To Till or Not to Till

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My skin smells like earth and I love it. I wish I could come up with a way to capture this smell in perfume because I think I would wear it every day. The way my skin smells, however, is not the focus of my story, though it is the reason I smell like the dirt I will be writing about.

As a lot of you already know I have yet to be able to get my tiller started. I think it is crazy how equipment will literally be working one day and then be completely dead the next. Of course, it has sat in the barn all winter but I walked it, while running, into the barn last fall and I left it there. Did I somehow shift into some alternate universe over the winter where everything is backwards?

Because the garden will not wait for the tiller to decide whether it wants to be productive or not, I decided to practice the “no-till” method. Let me ask here too, am I the only one for whom it seems almost everything that has to be done on a homestead is done out of necessity? I don’t recall there ever being a time when I was just standing there and saying to myself, “I think I’ll do such and such today because I have nothing better to do with my time.” No, it has always been some pressing matter bearing down on me, and me having to attack these chores in matter of importance. Again, I digress.

So as I was pulling the weeds and turning the dirt by hand, I was wondering about the pros and cons to practicing “no-till.” I decided to do some research on it. Turns out no-till gardening is not just pulling your weeds by hand and turning the bed with a hoe and garden rake, it is a process of using multiple types of materials and creating compost right in the bed itself. What really attracted me to it was that it is the ultimate organic method of gardening. My first questions was, is it too late in the year to practice “no-till” and still have a productive growing season? I decided to start with the experts first.

Recently I signed up for a free seminar online that had multiple speakers over the course of three days talking about sustainable gardening and farming. While a few of the topics did not pertain to me, some did and one of them was a talk given by a staff member at Rodale Institute. I decided to go to their website to see what they had to say about the “no-till” method. A lot of their information was directed to farmers who grow on a massive scale, and they did press the need for a cover crop. Of course it is too late in the season for me to include this, but the good news is it is not pertinent in the beginning but something I will want to incorporate in the future.

I visited a couple of other websites, one being Wikipedia; don’t judge. In addition to the cover crop, I learned that cardboard and organic matter, such as mulch (i.e. leaves, grass, hay, etc.), layered in the garden bed is essential to the outcome. The depth of the layers seemed to vary but the average looked like around 2 feet. It is when these materials start to break down that the fun in the soil begins. The breakdown of the material adds important nutrients to the soil and attracts earthworms. Earthworms are important because of the waste that they leave behind. (Sidebar: Did you know an earthworm excretes his body weight in waste daily?)

Image: Layered mulch drawing courtes Greater Seacoast Permaculture Group 

While on my hands and knees weeding the garden and turning the soil, I noticed I had quite a number of earthworms in my beds, I took pains to make sure these little guys were tucked safely back into the dirt. I am lucky enough to work in a place where there is a shipping department that keeps a lot of ground-up cardboard, I will take some of this home, and along with my compost that has been “cooking” for a year, and I will begin the process of layering my beds.

As I said in the beginning, no-till gardening is more than just turning the soil by hand or pulling weeds. This will be a process throughout the summer but, like other processes, one that will continue to allow me to reap the benefits. I do look forward to getting my hands back into the earth and to see if I can pull this whole “no-till” thing off. I will keep everyone updated as to the progress of it and like always, if you have any suggestions for me please do not hesitate to get in touch with me. I need all the help I can get.


Rodale Institute

Natural News – Feeding the soil: An introduction to the no-till gardening method

Wikipedia – No-fill farming