No till vegetable gardening

The no till philosophy has gained traction in farming. The more I learn about vegetable gardening, I’m realizing no till also applies on a smaller scale.

If you’re not familiar with no till, it basically means undisturbed soil is healthier soil.

Our experience with our vegetable garden last year really brought this home for me. We built the garden in an area that hadn’t been touched–at all–the whole time we’ve owned the farm. I don’t know how long it had been abandoned before then.

Longe ring

Inside the fence, grass and weeds grew as high as they wanted. Every fall they died. Over the winter and spring, the dead grass was matted down by snow and rain. New growth sprouted in the spring and grew high over the summer. Rooted in the fertile soil, the new sprouts fed on the previous year’s plants which were slowly decomposing around them.

When we cleared the ring and planted vegetables in place of the weeds and grass, the vegetables went crazy. They sucked up all of the nutrients from the soil and were super productive.

Vegetable garden harvest

As the season went on and we harvested more and more from the garden, I realized that if I wanted to continue this productivity in future years, I was going to have to focus on the soil.

I’ve heard other gardeners say that gardening isn’t about growing plants. It’s about growing soil.

So that’s why I started a compost bin for all of our kitchen scraps and I spent three weeks spreading a thick layer of manure over the whole garden at the end of the growing season.

Manure in the garden

That’s also why I’m contemplating going no till.

I’m sure this isn’t entirely accurate, but I have this circle of life idea playing in my head. Whatever nutrients the plants take from the soil as they grow are returned to the soil as the plant decomposes (aside from the fruit and vegetables that we eat, of course). So leaving everything untouched and in place means we have complete soil, not deficient in any element.

Last year, I was quite excited to get our hand-me-down rototiller. But the more I learn about gardening, the more I wonder if we should be using it.

Matt and I tilling the garden

I’ve read a bit about the deep mulch method. It’s supposed to be good for weed control, retaining moisture and also for returning nutrients to the soil. (See The Prairie Homestead and Reformation Acres for some info).

We already have a deep layer of straw on the garden thanks to the manure spreading, so maybe we can build on that. My plan is to work towards something like the raised row method from Old Word Garden Farms.

Anyone have experience with no till or mulch gardening? Aside from the health of our soil, my biggest concern is weeds. Any tips for dealing with weeds?

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8 thoughts on “No till vegetable gardening

  1. I am from the till your garden school of thought. My parents have had a large veg garden and every fall my dad will spread the compost and manure on the plot and then till everything in. Thru the fall & winter and early spring the compost & manure does its thing. When everything is planted, they will use whatever compost they have left as mulch. Their gardens have always produced vast quantities of food- so they must be doing something right. I do this with my little community garden plot and I am also lucky with my garden output..
    Good Luck.

  2. I haven’t heard of the no till method before this. But the above comment does sound like a good cross between the two, tilling only in the fall. I wonder how you get the soil soft enough to dig in without ever tilling? Our veggie plot (unused as of yet) is hard as a rock.

    • Very true. I know the tilling we did last spring definitely made a huge difference for us. I think part of the no till argument is that soil rich in organic material (compost etc.) is soft. Or you only dig holes where you need to. I dunno the answer!

  3. I’m a big fan of disturbing the soil as little as possible, but my veg garden consists entirely of raised beds, so tilling isn’t an option anyhow. Generally speaking (although there are exceptions), I don’t turn the soil over – I simply aerate it with a garden fork and then work the soil amendments such as manure, compost, etc., into the top 2-3 inches. I think the bottom line for me is that there are no hard and fast rules – what works in one situation may not work in another, even within the same garden.

    • Distinguishing between turning the soil over (or deep rototilling) vs. aerating it makes sense to me. I tend to get caught up looking for the “rules.” Thanks for the reminder that gardening can be a little more tailored to my personal situation.

  4. While there are several farmers that use the no till method on their fields we are quite the opposite in our vegetable garden. My father-in-law used to come by at least once a week and till the rows. That may have been much too often, but we rarely had to worry about weeds. We only had to hoe directly against the crops. This will be the first year that we don’t have his help in the garden (he passed away in December) so I hope that I can keep the garden looking even half as good as he did!

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