Tilling soil is supposed to improve soil structure, but consider the myriad of soil life that is disrupted every time we till. If we avoid tilling, soil organisms can thrive undisturbed. This is good news for plants, and allows for a more natural balance between soil pests and their predators to develop.
Tilling isn’t even necessary when creating new beds. Simply clear the soil surface of any debris and rocks. Mow grass and weeds close to the ground. Place a layer of well-rotted organic matter such as compost or manure on top at least 4 inches deep. This will suppress weeds and provide a nutrient-rich growing medium for roots to grow into.
Make your beds no more than 4 feet wide to avoid ever needing to step on the soil. This means the soil is less likely to become compacted, which lessens still further the need to till.
For paths, lay thick cardboard between the beds, then cover it with bark chips or similar.
Popularized by organic gardener Paul Gautschi in his ‘Back to Eden’ method, materials such as woodchips can be used to mulch beds. First, lay a thick layer of paper or cardboard and then 4 inches of compost as described above. Add 2 inches of woodchips on top. Avoid mixing the two layers. To plant, simply push aside the woodchips and plant into the compost below.
The top layer slows evaporation and feeds the soil. Other organic matter such as hay can be used instead of woodchips if you prefer.
In no-till gardening, mulching replaces tillage. Regular mulching protects the soil surface from erosion, helps retain soil moisture and suppresses weeds. As they rot down, mulches enrich the soil while at the same time improving its structure.
Suitable mulches include compost, leafmold, woodchips, grass clippings, straw, hay, and sawdust.
Regular mulching smothers weeds, and because weed seeds in the soil are never brought to the surface to germinate by tilling, you should over time see a drastic reduction in the amount of weeding required.
Learn more about no-till gardening in this video.
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