Use No-Till Gardening Techniques for a Low-Work Garden

Reader Contribution by Sheryl Campbell and The Lazy Gardener
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The Campbells no-till, low-work garden after the first couple of years.
Photo by Sheryl Campbell

When we first moved to the country I excitedly turned my hand to raising vegetables. We bought a rototiller with which I turned the soil in a small, neglected garden plot between our house and the shed. I had very little prior experience at growing anything but figured it couldn’t be that difficult. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

The biggest thing I didn’t know was how much work it was to garden traditionally. Surrounded by every imaginable weed, my new plot was the perfect breeding ground for weed seeds. After I had spent every morning all summer hoeing in that little garden, my husband informed me that I was not allowed to create any more garden area until I could figure out how to garden with less work. My middle-aged back was in full support of him!

Hoe, hoe, hoe!
Photo by Pixabay/deanmoriarty

I spent that winter reading everything I could find about gardening with less work. It turned out to be a fairly popular topic in garden publishing! If you too are tired of the constant, back-breaking work of hoeing and rototilling, read on to learn how to use no-till gardening techniques.

Approaches to No-Till

There are a number of approaches to the no-till method. Most popular among home gardeners are those of Ruth Stout and Lee Reich. We used ideas from both of these wonderful gardening pioneers, but found that modifications were necessary to both their systems to create the truly low-work garden we desired. Go here to read more about Ruth Stout’s System for Gardening and Lee’s method to Maintain a Weedless Organic Garden.

The system we’ve developed over the past decade in our never-tilled, permanently mulched garden is based on:

  • disturbing the soil as little as possible
  • rejuvenating the soil
  • mulching with weed deterrent toppings

This method costs us one third of using Ruth’s full system. Using slow and lazy methods to create compost (more on composting later this summer) allows us to use Lee’s ideas without so much physical effort.

 

Undisturbed raised beds
Photo by Sheryl Campbell

Create a No-Till Vegetable Garden

Follow this process to create your own no-till/low-work vegetable garden:

Undisturbed Soil

  • Use a metal rake to scrape the existing soil into a series of 3-foot wide beds separated by 1.5 foot walkways
  • Never walk on the beds – only on the walkways
  • Keep the walkways weed free by placing several inches of straw over them
  • Be careful when harvesting root vegetables to gently lift each tuber while shaking the loose dirt back into the hole

Soil Rejuvenation

  • Top the new beds with a couple of inches of finished compost each spring
  • Top half the beds with 6 inches of rough compost each fall rotating so that the other half the beds receive rough compost the following year (don’t plant root crops in the beds that received rough compost the prior fall or sow bugs will ruin the harvest)

 

Weed-deterrent mulches.
Photo by Sheryl Campbell

Weed-Deterrent Mulches

Straw provides excellent winter and summer insulation and weed deterrence. Following final harvest in the fall or winter, top each bed with 4-6 inches of fluffed straw.  Straw stalks are hollow and don’t compact, while they do retain air providing for good winter insulation of the soil. Straw is slow to decompose and doesn’t tie up nitrogen or other soil nutrients. It also stops the spread of diseases caused by rain splashing soil onto plants.

Grass clippings add nutrients while recycling a waste product. Collect all grass and weed clippings (before seed set!) instead of throwing them away. Scatter them lightly over freshly seeded beds, or lightly place them around the base of tomato plants.

Finished compost also eliminates the growth of weeds. When transplanting tender seedlings, place some extra finished compost around the plant to give it a boost of nutrients and cut out weed competition.

 

Enjoying the garden.
Photo from Sheryl Campbell

Work Less – Enjoy Your Garden More!

Now you’ve created your own low-work garden using easy no-till gardening techniques. You’ll have more time now to focus on new ways of cooking the wonderful vegetables you are growing, and more time to relax and simply enjoy your garden.


Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth GardenerandGrit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWSposts here.


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