My first trip out into the garden always fills me with a little giddy feeling. Besides the obvious excitement of knowing the months of bounty and beauty that lie ahead, I’m actually most excited by the immediate task at hand- turning the soil. For years after my first introduction to gardening, one of my most favorite tasks was to turn and prepare the soil. I loved the feeling of the pitchfork loosening the hard ground and the experience of turning a brown, weedy, lumpy mess into a smooth crumbly bed of loamy, enriched, ready-to-plant soil. So you can imagine my utter dismay when I first learned of the “no-till/no-turn” method of gardening. “No-till, no-turn,” I thought to myself, “Where’s the fun in that?” How can you possibly plant a garden bed after a season of snow and rain that has compacted the soil and encouraged the growth of thousands of tiny baby weeds at the start of spring? Well, it seems that you can do just that.
More and more people have begun to try this method of no-till/no-turn planting, and not just to save their aching backs, but because it has proven to be a great way to keep weeds completely out of your garden. Here are a few principles of this technique you can begin to implement in your own garden:
Keep the weeds buried: Minimizing the amount of soil disruption you do to your garden not only helps to preserve the soil’s natural layers, but also helps to keep the countless number of dormant weed seeds below the surface. Each time you turn the soil, or bring the sub soil from below to the surface, you expose these weeds to light, air, and moisture, aiding in their germination. It is important to keep this thought in mind each time you go to work the soil. In the late fall, when you go to clean up spent plants or weeds, you want to pull them out of the ground with as little soil disturbance as possible. If the root is very deep in the ground, it’s best to first cut the plant off, and then use a garden knife or dandelion tool to break the stems just below the surface. For small weeds, lightly grazing a scuffle hoe across them to cut them at the base helps.
Build up the soil: It’s hard to see how you can enrich your soil if you aren’t turning compost into it each season before you plant. The trick with the no-till/no-turn method is to build your soil layers up. Rather than investing your time weeding throughout the season, it’s actually best to spend that energy helping generate compost to add right to the top of your garden. But what about getting nutrients way below the surface? Many folks believe that the most important nutrient searching roots of plants, even large trees, remain close to the surface of the soil. As long as you set your plant into a spot that has a few good inches of rich compost, your plant should get most of what it needs. Additionally, those nutrients will seep deeper into the soil each time you water or it rains. Your soil layer will continue to be enriched with each new layer of mulch you put down. The benefits of mulching are amplified when gardening with the no-till/no-turn method. Mulch helps build up the soil layer, protects and enhances the surface of the garden, keep moisture in, and continues to suppress the growth of weeds. Building up the nutrients, rather than turning them in, is much the way Mother Nature does it with each layer of leaves she drops on the ground.
Walk this way: Avoiding compacting your soil is important no matter what your method of gardening is, and is especially important with no-till/no-turn. Because you won’t be turning the soil each season to fluff, you want to pay special care not to walk on the areas you have designated for planting. First, you need to make sure you clearly define which areas are for planting and which areas are for walking. Take care only to walk on your path and not step in the garden area.
Not every garden site will be an ideal setting to jump into the no-till/no-turn way of gardening. And for some sites it may take a year or two of continued soil growth to really get the completely weedless and bountiful garden you’ve dreamed of. However, if you’re just starting out, you can help supplement your plants’ growth with compost teas and organic liquid fertilizers if you fear that your plants are not getting enough nutrients. For areas that have a very acidic, wet, rocky, or hardpan soil, some initial work may need to be put in. “Lasagna gardening” is a great way to build upon an unruly garden bed and to start a plot of land not yet worked.
Like all gardening methods in the world, there are some folks who will swear by no-till/no-turn and others who won’t touch it with a ten-foot pitchfork. For my part, though I miss tilling, no-till/no-turn has helped to keep weeds down in my neck of the field.
Until next time, keep growin’.