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No-till Practices

I routinely rototill my vegetable gardens.  We own three old rototillers, so we are usually able to keep at least one of them running and ready for garden bed preparation.  I have heard and read some about NOT tilling, but have never taken the time to seriously consider it.  Working on this page has convinced me that I need to give it a try. 

Below is a testimonial (edited for brevity) from a person who does not till their vegetable garden.  His name was Joe, and this was posted in one of the garden forums a few years ago.

I am a small-scale home vegetable gardener that adopted no-till practices three years ago.

I started planting fall cover crops (rye, hairy vetch, and crimson clover), which I cut and leave on the soil’s surface.  Before planting, I cover the cut grains and legumes with mostly finished compost, and then I cover that with straw.  I plant tomatoes into this.  I let the worms and microbes work the material on the surface into the root zone.

Results have been superior.  Without scientific testing, my personal observations are that I have fewer insect problems and disease, the tomatoes taste better, the yields are great and the plants are hardier and stronger.  The soil is fluffy and black, there are more worms, and it takes less time and work to prepare the garden each year.

I have sandy soil with low pH all over my lot, but my garden is loam with neutral pH.

I don’t have a religious conviction about this, and do believe tilling has its place.  I think preparing a new bed requires tilling to get started.  Other zones or types of soil might require different practices.

I think a key part of the no-till process is cover cropping. I don’t have to till because the roots of the cover crop are getting organic matter deep into the root zone without any use of steel tools.  There is as much going on below the surface as is happening in the area we humans can see, and when these roots decay, they get organic matter into the root zone naturally, without tilling.  What I put on the surface each spring (except for the top layer of straw) is gone in the fall, having been naturally incorporated into the soil by the soil’s inhabitants.  (Laura says – Joe must live where it stays above freezing in the winters.  I think winter’s freezes would slow down this decomposition in my zone.)

One other point is that tilling adds greats amount of oxygen to the soil, which encourages a short-term explosion of the microbe population.  These extra microbes have to eat, and the net effect is that the organic matter is consumed more quickly, and the long term effect is a reduction of organic matter, with the need to add more and more to sustain the desired level.