Reasons to Start a No-Till Garden

By Heather Knoll

Produce harvested from a minimal disturbance community garden. Photo by Heather Knoll

In recent years, no-till gardening, also known as minimal disturbance gardening, has gained popularity among gardeners. This method, which sets aside the conventional practice of tilling the soil, offers a number of benefits for the plants, the environment, and the gardener who would love to spend less time digging and more time enjoying the garden.

At its core, no-till gardening is about mimicking and working with nature rather than against it. Instead of turning over the soil, disturbing the delicate network of microorganisms, mycorrhizae, and insects, no-till gardeners opt for a gentler approach. No-till gardening keeps the soil’s natural structure intact, fostering a healthy environment for plant growth. This results in improved soil health and increased fertility over time.

No-till gardening helps to limit erosion and soil compaction, two common issues in traditional gardening practices. When soil is tilled, its structure is destroyed, leaving it vulnerable to erosion by wind and water. The undisturbed soil in a no-till garden is better able to resist erosion, preserving topsoil and preventing nutrient runoff.

Another benefit of no-till gardening is its ability to sequester carbon. Tilling releases carbon stored in the soil into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. By keeping the soil undisturbed, no-till gardening helps to lock carbon in the soil.

No-till gardening also offers benefits to the gardener. Instead of spending hours turning over the soil, no-till gardeners can focus on planting, mulching, and nurturing their plants. There are several different methods that fall under the no-till, or minimal disturbance gardening umbrella:

  1. The “No work” method was developed by Ruth Stout, known as the “Mulch Queen.” This method involves mulching heavily with straw and other garden debris such as weeds and fallen leaves. The mulch acts as a physical barrier to weaken or prevent weed growth while also breaking down over time and feeding the soil. This method is best used when transforming an established garden into a no-till system, rather than starting a new garden bed, as it can take a bit of time for difficult soils to become workable with this system.
  2. The “No Dig” method is a great way to begin a new garden, although it will also work well in an established garden. This method was developed by Charles Dowding, and involves putting down a thick layer or two of cardboard to suppress weeds followed by 6-8 inches of well-aged compost. Plants are then grown directly in the compost. More compost is added to the top of the bed each year, replenishing the soil fertility and also raising the bed height over time.
  3. The “Back to Eden” method was developed by Paul Gautschi, and involves mulching with thick layers of wood chips. Similar to straw mulch, the wood chips slowly break down to feed the soil while also suppressing weed growth. This method is somewhat controversial due to the fact that wood chips can leach nitrogen from the soil. However, as long as wood chips are added to the top of the garden bed and not mixed into the soil below, the nitrogen that is tied up during the decomposition process is very minimal and, over time, nitrogen in the garden bed is built up as the wood chips break down into soil.

No-till gardening is not without its challenges, and it may take time to see the full benefits. However, over a few growing seasons you’ll enjoy the benefits of a healthy thriving garden and more free time to enjoy it.

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