The No Till No Dig Way: Why Soil Should Not Be Disturbed

Do Not Disturb

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!