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Plants partner with soil ecosystems to create conditions favorable to their growth. This includes everything from increasing organic matter in the soil, to creating soil structures ideal for holding water and exchanging nutrients, and making nutrients more bioavailable/useable to plants and animals.
Unfortunately, the common practice of tilling destroys that delicate balance of the soil ecosystem, and though it may provide a temporary boost in nutrients, what’s really happening (partly) is that the organisms in the soil are dying, releasing the nutrients held in their bodies, much of which will then wash away in the following rains, all the while oxidizing and solarizing (solar cooking) the soil to death. Of course, some organisms will always survive, but the more this is done, year after year, the more the soil suffers, and the more outside inputs of time and energy must be put into the garden to keep fertility and water content up.
Tilling also destroys the soil’s structure, which is built by earthworms, microbes, and other unseen garden helpers in the most active soil layer (the topsoil). Besides the soil life itself, this structure is partly what gives a soil its ability to hold nutrients and water.
In short, tilling creates structural and ecological devastation, leading to compaction (more on this below), erosion, nutrient leaching, oxidization, solarization (death by sun), and decreased organic matter. Add to that the fact that it stirs up weed seeds and encourages their germination, and hopefully by this point, you’re wondering what the alternatives are, and if they work.
Besides avoiding the pitfalls of tilling listed above, the methods below will increase bioavailability of nutrients, fertilize the soil, and increase nutrient cycling (reducing leaching and erosion).
1. Mulch, mulch, mulch
Mulch protects the soil and the soil food web from the drying winds, erosive rain and beating sun, among other things. It’s also a slow release fertilizer that breaks down into all important organic matter while providing food and habitat for your decomposer, predator (of pests), and microbe friends (especially fungi, which will greatly appreciate wood chips, leaves, and other mulch materials). Last but not least, mulch dramatically reduces water evaporation from the soil.
2. Diversify plants
Create more efficient nutrient cycling (with roots in all levels of the soil), while taking up all of the soil ecosystem niches that “weeds” would otherwise fill by simply adding more types of plants to the garden. Perennials and annuals can live quite harmoniously together, particularly when you don’t have to destroy the entire ecosystem every year, forcing it to rebuild from scratch time and time again. Perennials, with their deeper roots, will pull nutrients from deeper down, and will help cover and protect the soil with their bodies and their debris for all or much of the year. Make sure to throw in some nitrogen-fixing plants, as well (which literally extract the important nutrient out of thin air), and lots of flowers to encourage pollinators.
3. Till to prepare for no-tilling
Although ongoing tilling is unnecessary and destructive, it can be useful as a one-time method of preparing no-till beds. One method is to till, wait until a large number of weed seeds germinate and begin to grow, and then till again before they go to seed or have significant time to establish tap roots. This will deplete the seed bank, and after one or two times, it will be easier to establish no-till beds, particularly with the help of mulches and other methods. Adding organic fertilizers to the soil prior to the first till may encourage even more seeds to germinate.
4. Cover crops/green manures, living mulches/ground covers
“Living mulches” (ground cover plants) have the benefits of mulch, but in the case of perennials, they never have to be reapplied. Cover crops or green manures, meanwhile, are plants that can be seeded, and once grown for sometime can be tilled into the soil during the initial (hopefully) one-time soil prep (along with the germinating weed seeds). This will add nutrients and organic matter to the soil. Good options include buckwheat, rye and legumes. Cover crops should be planted in the fall so that they are winter killed before seeding, or alternatively, you can use non-self-seeding annual plants, or till them in before they go to seed.
5. Permanent beds and paths to avoid soil compaction
Finally, since you won’t be continually tilling to give the soil the loft and aeration it needs, you must rely on natural means of maintaining this ideal soil structure for plant roots to thrive, and for new seeds to germinate. This simply means keeping off garden beds to allow the soil food web to do its work to create a healthy soil structure, with maximum water and oxygen infiltration. Meanwhile, simply sift mulch aside to plant your new seeds. If weed seed germination within your seed beds is an ongoing issue, you might try adding a layer of seed starting compost on top of the mulch (making sure it is well cooked seedless compost), along with some more mulch sprinkled lightly over the seeds, and more generously around the compost to contain it.
This is but a brief overview of some of the methods for no till gardening that in mine and many other peoples’ experience, can not only save you a significant amount of time in the garden, but will also create a more balanced and healthy soil ecosystem for your plants. If you liked this article, or have any other no till methods to share, please feel free to comment below!
What is your favorite no-till method? Share your advice in the section below: