tilled, either, and I don’t understand people who till good soil. I scaled back at one community garden one year, and the next year, I was appalled to see the person who had taken over part of my old garden space had hired someone to till it — awful noise, stench from fossil fuels, and all.

    Even in my summer-dry climate, I’m one of the few people who mulches religiously at all of my garden plots. It’s especially important this year, with hardly any rain in the rainy season. I’m still aspiring to do as well as another gardener at that same community garden. She not only grows cover crops, but she also adds lots of mulch in the winter and then adds more compost and mulch before she plants. This allows her to completely stop watering her tomatoes by the beginning of July.

    I love weeding so much that I end up going beyond the borders of my paths and weeding neighboring paths at some of the gardens. I tell myself I’m preventing the weeds from spreading further. But in my own gardens and paths? I’ve learned to identify weeds when they’re a fraction of an inch high, and I put newspaper or cardboard under the mulch in my paths, so I rarely have weeds of my own to pull.

  4. Thanks for reinforcing this important concept. Permaculturists have been singing these same praises for awhile, but the message has yet to be heard by mainstream gardeners. Our school garden has beds and paths, but we have always managed to till in spite of that. This year, we will try it without tilling. So, do we still start by raking off the debris left by the plowing of the parking lot onto the garden? Then, do we just hoe little ditches to plant seeds into, and add mulch after they sprout? This will be interesting…

    • Julie – My garden is always mulched with hay. I simply pull some aside and dig a hole for my plant. For seeds I’ll clear some hay aside and make my furrows. Once the seeds germinate and grow a bit I’ll mulch around them. Mulching is especially important for a school garden so it doesn’t get overtaken by weeds.

  5. Julie says:

    Hi Megan,
    Thanks for the information. I struggle with this issue every year. We have a small lot with limited sun which makes crop rotation difficult. For that reason I’ve been moving the dirt around (manually, with a shovel) each spring – which, after reading your article, sounds like a mistake. And we certainly have a lot of weeds. Is there a better solution? Do you think a winter cover crop be sufficient enough to regenerate the depleted soil and help with pest control?

    • Julie – Because I plant a lot of the same families I also have a small rotation. I add high quality compost, mulch with hay and grow cover crops to make up for that. This year I am adding some amendments recommended by a soil test I had done. If you crops are healthy and producing fine then what you are doing is working. If not, then you might want to think about working on the soil. Weeds can be taken care of by mulching heavily. Moving soil around sounds like way too much work.

  6. jon polvado says:

    At one time I use d a tiller. Now if I decide to do any degree of tilling it is with a shovel. I have raised beds so tilling is not needed as the bed have been heavily amended for over 30 years. Since my body is giving out and the garden is fairly large it is working out well. If earthworms could thank me they would.

    jon

  7. Michelle says:

    I’ve got a medium-sized in-ground garden, and I add lots of compost at the beginning and end of each season. I don’t till, but I do turn over the soil with a shovel in the spring. Partly, I reason, it’s to mix in the top few inches of soil, and partly to help it thaw out a bit faster. Maybe I’m not using enough mulch in the winter, or not trusting that it can be worked around–I had spread a layer of fallen leaves over the garden in the fall, but as they hadn’t rotted or decomposed considerably by March, I scraped them up and put them in my compost bins to finish. Once the soil warms up a bit more, I”ll put down straw for mulch. I use stepping stones as paths, and avoid stepping into the middle of the growing spaces whenever possible.

    How would you advise managing perennial vegetable beds? Rhubarb, asparagus, etc. They’ll need to have compost etc. added to them to maintain fertility, but won’t this bury the crowns too deeply over time?

  8. Hello!

    I really enjoyed reading this article about tilling. I have raised beds and always feel a little guilty when I don’t till. Besides, I won’t have to borrow the neighbors tiller this year, so I’m going with the new strategy.

    You explained how tilling brings the weed seeds to the surface, just creating more weeds obviously. I’ve always been taught that you do want to rake up the soil a bit before planting as it shakes up any weeds that might just be establishing themselves. Is this not so?

    Thanks!!

    Laura

  9. Wendy says:

    Just want to comment on the really lovely beds and happy vegetables
    in the photo!!

  10. Kate says:

    I never till my vegetable garden, because I’m lazy and a big believer in eliminating as much work as possible. When I first started my garden I saved up newspaper and laid down a good thick layer, and then dumped about six inches of leaves and straw over the newspaper and let it sit all winter. I add more straw and leaves every year.
    To plant, I just pull the mulch back. My soil is like a giant earthworm party, and I never have to hoe; just pull out a few weeds around the edges.

  11. Jaime Haney says:

    Oh, another gardening expert teaching us to not till! I recently saw a program on TV telling of the virtues of no-till. If I could only convince my husband, who was raised on a traditional farm, to not till I wouldn’t be the one doing all the hoeing! I am more than ready to adopt this philosophy of gardening! I need to try harder on convincing him. Great article, thank you.

  12. Mathew says:

    Just curious how one is able to grow a productive carrot crop without tilling the soil where the carrots are to be seeded. Otherwise, I do not plan to turn the soil in my raised beds….but root crops sort of need good and fluffy, tilled soil to do their best.

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