How to Transition to a No-Till Garden
No-till gardening can dramatically improve soil health and reduce weed pressure. But transitioning to no-till may seem daunting. In this article, former no-till organic farmer Logan Hailey makes it simple by teaching you how to minimize soil disturbance and do less heavy lifting in the garden.
If you struggle with excessive weeds, compacted soil, poor drainage, or lots of disease pressure, transitioning to no-till could dramatically improve your garden’s health. No-till gardening, also known as no-dig, is a sustainable growing technique that reduces soil disturbance as much as possible.
When you stop overturning the soil, you improve its structure and promote beneficial microorganisms that improve crop health over time. Benefits include reduced weed pressure, higher yields, and greater soil fertility. Plus, it’s less work!
But how do you transition to no-till after years of rototilling, shoveling, or turning your soil over? Let’s *dig* into everything you need to know about switching to no-dig!
How Do I Prepare My Garden Soil Without Tilling?
When considering whether to till the soil or not, you must determine the practical steps behind each philosophy. Most of us are used to ripping out old plants and chopping up our soil (mechanically or by hand) to make a nice seed bed. But if you want to protect your soil health in the long run, switching to no-till or reduced tillage can dramatically improve your garden’s yields and resilience against weeds, pests, and diseases.
To prepare garden soil without disturbing it, try these techniques:
Leave the Roots
Instead of uprooting old crops, chop off their foliage while leaving the roots in the ground. Use pruners, loppers, a weed eater, or a lawn mower to remove the above-ground plant parts without disturbing the roots. Old roots can decay in place, creating more channels for air, water, and beneficial microbes. Avoid this method if there are any signs of plant disease or root rot.
Smother Grass and Weeds
Rather than rototilling a grassy patch or aggressively hoeing weeds, use a tarp to smother nuisance plants in place. Weigh down the edges with rocks or sandbags and wait a couple of weeks for the weeds to die off. The tarp ensures no sunlight reaches these unwanted plants, clearing the way for a nice clean bed to plant in.
Layer on the Compost
Quality-aged compost is a no-till gardener’s best friend! When you need to start a new bed or “flip” a bed (remove an existing crop and replant in its place), a 1-3” layer of compost is the easiest way to give you a fresh start after removing above-ground plant residues.
Use a Broadfork
A broad fork is a soil-aerating tool that sinks long tines into the soil and lightly fluffs it up. While it does disturb the soil a little bit, it is gentle enough to provide beneficial oxygenation while preserving the soil structure.
Benefits of No-Till
No-till growing is a core technique of regenerative agriculture because it helps improve soil health over time, boosting beneficial soil microbial communities and enhancing the ecological functioning of your garden.
The abundance of benefits include:
- Increased soil fertility: The constant additions of organic matter and decaying crop residues promote higher nutrient concentrations, meaning you don’t need to fertilize as often. No-till also ensures habitat for soil microbes, which are like an external digestive system for plants. The more microorganisms, the more nutrients become available for plant uptake.
- Better drainage: No-till is proven to increase soil infiltration by preserving air spaces in between particles. Water can easily flow through un-tilled soil because there are plenty of “pockets” to soak into. If you have problems with puddling or waterlogging, no-till methods can help.
- Reduced compaction: Tilling compacts your garden beds because it churns all the particles into small sizes, destroying the soil structure and causing sediments to settle in a hardpan layer. Think of it like putting a giant city into a Godzilla-sized blender. All the structures would be ground to dust. Alternatively, no-till preserves the thriving underground “city” of complex biological networks, keeping your soil fluffy and loamy.
- Reduced pest and disease pressure: Reduced soil disturbance means more diverse and thriving beneficial microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. These “good guy” microbes act like a soil-based immune system for your plants, preventing the “bad guys” from taking hold.
It’s such an effective method that many small-scale market farmers and large-scale commercial growers have moved completely away from tillage. Here is one farm Kevin visited in Nevada to showcase the effects of regenerative no-till growing:
10 Simple Steps to Transition to No-Till
As you start your journey to minimize soil disturbance, consider investing in low-impact hand tools like a broad fork, rake, pair of loppers, and an electric hedge trimmer or weed eater. Whether you plan to test out one no-till bed or switch your entire garden to reduced tillage techniques, these simple tools will make for a seamless transition. The following steps offer the quickest start to no-till growing.
Establish Permanent Beds
Establishing permanent beds is the first and most important part of moving away from tillage. For no-till techniques to work properly, you must create permanent garden beds where you never walk on the soil. Walking or running heavy equipment over your soil compacts it, causing problems with aeration, waterlogging, and hardpans that roots cannot penetrate.
Permanent beds only need to be established once, so the hard work is frontloaded. With raised beds, the process is very straightforward. For in-ground beds, it helps to line the beds with logs or mounded soil and have mulched pathways or stepping stones running between them.
If you are starting on hard native soil, use the methods below to smother grass or weeds, layer on compost, and use a broad fork to loosen up the lower layers. Then, try a lasagna-style method to mound up the bed with organic matter and topsoil.
Mow or Chop Down Residues
Once you have your beds laid out, you must remove any residue currently in them. In an established bed, this usually happens when harvests are complete, and you need to “flip” the bed to plant something new. For a new garden bed, you may have to use the tarping method described below to really smother any grass or weeds in the way.
Leave Root Systems Intact
A key tenet of a no-till garden is constantly keeping the soil covered and colonized by living roots. As long as you don’t have any soil-borne diseases (like root rot or club root), it’s best to leave crop roots intact rather than yanking them out. You do this by removing the above-ground foliage and leaving the roots in place to decompose.
As microorganisms break down the old crop roots, they leave many tunnels for water and nutrients to flow through. The result is fluffier, more aerated soil with improved structure. The remaining roots also provide a habitat where beneficial microbes can “hang out” while they wait for new plants to colonize.
For example, the nitrogen-fixing bacteria called Rhizobium are associated with leguminous plants like beans. Rhizobium assists legumes with forming and storing nitrogen in nodules on their root systems. If you leave bean roots in the ground, these bacteria continue making the stored nitrogen available to your other crops as they decompose. They can also navigate to another legume, like peas in the same bed, and assist with additional nitrogen nodulation in those legumes as well.
Tools for Removing Residues
A lawn mower, pruners, loppers, or weed eater are the best tools for removing above-ground crop residues without yanking out whole plants. If you have a lawn mower or flail mower, run it over the bed to chop up the leaves of low-growing crops like spinach, lettuce, basil, cilantro, and other greens. This creates a nice layer of decayed leaves (sort of like grass clippings) to mulch and quickly break down in place, supplying nutrients for the next crop.
If you need to terminate larger crops like tomatoes, kale, or broccoli, use sharp pruners or loppers to chop them off at the base. Export the upper foliage to your compost pile, or put it in the trash if there are signs of foliar disease.
If you don’t mind using motorized tools, a weed eater is also a great investment for a no-till grower. You can save your back by standing up straight and chopping crop residues at ground level, leaving their roots in place.
Repeat this process anytime you need to terminate or remove a crop. It’s also great for killing cover crops like rye or vetch to prepare your bed for planting.
Tarp and Smother
Tarping, or occultation, is a quick and easy method for smothering grass or weeds. It saves you so much backbreaking labor and doesn’t require disturbing the soil!
You simply lay the tarp over your bed and let it work its magic by blocking photosynthesis and killing any of the plants beneath it without using any chemicals! Better yet, it warms the soil more quickly in the spring.
To start occultation:
- First, invest in quality thick silage tarps made with garden-safe plastic like high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Be sure it is black or green so no light can get through.
- Lay the tarp over your garden bed or an area where you’d like to establish a new bed.
- Weigh the edges down with sandbags, smooth rocks, or bricks. Avoid anything sharp that may pierce the tarp and damage it, reducing its longevity.
- Leave the tarp in place for 1-2 weeks.
- In cases of extreme weed or grass pressure, lift the tarp up and water beneath it to signal the regrowth of existing root systems.
- Let the area stay exposed for a few days, then cover it with the tarp again.
- Leave for one week and, if necessary, repeat to exhaust the perennial root systems.
- When you remove the tarp, everything under it should be dry and dead.
This is an important method used by small-scale, no-till farmers to clear large areas without tillage. It is also vital for anyone with perennial weeds or grasses spread by rhizomes. If you tilled or chopped up those root systems, you could inadvertently spread them further around your garden.
Every little piece of perennial root or grass rhizome can grow into an entirely new plant through cloning! By ditching the tillage and using a tarp, you are reducing the aggressiveness of perennial weeds and halting their spread. Just be sure to mow or chop them to 4” tall or less before tossing the tarp over them.
When your bed is thoroughly cleared on the surface, it’s time to nurture your soil. Newly transitioned no-till beds usually need a lot of compost, but this expense will dramatically reduce over time. In the initial phase, I recommend adding a 2-4” deep layer of compost over the surface of every bed. In future years, you’ll only need a layer about 1” thick.
To make compost spreading easier, invest in a quality wheelbarrow and shovel or buy bags of compost that you can dump in place. When clearing a bed, you can minimize your hauling trips by loading the crop residues in the wheelbarrow, taking them to the compost area, and reloading with finished compost on the way back.
Make sure your compost is thoroughly aged and lightly moistened. It should not be hot or steamy, which signifies the compost is still breaking down. It should smell pleasant, and if there are any putrid or rotting odors, it may be a sign that the compost has gone anaerobic and could contain pathogens. In this case, you’ll need to mix the compost with more carbon-rich materials like straw or wood chips and let it break down further before adding it to the garden.
Lightly Hoe or Rake
A rake is the perfect way to smooth the upper layer of your bed and prepare it for planting. This gentle smoothing motion helps spread the compost without breaking up the chunks. Remember that a few clumps (also called soil aggregates) are a good thing for soil texture because they act like “soil glue” and hold onto more water. A slight pressure from your hoe or rake is fine for smoothing a new seed bed, but try not to chop the compost up too heavily.
If you are used to regular tillage-based growing, you may be tempted to mix the compost into the existing soil. Resist this urge! The compost can stay right on the surface to minimize disturbance. This allows organisms to do the hard work of incorporating the organic matter.
Worms will move upward and grab little pieces of compost to channel deeper into the soil. As long as you have aerated the lower soil layers, water will also penetrate the compost and help carry it downward over time.
Aerate With a Broadfork
A broad fork or digging fork are the best tools for a no-till grower. The long tines of these hand tools deeply aerate your soil without flipping over the layers, damaging its structure, or disturbing microbes. When the tines dive into the dirt, they add oxygen and air spaces. Simultaneously, they create channels for organic matter to seep deeper so you don’t have to blend it in.
Working with a broad fork requires the simple motion of dropping it in, stepping on the horizontal bar, and lightly pulling backward on the handles to lift the tines upward. Then, you move the broad fork back about a foot and repeat the process. For extra compacted or hardpan soil, choose a 14-16” deep broad fork. For raised beds or looser soils, 10-12” long tines are just fine.
In the first year or two of no-till, you may need to broad fork several times to break up soil compaction. Eventually, as the soil becomes looser and healthier, this tool puts itself out of a job.
You can broad fork before or after raking, depending on your planting schedule. If you’re direct-sowing seeds, I recommend a light raking after broad forking. If you are transplanting seedlings, you can go straight into the broad-forked soil so the new plants can penetrate their roots into the bed more easily.
Plant Your Beds
Planting a no-till bed is the same as your standard planting process. Fortunately, it should get easier to plant as the organic matter and texture improve. A hori hori is an excellent tool for making planting holes. Plunge the long blade into the bed to make a hole about twice as large as the seedling’s root ball. Place your seedling inside the hole and gently backfill. Avoid compacting or pressing down too harshly.
Remember, you want to maintain constant soil coverage in a no-till bed. If you aren’t growing a new succession of vegetables or fruits, seed a cover crop or deeply mulch the bed to protect the soil until you are ready to use it again.
Once a bed is planted, there is still exposed soil between your crops. Mulch ensures that weeds don’t grow up between your plants. Recall that nature always wants to cover her fragile soil surface. Bare soil is an invitation for weeds, so no-till systems rely heavily on mulch to suppress and smother weed growth.
Other benefits include:
- Keeping your crops off the soil (reducing rot)
- Retaining moisture (preventing evaporation)
- Adding organic matter and nutrients
- Cooling the root zone in the summer heat
Some of the best types of mulch include…
- Leaf mulch: Ideal for putting beds to sleep in the fall, leaf mulch locks in moisture and breaks down fairly quickly. It’s also great for pathways.
- Straw mulch: Finely chopped straw is great for mulching squash, brassicas, and berries. Make sure it hasn’t been sprayed with herbicides.
- Wood chips: Use this carbon-rich mulch in perennial beds. Avoid artificially dyed or chemically treated wood chips. Instead, source from a local arborist or organic nursery.
You can layer mulch several inches deep as long as it doesn’t suffocate your plants. Be sure to lay down your drip lines or soaker hoses before adding the mulch. When spreading mulch, avoid putting it right up against the base of your crops, as this can cause stem rot issues or attract slugs.
When your crop or cover crop reaches the end of its lifecycle, return to the first phase of bed preparation: remove above-ground residues, tarp, or mulch, and add compost to prepare the bed for a new round of plants.
A weed eater is one of my favorite tools for crop termination because it is easy on the body and chops up the residues into fine pieces. You can also use loppers, pruners, or a lawn mower as described above. Tarping is an excellent option for terminating weedy beds and getting a fresh start.
If you face a lot of soil-borne plant diseases, it is fine to rip up your crops and take them to the trash. Avoid leaving behind any diseased foliage or roots, as this can create issues down the road.
Rinse & Repeat!
This cycle can repeat itself forever once you get the hang of no-till bed management. As your beds get more established, you won’t need to add as much compost or broad fork as frequently.
In summary, a no-till-bed season looks like this:
- Establish permanent beds
- Mow or chop down residues to soil-level
- Lay a tarp over to smother grass and weeds
- Layer 1-4” of compost
- Rake smooth
- Lightly hoe any weeds
- Aerate with a broad fork
- Seed or transplant into your bed
- Add a nice layer of mulch
- Terminate crops by removing at the base and exporting residues
- Replant or cover crop to maintain continuous roots
- When a bed isn’t in use, mulch or tarp it
Transitioning to no-till may seem daunting, but it mostly takes a shift in mindset. Enriching your soil with more compost and mulch makes the process easier and easier. Passive tools like tarps and mulch are a no-till growers’ best friends for weed management and warming the soil.
Remember to work the soil as gently as possible when you need to hoe, rake, or terminate a crop. If you only disturb the upper 1-2 inches, the lower soil structure will be preserved, and your weed pressure will decrease over time. When in doubt, add another layer of compost!