The No-Till Method has some merit to it. Though it requires a little more patience and understanding of the way soil-building works, it also sounds a lot less frustrating than trying to dig up, overturn, and weed your garden patch, as there’s never been a stretch of garden impervious to weed-growth.
As I have been converted to the magic of no-till gardening, I have experienced many benefits of this gardening method in my food forest within the first year of switching to no-till gardening.
1. Every time you till, you kill millions of microbes and soil bacteria that support plant growth
Discovering this hurt my feelings a little bit. What do you mean I’m responsible for the death of millions of microscopic lifeforms every time I decide to put a hole in the earth and add another tree to my food forest?
While digging is said to be less harmful than rototilling your soil because digging does not necessarily require chopping every chunk of soil into a zillion, smaller pieces to make it easier for plant roots to fight their path through the ground, it is still harmful anytime you expose the soil microorganisms to too much light and air as they need to stay moist and in the dark to survive.
2. Tilling “propagates” weeds and unwanted grasses and supports weed growth
Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to pick at your acne because it’ll only make it worse? Well, think of tilling in your edible landscape as destroying every pimple during an acne breakout.
One of the methods of propagation includes cutting rhizomes to start new plants. This is what happens when you till. You’re creating a hundred thousand more cuttings of whatever sinister grass or weed you are trying to get rid of, ensuring that the weed problem will never go away.
3. Tilling destroys the network of existing roots in the soil
Existing roots in the ground are constantly working to aerate the soil by taking up space that allows rain water and air to follow the pathways of those roots down deep into the ground where other roots can also benefit from them. You can think of tilling as throwing away your plant-friend’s hard work to add more air and water to the soil.
Having existing roots in the ground also helps new plants to settle in. This is one of the concepts that is explored through companion planting as you plant multiple plants together in what is known as plant guild to help support each other’s growth. For example, by planting comfrey next to a fruit tree, the fruit tree can follow the pathways and loosened soil pockets created by comfrey’s aggressive root system and settle into the ground much quicker, but, if you chop up the comfrey into 37 comfrey plants while tilling the ground, the comfrey plant not only has to start over by building a new root system, but you will have also created a whole field’s worth of comfrey plants, leaving less space to grow other herbaceous plants as it is difficult for smaller plants to compete with comfrey’s vigorous growth habit.
Okay, what can I do to improve my soil if I’m not supposed to be tilling?
There are many things you can do to improve your soil, not only for the future, but today without damaging existing root systems or destroying tons of beneficial soil microbes that help to keep your plants healthy.
Mulching your edible landscapes, gardens, and food forests not only helps to lock in moisture so that whatever rain or water enters your gardening space remains there for a longer amount of time, it will also break down over time to soften the soil and add more nutrients to your soil for future plant growth.
Adding Worm Castings Or Compost
If you need nutrients TODAY, there is also the option of adding worm castings or compost as a top dressing and watering it in or waiting for rain. This allows your worm castings or compost to work its way into the existing soil, moving into the cracks and crevices and giving a wonderful place to start seeds that will have immediate access to lots of nutrients.
Okay, but what if I need to plant something in my no-till garden?
See what I’m working with?
This soil is a hard, dried up, crusty mess of hard-packed clay.