The No Till No Dig Way: Why Soil Should Not Be Disturbed
Many consumers and new gardeners are focusing on Organic food and on Organic growing principles for the first time. This is a good start. Unfortunately many growers who are learning about organic principles miss the point and simply switch to organic fertilizers and organic pesticides while adhering to their familiar conventional garden and soil managment practices. While this is a better practice than using synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides it is not the ultimate solution. It is labor and cost intensive, and it will not improve yields or input costs enough to convince a conventional grower that organic growing is better from a strictly financial standpoint.
To grow in an organic manner in such a way as to decrease the cost of your inputs, increase the health and disease resistance in the garden, and increase garden yields a grower must focus on the soil. This focus must be on maintaining optimum populations of the microbes and the invertebrates that are present in healthy soils. This requires that a gardener learns how to grow without plowing, tilling, burning or in any other ways disrupting the life in the soil. For many growers organic and conventional this is a new idea. Many of us have looked forward year after year to turning, or tilling the soil each season, and even between crops throughout the growing season.
Imagine being able to retire your tiller, which also means not buying fuel for tilling. Imagine not bending your back to the arduous task of turning the soil as I did for years, rather turning your back on the shovel and planting into mounds of undisturbed composting soil and imagine that this far easier way of gardening is better for your garden than all of that hard work you have done in the past! It is absolutely so. I have far better results gardening in undisturbed soil from piled on organic mulch and compost than I did when I worked very hard at turning my soil every season.
That we can grow better by working to feed and nurture soil is a concept that I began to understand only recently. I had been hearing about no till growing for years, and I was practicing some of the concepts of no till growing, but because I didn’t understand what the point was I couldn’t quite fathom which practices I needed to use.
The point is that the soil is alive with organisms that team up with plants and in that way help plants to feed themselves. This system that exists naturally is called the Soil Food Web. This means that your job as gardener is to avoid disturbing the soil and the organisms working there. That is no turning or tilling, and all of the feeding you do is soil feeding, not plant feeding. This also guarantees that your plants will be the healthiest, disease resistant plants they can be, and all you do to assure that is to grow the right plant the at the proper time in your growing season, and keep your soil rich with organic matter which is how you feed the soil. Keep lots of leaf mulch (not wood mulch) on the top of the soil, and let leaves and plant wastes fall and stay there. How easy is that?
If you would like to read a fantastic book about the Soil Food Web check out Teaming with Microbes, The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis. If knowledge is power then this book is the most powerful tool a gardener can use. The information is easy to digest, and the pictures from the electron microscope are awesome.
This book, Teaming with Microbes feeds my need to understand all of the organisms that exist in healthy soil, and the relationships they have with plants. If you are the least bit curious I am sure you will find it fascinating. It is possible however, to know much less than this book offers and still be an excellent grower. One only needs to know that there is a whole universe of life in healthy soil, and that it should not be disturbed. Organic matter like leaves, grass clippings, straw, hay, compost and composted manure can be regularly piled on top of the garden and grown into year after year. Plants that grow there when done should be cut down and left to lie on the soil and decompose, and the roots should be left in the soil to decompose where they once grew.
I know South Florida growers are gasping at the idea of leaving tomato, squash, or okra roots in the ground knowing that they may be gnarled with root knot nematodes, that are ready to spread themselves throughout the soil. I know how it is, I used to pull finished tomato plants out of the ground and throw them into the quarantine compost. I don’t anymore, and I am no longer concerned with nematodes. That universe of life in the soil is a tremendous cafeteria, and nematodes are on the menu. I still don’t recommend planting tomatoes after tomatoes in the same bed year after year, and I do recommend rotating to crops that are less attractive to nematodes after attractors have grown, but I am not worried about leaving the roots behind to decompose. Those soil organisms need to eat, and in South Florida where the weather is always perfect for decomposition finding enough organic material for the organisms in the soil is the gardener’s full time job!
Plants bring nutrients they get from photosynthesis down into their roots and then leak them into the soil (the leaked nutrient is called exudate) to exchange with soil organisms that then agree to exchange soil bound nutrients and water with those plants for their exudates. Plants do not deplete soil, tilling does. If you have a few weeds in the garden it is not such a bad thing. Some weeds make good companions in the garden. Weeds also exchange their exudates with microbes for soil bound nutrients. Cutting weeds you don’t want in the garden at ground level (leaving the roots behind) adds organic material for the microbes, and is less likely (than pulling weeds) to churn up any new weed seeds from below. If you don’t till up the soil you will have very few weeds growing in your gardens. All of your time can be spent planting, and harvesting, and collecting organic wastes for your compost and your gardens.
A grower who has been practicing plowing or tilling, or has been applying synthetic plant fertilizers and pesticides may have to work to bring the soil food web back to the soil. In such cases it is good to bring in compost, manures, and aerated compost teas to help reintroduce microbes to damaged and barren soil. An organic garden consultant like myself can help you with these repairs. It doesn’t take very long to repair damaged soil, and you don’t have to wait for a full recovery before you start growing food. Remember plants are part of the soil food web and do their part to help to feed the soil organisms.
Now get out there and pile on the organic matter, and let the tiller and the shovel grow cob webs!
Thanks, Adina, I knew lasagna gardening and spreading my compost on my garden, etc were good things but I didn’t know the extent of how good. Also, I never considered not pulling weeds…but I’m willing to try. Also, do I have to worry about nematodes here in Illinois? Cause I only have one place to plant my tomatoes. I’ll send some pics soon about my garden project…thanks for all your helpful advice!
Hi Naomi, Thanks for your comment. I am pretty sure nematodes are not a problem in your state, but I suppose an online visit or phone call to your cooperative extension would ease your mind. In places without nematodes I have heard that gardeners actually repeat tomatoes in one location for as many as 5 years in a row because the tomatoes fix the soil for themselves for future generations. Knowing what I do about soil I would say that if you are constantly building your garden up with mulch and composts, rotating crops may not be as important as if you were not building and mulching.
Once again, you offer information I never knew–thanks so much for educating me and others!
You said it all.
Thanks for your comments Sara and Guitar Players Center (Danny).
This all sounds well and good, i can totally unerstand the benefits of leaving the soil undisturbed. But here in Arkansas, at least where my garden site is, bermuda grass is the problem. I have been fighting the bermuda for about 5 years, and think i am slowly winning, each year we seem to have less of it. But it seems to me if i don’t till the bermuda comes back with a vengeance. I’ve had my entire family of five scouring the garden pulling up bermuda roots.
Another question is, how do you prepare the soil for planting of small seeds if you don’t at least till a little with a hoe or garden rake?
Thanks for your comment Mike. I had trouble with specific practices when I first went no till. I understand completely. Some of this will take a leap of faith until you learn the why of it. I think you might be a show me kind of person, so I recommend you read the book Teaming With Microbes, The Organic Gardener’s Guide To the Soil Food Web, by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.
To answer your question, in order to deal with bermuda grass (we have it here too), or any other grass that is where your garden is going to be put cardboard down and then build your soil up. My friend Susana Lein recommends the layer cake method which is cardboard then manure and leaves. The cardboard will effectively block out the sun. By the time the leaves and manure have decomposed the cardboard the Bermuda grass will be dead and composted. I use the lasagna layer mound recipe for first gardens and that has cardboard or lots of newspaper below. You can see the recipe as well as diagrams I made for that mound in the No Dig No Till Way category.
For the walkways between the gardens and on all sides of the gardens also put cardboard and then what ever you use for mulch. I use pine straw because I can find lots of it, and over time as it breaks down it helps my calcareous soil to become more acidic.
Preparing soil for seeds is easy no till style.. first, always keep your soil covered up with mulch. Use leaves, straw or hay or grass clippings rather than wood mulch. Then at seed planting time just pile on a thin layer of sifted compost and plant into it, and then very lightly cover it over with something like shredded leaves, or very short light grass clippings or short clipped hay. As your seedlings come up and as you thin them you can be more positive with the mulching. You might also try a winter cover crop on your beds, then just cut it down as soon as you have seeded the first crop. The soil will stay busy growing what you put there instead of bermuda grass.. You will also find that heavily mulched soil is light, so that even bermuda grass has trouble hanging on to it if pulled.
Trust Mike that if you build your soil always up, keep it mulched, and do your best not to disturb it (how do we get our potatoes and peanuts out of the ground without disturbing it?) you will have better yields, and fewer weed problems, and fewer backaches from your gardening activities.
So fun to have found your blog Adina! I have a question. We would like to expand our garden out into virgin land. This is Colorado high plain desert ground that has never grown anything planted by man. However, it is compacted hard from human and animal (such as deer) traffic. The soil is pretty much 100% clay. Do you think a lasagne mound would work or do you think it would be best to break the ground up once with tilling?
By the way, I love Teaming with Microbes. Early in the spring my first gardening task is to re-read the book.
Thanks for your comment Sally, Teaming With Microbes is an easy book to love. I am glad it is making the rounds. We really need that understanding to do right by mother nature. Thanks also for visiting my blog.
I don’t think you need to till. Susana Lein in Kentucky is growing on shale and clay with no top soil, and she just piled on the organic matter, leaves and manure mostly, that’s her layer cake garden vibe, and she grows lots of food every year that way. So I feel sure that you can just put lots of stuff (the lasagna garden mound will work beautifully), on the soil such as it is, and the organisms will live in that, and they will eventually penetrate that clay, and bring organic matter, air and water down as they go. If you want to improve a great deal of land you can make your own organic mulch by planting heavily in grass and legume crops, and cutting them down regularly to add the organic matter to the soil. I read a book by Masanobu Fukuoka in which he wrote that one of the ways that he had improved clay soil on his land was by planting lots of daikon radish. That large cylindrical radish grew right through the clay. If left in the ground it leaves a pocket of organic material from which the organisms can start their work.
Best of luck to you on your garden expansion. I look forward to hearing how it goes.
I’m responding nearly a year later as I just found your fantastic site, Adina! I’ll enthusiastically second this method for defeating bermuda and nasty burr grasses. The only weeds in our veggies are dropped by nearby trees, birds and squirrels and our volunteer veggies far outweigh the number of undesirable weeds.
Thanks for your support Tori, It is great to hear from others who don’t disturb the soil!