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No-Till Gardening For Vegetable Gardens

By Jim Binnings, CCMGA Master Gardener

As a vegetable gardener, I have this dream of going out to my vegetable garden and seeing an almost weed-free garden; the veggies are big and healthy, the soil is a rich black color, slightly moist, and when I turn the soil with my trowel, I am greeted by earthworms who are annoyed that their day has just been disrupted. But the reality is I have more weeds than I want, a lot of my vegetables look a little small for their age, my soil looks more like common dirt, and when I turn the soil with my trowel, I only have pill bugs. Oh well! I am not complaining! I garden all year round and usually have a decent return for my time and effort because I have added some fertilizer. But like the optimistic gardener I am, I read, talk to folks, and experiment, hoping to achieve a better and more sustainable outcome at harvest time.

There are a lot of different ways to grow vegetables. I am looking for an organic method that does not require synthetic inputs. I also want to attract beneficial insects. As natural a garden as I can get. Last year, my experimenting led me to regenerative or no-till gardening. I would like to tell you a little something about no-till gardening. I hope to help you add some new tools to your gardening tool belt by giving you something new to consider as you work in your vegetable garden.

What is no-till gardening?
As the name implies, no-till gardening advocates that the gardener quit turning the garden soil and let the organic material in the soil break down naturally. Basically, disturb the soil as little as possible. The soil turning interferes with the natural processes the earth has used since plants first came into existence. By not turning or tilling the soil, worms and other small insects can better create humus and dig tunnels for air and water. The millions of microorganisms in the soil can better exchange the carbohydrates they get from munching on organic matter for the macro and micronutrients they release into the soil during meal time. In the past, no-till or regenerative farming/gardening has been associated with farms with large tracts of land. Years later, no-till gardening is making its way into our backyards.

The Pros and Cons
The pros include no more digging or tilling, fewer weeds over time, soil temperatures not oscillating as much on those hot and cold days, and the soil's moisture retention will increase. Less fertilizer is needed, the nutrients circulate naturally, and the soil's PH level becomes more stable. The plants become healthier, yield increases over time, and the garden attracts more beneficial insects. And to help fight global warming, the garden will become much more effective at sequestering carbon. The cons are no more digging or tilling (some gardeners find this activity therapeutic), no-till gardening takes a few seasons to get up and running, and some new skills that will need to be learned. If you are not tilling or turning your garden, your bed will look messy, which can be problematic for those who value a tidy garden. And lastly, finding a continuous supply of quality organic matter can be a problem for gardeners who live in an urban area and this fact will require the supplemental use of fertilizer.
The rest of this discussion assumes you already have a garden and want to know how to move your garden toward a more natural and sustainable one. The key to having a successful no till garden over time is to keep the soil covered as much as possible with organic material and to turn the soil over as little as possible. Below are two no-till methods that can be used.

Compost Method
The compost method is relatively simple. Once a year, add two inches of "high quality" compost to the top of your garden bed. If you let your garden go fallow in the winter (dormant), add the compost in the fall so it has time to start breaking down. You should use as high a quality compost as your budget will allow. The higher the compost quality you use, the more nutrients and minerals you will have available for your garden. The ideal compost needed for this method is finished compost. Characteristics of finished compost are an earthly smell, it is black or dark brown, it is crumbly, and it has good moisture retention. Some gardeners call this nutrient-rich compost "garden or black gold." When using this method, you may have to add an organic fertilizer to get the good results you want if you can't consistently use high-quality compost.

You never turn the compost at all. At planting time, you simply sow the seeds or place the transplants in the garden as you normally would. At the end of the growing season cut the plants down to the ground but leave the root ball in the ground for the microorganisms to eat and to add biomass.

Lasagna Method
The other method is the lasagna method; as the name implies, you add layers of organic material to your garden. You need to add layers of green organic material (nitrogen) and brown organic material (carbon). You are basically composting in place. The trick here is to find enough of both types of organic matter to create a thickness of 5-6 inches to start. Sources of materials are grass clippings from a yard where chemicals are not being used, harvest debris from last season's crop, and weeds before they have gone to seed. Seaweed, straw, leaves, hay, aged manure, and any yard waste generated during the year (be careful not to add any material treated with chemicals of any type). As this material breaks down, the original 5-6 inches will decompose and become 2-3 inches of compost. And you continue to do this every year. I think continuing to find this much organic material will be a challenge over time in an urban environment. This led me to add cover crops, aka green manure, to the mix of organic material I use in my garden.

What is a cover crop?
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (part of the USDA), "a cover crop is a plant that is used primarily to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds, help control pests and diseases, increase biodiversity, and bring a host of other benefits to your farm" ( Cover crops include common vetch, alfalfa, clover, oats, buckwheat, wheat, mustard, peas, and ryegrass. They are generally planted as a seasonal annual.

Besides not having to depend so much on other sources of organic material, adding cover crops adds the following benefits to a garden, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS):

  1. cover crops feed many types of soil organisms,
  2. cover crops increase the number of earthworms,
  3. cover crops build soil carbon and soil organic matter,
  4. cover crops contribute to better management of soil nutrients and
  5. cover crops help keep the soil covered.

For more on the NRCS' thoughts on cover crops, visit

The bed will look a little messy. You will have to develop a timetable for growing and cutting down your cover crops. And for the first few seasons at planting time, you will probably have to add a little finished soil and create a row to sow seeds. And you will have to add a little finished soil to a hole for placing your transplants in. At the end of the growing season cut the vegetables down to the ground but leave the root ball in the ground for the microorganisms to eat and to add biomass.

As I reread this article, I asked myself why someone would go to the trouble when they can buy a bag of fertilizer and a few bags of garden soil, mix all this together, and have a gardening mixture for growing vegetables? I get it! We live in an immediate gratification world and want everything now. Creating this garden mix will work just fine for a while. But just like the big commercial operations, the soil will deplete nutrients, and you will have to constantly add more and more inputs to get good, healthy vegetables. Why not take steps to return to a more natural way of gardening and have a more sustainable vegetable garden?

I hope I have given you something new to consider when gardening. Gardening in nature's image will take a little getting used to, but if you give no-till gardening a chance, some magic will happen in your garden.

Additional resources on no-till or no-digging gardening:
- Foundational tips for no-dig gardening
- Benefits and drawbacks of no-till discussed at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Field Tour
- To Til or Not To Till


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