Diagram for layer of soil. Soil layer scheme with grass and roots.

No Till Gardening

Excerpted from: Till versus no-till gardening

Excerpted from: What is no till gardening or farming?

  While the practice of no-till gardening is not new, information has traditionally centered on agricultural field crops. Now, home gardeners are catching on.

  The Problem With Soil Tilling

Woman rototilling garden.

Soil tilling causes soil disruption, which compacts the soil and destroys the pathways that channel air and water through the soil. Every time a tiller cuts through soil the structure is weakened, which can cause compaction and increase runoff. There’s also erosion and surface crusting that results from over-tilling.

Tilling disrupts the microorganisms and other soil dwellers that live in the top couple of inches and are essential for soil and plant health. Soil microbes, some of which have a symbiotic relationship with plants, cluster around roots and, as they feed on organic matter and each other, secrete nutrients that feed plants and substances that act as glue to bind soil particles into larger aggregates that keep soil pores open.

Long strands of fungal hyphae can hold the aggregates together and earthworms and other large organisms also work to create pore space.

Read more: What are soil aggregates?

Read more: Beneficial fungi

  What Is No Till Gardening?

Graphic showing types of soil aggregates in soil
Examples of different types of soil structure: a) blocky, b) columnar, c) massive, d) single grain, e) platy.

No-till gardening, also known as ‘no-dig’ gardening, is the practice of avoiding the intentional disruption of soil. Rather than using plows, spades, hoes, or other tools to routinely “turn over” soil, it is more or less left alone.

Many no-till gardeners choose to leave the roots of spent plants in place. At the end of the growing season, they cut plants out at the soil line (or just below the soil) with pruners or a small hand saw – rather than yanking out the entire plant and root system.

In the no-till world, instead of mixing amendments deep into the soil, slow-release organic fertilizers, compost, and/or mulch materials are added to the top of the soil on occasion. Those things, along with the left-behind plant roots, slowly break down to rejuvenate the soil and provide food for new plants.

Soil coverage is also an important concept in a no-till system. For home gardeners, this can be achieved by using cover crops or mulch. Mulching materials may include straw, compost, aged livestock manure, dried leaves or grass clippings. Mulch will protect the soil from rain and wind, which can cause erosion. In early spring, the mulch layer can be pulled back from the bed to allow sunlight to warm the soil.

  Lasagna Mulching (Sheet Mulching)

Here’s how to create a lasagna bed, also called sheet mulching:

Lasagna on a plate.

Start in fall so the bed has all winter to start decomposing.

Cut grass as low as possible. Or start a lasagna garden on top of an old planting bed.

Loosen soil with a digging fork to increase aeration. Even punching holes in the ground will work.

Remove weeds.

Build a raised bed frame or just mound up the layers of organic material into an unframed bed.

Put a layer of cardboard overlapped an inch or two and water it.

Cover with 2-inch layers of green organic material like grass clippings, fresh plant debris, fresh animal manure and food scraps that provide nitrogen and brown materials like dry leaves, wood chips, straw and shredded newspaper that are carbon sources. Repeat layers until the bed is about 18 inches.

Top off with a 2- to 6-inch brown layer; thicker if you want to plant right away.

Create beds only wide enough to reach into the middle and create paths lined with straw to walk on so soil doesn’t get compacted.

  Compost, Fertilizer, Mycorrhizae

Add organic inputs to the top of the soil routinely, at least once or twice per year. Great examples include aged compost, leaf mold or dry leaves, pine needles, fine bark or wood chips, or other natural mulch materials.

Come planting time, we add worm castings and mycorrhizae in the planting hole around the root ball of new seedlings. Worm castings are a form of mild slow-release fertilizer that also improves soil structure.

Mycorrhizae are microscopic fungi that colonize plant roots, and essentially extend the surface area and function of roots. The symbiotic relationship between mycorrhizae and roots increases the plants ability to uptake nutrients, water, and more.

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