Does No-Till Gardening Work with Hard Soil?

Reader Contribution by David Goodman
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Even after all her work, Elizabeth only has about 5 inches of decent material with a super-hard layer beneath.

No-till gardening is the hottest thing since faux wood panels on station wagons. It builds soil life, increases the worm population, allows fungi to create channels through the soil, and it makes you appear hip on the internet.

I’ve had great success with deep mulching hard ground in annual gardens and in food forests. Yet it doesn’t always work out the way you would like.

My friend Elizabeth has a beautiful garden in which she has practiced no-till gardening for three years. Yet she confessed to me that all is not well and she’s discovered some things that have made her question her deep mulch approach. I drove over to her house earlier this week and filmed a video where I let her share exactly the problems she was facing with drainage, roots not going deep enough and more.

You can watch that video here – it’s a beautiful garden, but you can also see the problems.

Beneath that layer of lovely mulch and humus, she has an almost impenetrable hardpan which floods during rains and fails to let roots go deep. In the video you can see what happens to daikons planted in her garden. Even that venerable hole-punching brassica is foiled by the rock-hard dirt! The same is true of sweet potatoes – they only like to grow in the top few inches.

Over the years I have found the good and the bad in many different gardening methods. The gardening tool kit is deep. What may work perfectly in one situation does not necessarily work well in ALL situations.

I had rocky clay soil in Tennessee which was loosened and turned into workable soil after a year of deep mulch/no-till gardening. Yet Elizabeth’s hardpan isn’t breaking up after three years.

When you see something that doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to adjust and change. Now that Elizabeth has borrowed my broadfork, she is breaking through the hardpan layer bed-by-bed and creating channels for humus and soil life to go deeper. With any luck, this will make next year’s gardens more productive and reduce the losses from standing water.

Some have commented that she “didn’t wait long enough” for the magic of no-till to do its work. That may be, but why would you want to wait for a long time to get decent yields? Especially in this era of Corona and other uncertainties. The idea of waiting for an indeterminate period of time just to stick with one system makes no sense to me. Not when we have families to feed.

Don’t let your preferred gardening practices control your life. When you see something that needs fixing – and there’s another method that can fix it, like broadforking the hardpan in a “no-till” garden – run with it!

The primary goal is growing your own food, not sticking perfectly to any one system.

David The Good is a gardening expert and the author of five books available on Amazon, including Totally Crazy Easy Florida GardeningCompost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting and Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival GardeningFind new inspiration every weekday at his website and on his YouTube channelRead all of David’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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