• Hometalker
  • Lewistown, MT

Why You Absolutely MUST Do a NO-Till Garden

This last year I was told, rather bluntly, “Forget everything you know about gardening and start over” and I haven’t forgotten those words.

It wasn’t only that those words sent a spike of curiosity up my spine, but the reasoning behind them.

I was learning about a new method of gardening: the no-till method.

Now, my husband jumped right in on the idea, “No tilling? OK! You don’t have to convince me!” His job each spring was to till my garden and my job was to…nag him…until it was done.  There is only a limited amount of time in Montana before summer is in full heat and snow is just around the corner, you know? So if tilling was in the plans, it had to be done…without delay.

why you absolutely must do a no till garden

Our exactly 90 days, 7 hours, 5 minutes and 32 seconds of summer makes for a fast and furious few months of planting, tending, harvesting, canning…and falling in a heap because we have had to check off a complete summer to-do list that most people have the luxury of finishing in 6+ months.
And my garden? Well…The forgotten bean stalks, the stubs of corn, the wilted tomato plants all accumulate a pile of snow through the winter months in the exact place they were planted because there just wasn’t enough energy to get it all done and cleaned up in the fall.

why you absolutely must do a no till garden

So, boy was it music to my ears when I heard, “That’s OK. In fact, it’s great because the roots are adding organic matter to the soil and are also helping break it up and will make great mulch when you cut off their tops in the spring.”

It didn’t take much convincing to adopt this new method, I mean, no tilling and not feeling guilty at the end of the garden year for not getting it cleaned up? I’m in!

But I’m here to tell you there’s more.

more  reasons you should begin a no-till garden.

why you absolutely must do a no till garden

But first, why is there a problem with tilling your garden?
  • When the soil is turned, it leads to a 90% loss of the decomposing crop from the previous year. Your garden needs that decomposing organic matter to keep it healthy!
  • The soil is exposed to all the elements. Wind and rain are the most devastating, causing the soil to be blown or washed away.
  • Although there is one benefit to tilling: disrupting the life cycle of the weed, it is very labor intensive because most plots will need to be tilled several times before planting begins. 
  • Tilling also creates a hard pan, just below the depth of the tiller, that you don’t want under your garden.
  • And the entire underground environment for all the bugs and fungi is disrupted…you want to keep your worms happy, right? Then you better stop tilling.

Does that convince you to  begin to stop  tilling your garden?

why you absolutely must do a no till garden

Before we delve into the 5 reasons you should stop tilling your garden, what exactly is “no-till gardening”?

Your goals with this method are as follows:
  • Disturb your garden soil as little as possible
  • Keep the soil completely covered with mulch. Not one speck of dirt should be seen if you were to fly over your garden plot in an airplane. (That  would  be fun, wouldn’t it?) The key to mulching is using  lots of mulch. It needs to be thick enough that the weed seeds cannot germinate and grow through the barrier. 
  • You may need as much as 8-10 inches of straw, leaves or grass. Always be aware of where your mulch is coming from and how it was treated. If you layer your garden with chemical laden straw or grass, you may end up hurting your soil more than helping. 
  • Using cardboard or newspaper as a base layer will allow you to use less organic matter on top of the cardboard.
  • Do not walk on the planting areas. Make paths to walk on in the garden area and use a board to stand or kneel on as you are planting. This will keep the soil from becoming compacted. 
  • Implement companion planting by planting in communities. In each gardening section, “stack” your plants by planting the tallest plants in the back and stair step down to the smallest plant. 
  • At the end of the garden season, the roots are left in the ground and the leaves and stems are used as more mulch. 

And above all else, always keep this in mind: What is nature doing? What is happening naturally in your area? Use those practices in your gardening. 

why you absolutely must do a no till garden

I bet you are just itching to know more. What else does the no-till gardening method do for your soil  and for you?

You can read those five reasons in the link below. Happy gardening!

After writing this all up, I’ve convinced myself again why this no-till method is the absolute best for my garden.

Are you convinced as well?

why you absolutely must do a no till garden

It may be hard to hear, “Forget everything you know about gardening, and start over”  but I’m telling you, you will be glad you did.  And in those warm summer months, when the window is open and the breeze is slowly breathing the curtains back and forth…listen closely, you just may hear the delighted, “Squeee!” of all the happy worms and fungi making your garden the best place to be and the very best it can be!

Want more details about this and other DIY projects? Check out my blog post!


Have a question about this project?

3 of 4 questions
  • Carol42
    on May 1, 2017

    unfortunately, lots of weeds also got into the gardens since fall & now it's Spring, so looks like without tilling there will be lots of hard work trying to pull weeds, etc. by hand?

    • Delci
      on May 2, 2017

      You're right, it added some characters at the end when I posted it. Maybe I'm not allowed to add a link? If you delete the last portion past the last / it will take you there correctly. Sorry!

  • We're in a rental with a huge backyard, but no "garden plot". Is it possible to start on a piece of ground that's covered in grass?

    • Delci
      on May 6, 2017

      My straw grew some too. But the cool thing is that it is really easy to pull and it can be added as more mulch when pulled :)

  • Cher
    on May 8, 2017

    Something else you didn't mention about tilling is that while doing so you unearth additional weed seeds below the earths surface! Like trading in your old weeds for new ones!!! Lol... If the soil in your established garden feels compact you can, without disrupting too much positive worm and insect life beneath the soil, use a garden fork (not a pitch fork-google it!) to loosen the soil. Push the garden fork into the soil at a angle (as if digging a hole) and slightly push down on the handle only an inch or two. This will help loosen the soil for better aeration allowing better penetration of water and oxygen to the roots of the plants you install this season.

Join the conversation

2 of 45 comments
  • Tawny
    on May 5, 2017

    This is also called lasagna gardening

  • Aprille
    on May 27, 2017

    I live in Massachusetts I had this exact same garden for many years. I never used grass cuttings. I did have a leaf chipper and in the fall I would chop the leaves and add throw them on top of the mulch. I NEVER used hay. All you're bringing in is seeds for more hay. Always use straw or some other organic material. My parents lived on Cape Cod. After a storm at sea a lot of kelp would wash up onto the beach. My dad and I would go to the beach and gather up the kelp, bag it, and I'd bring it home to top dress the mulch on my garden. (All the cats in the neighborhood thought there was fish to be had and came running over to investigate my garden. LOL) A few times a week I would bury my garbage under the mulch. I included coffee grounds, egg shells, vegetable skins, and even peach pits, orange and cantaloupe rind and seeds - I got volunteer cantaloupe plants the next year - even potato plants that grew more potatoes. I didn't even have to disturb the dirt, just place it on top of the dirt under the 6 to 8 inches of mulch. I rarely had to water the garden in the summer heat because the mulch kept the soil moist but not soggy. The only additive I ever used was to add lime over the mulch at the end of the season - November or so and sometimes bone meal. My garden was a delight.

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