One huge mistake many new gardeners make is that they underestimate just how important soil is to the survival of their plants. The soil forms your base for your garden, and no till gardening is all about ensuring you have plenty of soil available. You’ll use no till gardening to learn how to take care of your soil, improving it season to season, and maintaining it. But, why should you adopt the no till gardening method? What needs does this type of gardening meet that you may not get with other types? Read on to find out more.
Defining No Till Gardening or No Dig Gardening
No till gardening or no dig gardening is a gardening method many people use to create organic gardens. You can do it in raised garden beds or in the ground without any issues. There are a few different no till gardening methods available, but each one involves proper soil preparation using layering instead of digging or tilling. A few very popular types of no till gardens include:
- Container gardening
- Lasagna gardening
- Sheet compost gardening
- Straw bale gardening
- Bag gardening
These no till gardening methods work to prevent the soil from eroding and nutrients from depleting when you use the same area over and over. Over the period of a few growing seasons, your soil’s fertility levels will dramatically improve, and this can make it much easier to prepare the area for planting or gardening.
You’ll have to have a lot of patience when you use the no till gardening technique though because it’ll take time to develop healthy and thriving soil. However, your persistence will pay off over the seasons. Unlike traditional gardening, you’re not digging to aerate your soil. Instead, you’re getting the dirt in better shape to support healthy plant growth.
One big way a lot of people try no till gardening is by setting up raised planter boxes. You simply fill these boxes with soil and put your plants in without having to dig down into the ground and destroy the root structures. Boxes Laid Out and Full by BrotherMagneto / CC BY-NC 2.0
Why Do You Want to Avoid Tilling?
Before we guide you through the process of setting up a no till garden, it’s important that you know why tiling isn’t recommended anymore for either large-scale agricultural operations or home gardens.
Effort and Time
Any type of gardening requires both effort and time on your part, and this is especially true when you first start preparing the area for your garden. Traditionally, you’d use a heavy-duty tiller to prepare your space. The rototiller would rip up the earth and churn in to get rid of grass and weeds to help create the perfect environment for seedlings and seeds to thrive.
But, tilling can be very labor-intensive and time-consuming, and it could require several weeks of work. You’d have to till down between six to eight inches, and you only work in a two by two-foot area in one go. Apart from the impressive effort this takes, the equipment could be expensive too if you don’t have it. Power rototillers can cost anywhere from $150 to $500 each.
Although tilling soil is a great way to get rid of weeks, it can lead to soil erosion. When you till your garden area, you break up the soil. This can quickly lead to structural damage. Also, tilling has a big impact on your topsoil layer, and it makes it more vulnerable to run-off and wind erosion. So, you’ll end up adding more topsoil to your soil, and you’ll also have to amend your soil every growing season.
Tilling your garden can drastically reduce the moisture content in your soil. Erosion can accelerate this process. Tilling also hurts microorganisms and earthworms in the area, and they work to enrich the soil by turning the earth and adding nitrogen. Not using the no till gardening method also destroys the root structure of last year’s crop. These root structures can enhance the soil’s nutrient base if they have to decompose naturally.
Step-by-Step Guide for Using No Till Gardening
Getting into no till gardening is a very simple and straightforward process. It also requires much less effort and time than tilling would. It will take you a short amount of time to get your garden ready for planting, but you’ll get a healthy soil base with a bountiful harvest packed full of vegetables.
Step One – Pick Your Space
The first step of no till gardening is to pick out your space and decide how large you want your garden to be. You should pick out a very sunny spot, and it’s preferred to be south-facing. This will allow you to take maximum advantage of the sunlight. Also, you don’t have to have a large space because it’s easy to rotate your crops to facilitate several plantings every growing season. If you’re short on space, consider doing a container garden or using raised planting beds.
Both of these garden styles use very little room in your yard. You can also apply the concepts of no till gardening to these types of gardens. When you want to use raised garden beds, they shouldn’t get any bigger than eight feet long by four feet wide. This should give you enough area to work in without trampling down the soil.
Step Two – Test Your Soil
No till gardening follows the belief that the key to getting healthy and thriving plants is to get healthy soil. One of the biggest myths around is that some plants can suffer root burn and die out if you fertilize them, like root vegetables. However, every type of plant can benefit from organic fertilizer applications, as long as you’re careful to not overdo it.
You’ll get a soil test kit to help determine which type of fertilizer you need to get. This kit will help you figure out your baseline nutrient content. Once you get your results, you can easily figure out which type or types of nutrients your soil needs before you start planting.
This is very important because you can damage your soil if you add too much nitrogen or phosphorus. They can cause structural damage to the soil and root burn to the plants. They can also slowly leach into your groundwater and cause it to get contaminated. If this happens, you can reduce the soil’s fertility over time.
Step Three – Get Your Materials
Generally speaking, the materials you’ll need in no till gardening are inexpensive, and you can typically find them laying around your home. It’s a good choice to start getting these materials a few weeks before you plan on starting your no till gardening project so you have time to stockpile. You can use:
- Animal-based fertilizers
- Bark chips
- Grass clippings or trimmings
- Old Newspapers
You won’t need a huge pile of all of these materials. Which ones you pick out will depend on your budget and your preference. If you’re a gardener who keeps chickens, their droppings work well as a fertilizer. You should sift it to get rid of any large chunks before you apply it. You can also check with local grocery stores or with your neighbors to get newspapers and broken down boxes. You could even get them for free.
Adding a thick layer of straw over your lawn is another effective way to kill it, especially if you put down sheets of newspaper, cardboard, or landscape fabric first. No-till gardening – straw mulch by Steven Lybeck / CC BY-SA 2.0
Step Four – Plan Out Your Beds
When you get all of your materials you need for no till gardening, start planning out how you want your beds to go. The key to having success with no till gardening is not to disturb your soil structure. So, you should lay out your beds and put walkways between each one so you don’t step on or tamp down the soil.
Using raised beds or container gardens make it much quicker and easier to work without bothering the soil that surrounds your plants. Even if you pick out traditional in-ground plots, you still want to leave a lot of space between the beds to move. Also, consider restricting your bed’s sizes to no longer than eight feet and no wider than four feet. This will allow you to reach all of your plants relatively easily.
Step Five – Sheet the Ground to Kill Weeds and Grass
Once you map out your vegetable garden, it’s now time to start working on preparing your soil. The first part of this process is to smother the grass and weeds out of your chosen space. You can do this by covering the area with layers of cardboard and newspaper. Sheets of plastic landscape fabric work well too. You will need to apply several layers. This sheeting layer will kill any weeds or grass below it by cutting off access to the sun. It can take a long time to give you results, so you should prepare your garden in the fall before snow flies so it’s ready to go early in the spring.
Step Six – Prepare Your Soil
One of the most expensive parts of no till gardening is the compost if you have to buy it. This is especially true when you want to create a larger garden. You can make compost using leaf mulch, kitchen scraps, buy it in individual bags, or purchase it in bulk. If you are preparing your garden before winter hits, you can add manure with the compost or in place of it. The newspaper and cardboard will decompose into your soil.
You want to spread a very even but thick layer of compost over your soil in the beds, and it should be a minimum of two-inches thick. Don’t dig in the compost or turn your soil before you spread the compost over it. Add in organic materials like grass clippings or chicken droppings now. Also, add a mulch layer over your compost to encourage moisture retention and discourage weed growth.
Step Seven – Put in Your Starters or Seeds
When you get the compost in, you can immediately start planting your garden. It’s possible to plant from starter seedlings or seeds in no till gardening. Hollow away the mulch and compost to make room for your seeds or starters using your hands. You can press the seeds into the soil using your fingers before covering them with a light enriched compost layer. Don’t dig in the soil to plant your seedlings. Doing so will disturb the soil below and break it up, and this would leave you with an unhealthy substrate.
Step Eight – Perform Routine Maintenance
Maintaining your no till garden isn’t much different from a traditional one. To maintain such a garden, there are certain important things to remember.
- Firstly, when trying to protect the soil ecosystem, it is important not to walk on your growing areas. Keep off the soil so that it does not become compacted, and so that the fragile ecosystem can flourish undisturbed.
- Try not to leave any areas of bare soil. While different mulches will suit different areas, it is a good idea to make sure that there is always a layer of compost/ organic matter protecting the soil surface – like the leaf litter in a forest. Bare soil is more prone to nutrient loss and erosion caused by wind and water. Simply continue to add layers of organic matter each year.
- Your first year harvest may be slightly lower than before, but your yield will improve over time
- Weed seeds are less likely to germinate with this gardening approach, as you no longer bring soil to the surface.
- You won’t have to water the garden as heavily as you would a traditional one because the compost layers and mulch will trap moisture into the soil.
- There is less fertilizing required with no till gardening because you put down a thicker compost layer that holds enough fertilizer for your plants. It also lowers the possibility of your plants developing root damage from chemical fertilizer use or over-fertilizing.
Step Nine – Bedding Down and Harvesting
One of the biggest advantages of using no till gardening is that it allows the soil to retain a lot of nutrients because you don’t have an issue with soil erosion from water run-off or wind. In turn, this allows gardens to have several plantings during the same growing season without taking all of the nutrients out of the soil. Once you reach the final harvest of the season, you should start bedding down your no till garden to get it ready for winter.
To bed down the garden, carefully cut back any remaining plants until they’re just above the soil level. The residual root systems and stumps are more organic matter that will break down and enrich your soil even further for next season.
Different Ways to Establish a No Till Gardening Setup
There are a few different ways that you can establish your no till gardening. The one you end of choosing will be solely based on personal preferences. They all work very well for the same end goal, and the most popular options are:
You’ll have to build supports if you plant taller flowers or vegetables in your straw bales because the bale itself will offer nothing. It’s very easy for your plants to break or die back without enough support. Early strawbale garden by Scott Sherrill-Mix / CC BY-NC 2.0
Building a Layered Raised Bed (Lasagna Garden)
Making a ‘lasagna bed’ is the process of building up a fertile growing space in the same way that you would build up the layers in a compost bin or heap.
- Begin by creating the edging for your new bed or beds. (There are plenty of natural or reclaimed materials that you could choose to use for this purpose.)
- Lay cardboard on the grass or soil within that boundary. This will help to suppress grass or weeds until the bed is established, but as it breaks down, will allow organisms to pass into your new growing space from the soil below.
- Next, place a layer of twigs, dry leaves, straw, wood chip or other ‘brown’ materials,
- Then a layer of ‘green’ nitrogen rich materials like grass clippings, green leaves and fruit and vegetable kitchen waste.
- Add another layer of brown and green and continue until you have a bed of the required height.
- Finally, add a top layer of compost/ soil.
- You can then water well and plant up your new growing areas.
- Once you have planted up your beds, the space should then be mulched with straw or other organic materials in order to avoid leaving the surface bare.
Hugelkultur mounds follow a similar formula. It is just that the new growing space is not flat, but rather in a mounded shape. It has, at its core, not just the organic materials described above but also larger pieces of part-rotted wood, which retain moisture and enrich the ecosystem slowly over time.
Building a Straw Bale Garden
Straw bale gardening involves planting seedlings or seed directly into a few straw bales. This is getting very popular with both novice and veteran gardeners alike because it works very well in areas that have poor soil quality and it takes up a relatively small amount of space. Straw also works to retain heat, and it can create it too as it starts to break down to give you a longer growing season than you’d normally get.
The only bigger drawback with this type of no till gardening is that you’ll have to add nitrogen to the bales of straw to give your plants the necessary nutrients they need. You can add nitrogen directly to the bale before you plant it in order to give the plants a nitrogen-rich environment. You’ll also have to add a layer of potting soil with a peat base to the top of each straw bale to give yourself a solid medium to plant in.
You can grow almost any crop using this no till gardening method, but you do have to watch out for height. Bales of straw aren’t capable of supporting plants that grow really high, so you may want to use dwarf varieties. You’ll have to reinforce each straw bale with wire mesh too so it can support any root vegetables you chose to plant because they dig into the bale.
Using Bag Planting for No Till Gardening
Bag planting is popular for no till gardening in areas where it would be very difficult to enhance the soil quality. Bag planting mimics traditional no till gardening, except that you grow the plants directly into the bags of organic soil with fertilizer. It’s a solid choice if you wanted to do no till gardening this year but you didn’t prepare ahead of time last fall.
The goal of bag planting is to create a soil base that is very nutrient-rich for your plants without damaging or tilling up the available soil. This method will give you a head start on your spring gardening. However, it only works for one season. Next season, you’ll have to use compost to enrich the soil. You’ll need newspaper, cardboard, and bags of fertilizer-enriched, organic potting soil. To create this type of no till garden, you’ll:
- Layer the Area with Newspapers or Cardboard Sheets – If you want to use newspaper, all you have to do for this no till gardening method is to layer several sheets over your chosen area. Puncture your sheeting material every four inches to allow for moisture and air circulation. This will help you from ending up with a moldy, soaked mess.
- Put Your Unopened Potting Soil Bags over the Sheeting Material – Space these bags out as necessary, depending on the types of plants you picked out. Push the bags up against one another if you like, or you can keep space for narrow walkways between them.
- Expose the Soil by Cutting Each Bag’s Top Off – This soil will form your garden bed. Get a sharp tool like a screwdriver and stab it through the soil to puncture small holes in the bottom of each bag. Aim for 10 holes per bag, and make sure you piece the sheeting material beneath the bag at the same time so they drain.
- Plant – You can plant starters or seeds with this no till gardening method. Fertilize and water them like you normally would, and consider adding a layer of mulch to the top of each bag to stop weeds from growing and retain moisture.
- Remove the Bags After the Final Harvest – You want to get rid of the plastic bags out of the way at the end of the growing season after you have your final harvest. Simply cut the sides of each bag and pull it out from underneath the soil. Spread a layer of mulch over this soil to bed it down before the first frost. The cardboard sheeting below the soil and mulch should be gone by spring.
- No Till Garden Next Season – Because you usually do bag planting in areas with very poor soil, you’ll want to add a heavy layer of nutrient-rich compost and fertilizer before you plant. After a few seasons, you’ll get a fluffy, light, nutrient-dense medium that is ideal for growing a huge range of plants.
No till gardening or no dig gardening is a great way to get a healthy garden with several different harvests each year, and you have several ways to set them up for success. Choose the way that works best for your area, plant a few seeds, and watch them take off. Garden by Jennifer C. / CC BY 2.0
Converting an Existing Growing Area to a No Till Garden
Not all of us have space to create new growing areas. This gardening style also offers solutions for those who want to improve existing growing areas. Now you proceed with your switch to the no till system will depend on how well the current growing segment is doing.
If you have a well-maintained growing segment that you have been digging, you can simply begin to switch to a no till system by laying mulches over the growing space and building up layers as described above. The soil web should begin to repair itself, and over time, earthworms and other organisms will take over the work that you were previously doing.
If, however, you are dealing with a part of the garden that has become compacted and depleted of nutrients, then it can be a good idea to carry out a couple of steps prior to moving through the steps of creating a no till garden described above.
First, loosen and break up the soil. There are several different ways to accomplish this. The quickest method is to use a garden fork to gently aerate (though not dig up or turn over) the soil. A slower way to do it is to plant a well rotted green manure with deep roots, which will penetrate and break up the compacted soil over a number of months. Green manures can be used to break up the soil, and can also help by adding fertility. They are a good option when you are trying to improve a problematic existing part of your garden.
Green manures are left to grow for a period of time, then chopped and dropped where they are. Earthworms and other soil organisms will break that matter down and it will be incorporated into the soil below, improving its structure, water-retention capacity and nutrient content.
Adding compost and mulches of organic matter and compost in layers is called ‘sheet mulching’. In areas with existing plants, take care not to allow the mulch materials to touch their trunks/ stems – leave a small gap around each one. If mulch and compost are piled around the base of a tree, shrub or other plant, it can be prone to rotting. Over time, the materials of your sheet mulches and compost will break down and nature’s systems will begin to repair themselves.
No till gardening is a great way to plant and harvest all of the vegetables and plants you want without tearing up the soil in your yard. We’ve outlined the general steps and several ways to do it in this quick guide, and you can apply them to your no till gardening project this year.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.