I gave up rototilling my garden several years ago. I had read a number of explanations and methods for it at the time. It sounded too good to be true, but worth trying. The tiller we had worked fine, but it was large and bordering on dangerous for me to haul up into a raised bed. It was difficult for me to keep under control when it was running, plus it ended up making dirt spill into my brick pathways. Besides that, I had just over an acre to deal with. Before going to the expense of buying a “ladies” rototiller, or risking shoulder and back injury trying to get it done manually, I decided to try the no till approach.
It was based on ideas like this:
- There is a structural balance that develops in the soil that is unnecessarily disturbed when churned by a rototiller.
- Turning the dirt exposes and stimulates new weed seeds.
- There is no evidence that plants grow better when the soil is tilled every year.
It might make sense to give your ground a good turning if it is your first year gardening in that location, or if it seems unusually hard packed. With large areas of brick-like clay, you might need to dig it out and replace it for good. However, if you can’t or don’t want to rototill for some reason, you might be surprised how well your garden does without it. If it means the difference between planting or not, or avoiding injury, or simply lack of time, you may find that your garden does decently anyway. At least, I can say that that has been my experience. (click on any photo to enlarge)
There were a few garden areas that had some soil brought in, thanks to the helpful labor of my husband and his crew of small children. He does not like to garden, so when he does help me, it is special. There were other places where animals lived for a while, before it became garden real estate. But there were at least as many garden areas that had nothing done to them before I planted. Sometimes I removed the layer of sod and planted. Other places were un-landscaped sections of clay and weeds.
What I did do was begin mulching. With whatever I could get my hands on. This was often plain old grass clippings, despite their need to still decompose. Other times it was leaves from our mature trees. Once in a while I would get to buy a couple cubic yards of compost or organically active soil to top dress with. In the last few years, we have had our own goats some of the time, and chickens a lot. I have mulched with their composted manure, but it is not enough to cover my whole garden. It is common for it to have straw mixed with it.
It is rare that have I mixed any of these amendments into the soil where I was putting it. With just over an acre to tend, getting that done has been low priority. I have never gotten the whole acre ALL mulched in a given year. More likely, many areas only get mulch every few years, except my raised beds for vegetables, which would usually get something about every two years.
The result is that the soil in all of my regularly used garden beds is all about the same, regardless of what degree of treatment it got. Most of it loose, dark, and smells good! Even the stuff with lava rock remnants is workable. It is not difficult to work the weeds out, and the plants are thriving. For all of my garden beds, I can weed fairly soon after a soaking rain, because the good drainage means it isn’t so mucky.
It is true that there is always some natural movement of the soil when I plant, weed, dig root crops, or do general end-of-year garden clean-up. But it is not a thorough turning and it is not everywhere. I weed with a spading fork, trying to only loosen the soil as much as needed to pull the weed free. I do avoid walking on my garden beds any more than necessary, and when I do, it is usually barefooted. I also vary where I walk to keep from compacting one spot too much.
I obviously like to play in the dirt, but when I do, I want it to involve seeds or plants. I don’t have any need to wrestle a machine that makes loud noises. I get enough of that with the lawn mower and the grass trimmer. Maybe I should use my old tiller for garden decoration or a trellis, like they do with old tractors. A memento of days gone by.