Garden Tilling Soil – Alternatives To Tilling A Garden
Garden tilling is often done with a gas-powered rototiller that goes down perhaps 6 or so inches, or tilling soil can be done with a tool such as a pitchfork, too.
So what is tilling? However you do it, you’re turning the soil over so some of the lower soil comes up and some of the upper soil goes down.
To till or not to till has been a hot topic for decades and continues to this day. I’ve researched this extensively and find that arguments on both sides make a lot of sense.
I’ve also found personally that by correctly tilling a garden or following a no-till method, excellent results can be achieved.
The main reason tilling soil can be useful in the short term is to get organic matter incorporated into the soil of a new garden bed or a fallow vegetable garden.
If you’re preparing a new garden in a soil that is very low in organic matter, you might bring in 3-6 inches of compost and till it in as deep as a rototiller will let you.
You would do this knowing that it may take a few years for the soil structure to repair and produce a great crop, but it’s often worthwhile if the organic matter was low to begin with.
Garden tilling helps you get that organic matter down in there to create a deeper soil that encourages plant roots to go down. Double digging is another useful method to accomplish the same thing.
Research shows you can get more carbon and humus formation in tilled soil. I could see this being the case because most of this research is done on conventional (non-organic) farms.
No-till farming often uses a lot of chemicals that decimate the soil food web, so organic matter left on the surface isn’t going to break down. However, in soil with an abundant soil food web, earthworms, insects and fungi can get up on the surface and work on the organic matter.
Another argument for tilling a garden is that it gets the organic matter down into the soil where it can be broken down, whereas if it stays on top, more of the carbon is volatilized into the air. This is true.
But other research shows that if no-till is used with sufficient existing biomass, both the supply of nutrients and good soil structure can be maintained.
This is especially true if you have tilled in compost and green manures for the first couple of years to bring up that biomass.
In the long run, I am more likely to do just shallow garden tilling to a couple of inches deep, mostly by hand.
The main reason you might do this shallow tilling is to lightly incorporate the organic matter from a cover crop or this year’s veggies or compost, as this does hasten decomposition and promotes more humus formation and less volatization of carbon into the air.
If you stay shallow, you won’t have as detrimental of an effect on soil structure, dormant weed seeds, microorganisms and earthworms. Even still, do this minimally and carefully in order to limit the disturbance.
More and more I am sheet mulching to prepare a new garden bed, which involves layering organic matter 12 or so inches high right on top of the grass/soil. It takes longer for the organic matter to get down into the soil, but you don’t cause the drastic soil structure damage associated with tilling soil.
People have had great success doing this, but I mostly prefer to do it when I know I have a decent organic matter content in the soil already.
Something else I sometimes do for fun is do half of a bed with the garden tilling or double digging method and half with the sheet mulching method and see which does better over the years.
The other main reasons gardeners may till the soil are to: make the soil look fluffy and nice, allow more air and water into the soil, loosen and warm up the soil in spring for planting/seeding, reduce weeds, and relieve compaction. Tilling soil is generally a short term solution for all of these.
Reasons For Tilling Soil
1. One we can get rid of right away is “to make the soil look fluffy and nice,” not that the goal isn’t achieved, but that the goal is arguably unreasonable.
We have learned to think of bare, fluffy soil as being the most attractive look for our gardens.
I understand this – and tilling is a good fluffer-upper – but I also think leaf mulch and other mulches are attractive. That’s what you see in a forest, not bare soil or several inches of bark mulch for that matter.
As organic gardeners, one of our goals is working more with nature. It doesn’t mean we need to have a messy garden, but we definitely aren’t going for cleanliness like a living room floor.
If you want to put a wood mulch on to make it look tidy, it would generally be better to not use bark, and preferably it would be from hardwoods, not softwoods such as cedar and fir.
2. Another reason a person might end up tilling a garden is to allow more air and water into the soil.
This does happen in the short term, but the soil will eventually revert to its original structure because soil structure is a function of the soil texture, fertility and biology in the soil. It may even get worse if you burn up too much organic matter and kill all your fungi.
A similar reason for garden tilling is to loosen and warm up the soil for spring planting and seeding. This can be done lightly with a hoe or garden fork if you want, but there’s no need to slide and dice everything.
The long term solution for improving air and water is balancing the nutrient ratios, increasing organic matter and improving the soil food web. The details of how to do this are too long for one article.
The process can take a few years, so tilling soil during the transition may be worthwhile. Even better might be to do it manually with a garden fork to avoid the violent soil movement from a rototiller.
3. Yet another reason to till is to kill weeds. Again, this is a short term measure because the weeds are killed and new ones come in.
In fact, while annual weeds will have been killed, many perennial weeds may have been cut into pieces that all come back as new weeds. While your vegetable seeds now have perfect conditions in which to germinate, so do all of the weed seeds that were lying dormant lower down in the soil.
Farmers have developed various plows that are effective at knocking down weeds on the surface, but a rototiller is more muscle that is wanted for this purpose.
The gardener’s version of the farmer’s plow is a hoe. The long term weed management strategy is the same as up above – balancing the nutrient ratios, increasing organic matter and improving the soil food web – plus mulch and cover crops.
4. The last reason for garden tilling is to relieve compaction. As stated above, soil structure is not only a mechanical problem.
It’s a chemistry, biology and physics problem. We need to establish a healthy, diverse population of microorganisms and earthworms, build our humus and balance those nutrient ratios in the soil.
A balanced soil acts like a sponge. You can drive across it with a heavy tractor and it won’t compact. If the calcium to magnesium ratio is less than 7:1 and/or there is more than 70 ppm sodium, the soil will compact, but if we can get those numbers in line along with the phosphate to potassium ratio, compaction is gone. How to balance those nutrient ratios is a big topic.
So you can see how in the short term the above organic gardening goals are often satisfied, but other than the important goal of getting organic matter incorporated, tilling soil can sometimes cause more problems than benefits, especially if done often and if done too deeply.
The Problems Of Garden Tilling
The main disadvantage is the effect on beneficial microorganisms and earthworms, both of which are absolutely essential to the health of the soil.
Upon deep tilling a garden, some of the microbes that need oxygen are buried, killing many of them. Some of the microbes that can’t live with too much oxygen are brought to the surface, killing many of them.
Tilling soil causes the miles and miles of beneficial fungi to be sliced into pieces. Those fungi provided important nutrients to the plants, so that is no longer happening after tilling. Earthworms are also killed and their tunnels destroyed.
All of these critters had taken a long time to find the perfect spot for themselves in the soil. They worked day and night to build themselves little homes and communities. It can take years for this to happen and garden tilling destroys that all very quickly.
Perennial flowers, shrubs and trees prefer fungal-dominated soil, so if we’re trying to establish a shrub garden or grow trees, it makes sense to leave the mulch on the surface rather than tilling it in.
If we’re tilling our gardens, we cut these fungi all to pieces, resulting in a bacterial-dominated soil. This is more conducive to growing annual vegetables, but we still want some fungi in these soils, too.
Another big problem is that soil structure can be decimated if the soil is too wet, especially clay soil. Tilling soil when it is wet causes long term structural damage to the soil that can last for years. It’s much better to wait a couple of weeks and plant late, rather than working wet soil.
While the initial influx of air and water after tilling soil breaks down the organic matter more quickly – and releases nutrients to allow microbes and plants to flourish for a short time – that organic matter is oxidized faster than it is replenished.
Annual deep garden tilling without adding more organic matter can cause a gradual decrease in organic matter in the soil.
This decreases soil fertility, nutrient-holding capacity, water-holding capacity and hurts soil structure. If the soil is left bare, it can crust over so that water runs off and causes erosion instead of infiltrating.
So what is tilling good for? We can see that tilling a garden has advantages and disadvantages. Tilling can be successful in vegetable gardens over the long term if organic matter is brought in every time.
No-till and sheet mulching can be successful over the long term, especially if the soil had some humus to start with.
I think the main reasons people may believe strictly in one of these camps may be because the theory makes the most sense to them, or because they have had success using that method in their garden.
The bottom line is that one of the methods will work best in your garden, and a combination of the two may even be optimal. I may till in some compost in the beginning if my soil is very low in organic matter, and no-till and sheet mulch in future years.
I definitely opt for no-till long term in order to establish a healthy soil food web. You may want to experiment to see what works for you.
Interesting, right? Let me know your thoughts below.
Or for an alternative to tilling, check out my sheet mulching page.
Finally, a good excuse to get my husband to sell that rototiller that takes up so much room and rarely gets used. I much prefer the idea of leaving the earthworms alone and letting them till the soil.
Without having the science to back me up, I nevertheless, have rejected tilling because it seems so violent. I know the soil is full of life and I just can’t bring myself to go in there with cutting blades and disturb them. I am so glad to know my intuition was right on. Now, more about sheet composting please. Thanks so much for your sharing.
Yes, I’ll definitely have some more info on sheet composting in the newyear. I’m writing a book about organic soil management now and I like toflesh out ideas on my blog, so you’ll see something soon.
Very interesting, can’t wait to find out about the sheet composting. Perfect timing for my early spring garden.
Hello Phil,This is great information — very helpful. You mention about adding compost on top of grass when starting a new garden space. I have rejected the current method of adding newspapers and cardboard (layering) because of the inks (I can’t believe that all are soy based) and because of the chemicals used to make paper in the first place. Can you further comment or will this be covered in your book. Thanks for including me.Regards,Georgia
Hi Georgia,I’ve tried a few times to really get down to the truth when it comes to whatkind of chemicals are in newspapers and cardboard, but I’ve never found goodinformation. I do think most inks are soy based, but you’re right, who knowswhat else is in there. The reason I have felt okay, though, about usingnewspaper/cardboard in a sheet mulch is because microbes do break downtoxins, so if there is a tiny amount of toxic ingredients in there, theywill be taken care of.But obviously, we don’t want to add a bunch of toxins unnecessarily, and itmay be that skipping that first layer and just going right to the organicmatter is okay in a sheet mulch, especially if we’re building a nice highmulch. It is possible that more weeds will get through, but that’s not theend of the world.Phil
Even if the inks ARE soy based, they were probably made with GMO soy. Something to consider.
Excellent point. I guess we don’t know if there are still potential repercussions even after the soy has gone through this much processing.
Amen! We start new beds (and add to the old) by laying down corrugated cardboard and then straw and compost and leaves–whatever’ good–in the fall. I hurt enough worms just by digging the small holes for transplants in the spring. I have to apologize to enough of them then. Ever notice how they come to the surface and run away when you dig to plant? Tilling may get more into the soil deeper faster, but it’s murder on earthworms! I can wait for the worms to turn it all in the next year. It’s good enough the first year. Patience, patience…
This year when I was setting out tomato plants, for the first time in my life, I twice witnessed a worm sticking it’s head straight up out of the ground an inch or two, turn like a periscope, and go back down into the ground. It was so cute!! But I had obviously disturbed it just by sticking my trowel in the ground. I hadn’t even dug a hole yet!
I don’t have any worms in my compost bed…I guess I will buy come bait worms….
You want red wigglers, NOT bait worms. Especially if you live near a forested area, they will decimate it!
This is mostly not true. Most “bait worms” are European or Canadian Night crawlers. They are also great composting and gardening worms.
You are thinking of invasive worm species like Alabama Jumpers which are actually a worm native to Asia. They are not good for composting, but are occasionally sold for fishing.
Humm, I till a lot. I also grow sometimes 3 or 4 crops on the same space in a season. I very much like to grow garlic because I don’t always have to till (although I often do) but I then get to sheet mulch the beds with straw and then lay down a layer of manure in the spring. This suppresses spring weeds and make for a low maintenance crop. I’m growing 3300 square feet this year.But for most cases I’m trying to figure ways that I can clear a bed and only have to work the top inch or two of soil to make a nice seed bed for my next annual crop. If a put down compost with mulch on top of that and then transplant through the mulch into the compost/soil will I still loose some of the carbon in the compost through volatization? This is my plan for onions this year.
The compost has lost most of it’s carbon during the composting process. Thatsounds like a good plan you have there.
I love the idea of this. It’s funny that this is what I’ve intuitively known to be true all along, but I’ve let myself be swayed by other ideas. Tell me it’s okay to just leave leaves where they fall in autumn too. I find that they nestle all around the base of my perennials…perfect, right? The ones that refuse to cooperate get chopped up with the electric mower and put in the compost pile.
Perfect. Leave the leaves in autumn. One of the most important things you can do in the garden.
I have a raised garden that i have filled with bags of “organic Miracle Grow” soil, does this still apply to me? I have to add more dirt soon as i am going to be planting my fall/winter veggies.. should i use the same soil i bought last time?? I am VERY new to all this so any help is greatly appreciated. Thank you
Hi Nicki, is your question whether or not you should till in your new raised garden bed? Or if you should use Miracle Grow soil? Tilling is okay the first time you make a bed. In terms of the soil, I don’t know what’s in their soil, but I would make sure you get some good compost in your bed, too, as well as a good mulch of straw on top.
I have used the Miracle Grow organic soil before to fill a raised bed for a friend. After working for years in my own garden, it was definitely not high-quality soil, though if you can believe the label at least it wasn’t laden with chemicals. It felt quite sterile, to me – many potting soils are sterilized, to prevent diseases. But great garden soil is quite the opposite of sterile, it is teeming with life. You shouldn’t really need to add more soil to your beds, what you need now is compost, as Phil said. In order of preference, you should get some: 1. homemade compost made with veggie scraps and lawn waste, fully “finished” 2. composted manure from a local stable or small dairy – ask what source they use for carbon to balance the manure, and whether the animals receive antibiotics or other drugs regularly. 3. high-quality bagged compost such as Coast of Maine or whatever you can get locally. If you tear into the bag, it should be moist, sticky and smell musty and rich like leaf mold or the forest floor.Mix a good 2 or 3 inches of that into the beds, along with a dusting of greensand and any other minerals recommended by a soil test into the soil before you plant. Since you mentioned this is for a fall planting, once your transplants are in or your seedlings are tall enough not to get lost, top with a few inches of the fallen leaves as mulch. By spring, you’ll have soil you can be proud of, though it will always need more work 🙂
Great reply Merry, thanks. I agree with everything, although I would only use greensand if I knew I needed potassium, because too much potassium compacts the soil.
my winter vegetable gardens are all covered over in a thick blanket of rye grass for winter. ordinarily, i would till this under in spring, but i’m contemplating the idea you have sprung in me, to sheet compost right over the ryegrass rather than tilling.is it really practical to put my normal 2-3 in sheet of composted manure right over the rye, calcium lime/rock phosphate layer/epsom and then compost layer then mulch? leaving this a few weeks till planting time, i would then put the plants right in a hole thus prepared? is this an advantage then?
Normally a sheet mulch consists of a layer of cardboard or newspaper on the bottom and then 12 or more inches of organic materials on top, to really smother out the grass. And then it’s often left for at least a few months before planting. It’s not the most productive the first year, as it needs time to break down.And turning your rye grass in is okay, one of the cases where tilling is justified, but I would just try not to till deeper than you have to. You might want to take part of the garden to make a good sheet mulch, and do the rest the more traditional tilled way. It’s good to test things out before doing the whole bed.
I am 70 year old and just rented a lot 50x165feet, that is fence d. I do not have the strength to dig with a spade, the lot is all in grass/sod and open to the elements with winds from the northwest mostly in the winter. I cannot sheet mulch, because the coons and possums can climb the fence and did in it laying bare the cardboard and then it blows all over. So I need to fill to get rid of the grass. There is also a wide swath of wood chips from trees that had to come down to get access to the lot from the back. I would like to plant berry bushes and dwarf fruit trees this year in the 8 foot setback on the Northwest side and in the 6 foot set back on the East side. I thought of planting berry bushes along the fence for wind protection for the dwarf fruit trees. I have never gardened before. I do not have a trailer to hawl stuff, so what do I do and what tiller would be suitable a Mantis or a Stiehl?
Hmmm, I don’t know anything about different tiller brands, so I can’t help you there. If you don’t have a trailer, I guess you’ll have to get stuff delivered. A sod cutter might be more helpful to take up the grass. If you don’t have the strength to dig with a spade, I say start small on this project and focus on doing a good job on a small area. And be prepared to wait a few years to get much fruit from fruit trees. It would be a good idea to get some compost delivered after you take up the sod to put on the beds before you plant. Evergreens are obviously most helpful for wind protection.
Excellent article. You mention cal-mag ration 7:1 and compaction if out of whack. Can you explain how to measure & correct/adjust? Also phosphate/potassium?Mucho thanks Phil! Keep up gr8 work!
For this topic, I refer people to The Smiling Gardener Academy (should be available in March) and my book (should be available in April/May). I do like to give away as much free info as I can, but this is a more advanced, detailed topic.
Hi Phil,A good thought provoking article on a hot topic!I’ve never used a ‘Rototiller’ or any similar machinery to till land for gardening. In saying that I’ve never had to turn a profit from a garden either.I’ve known about the dilemma of up-ending the soil profile for some time and I’m mindful never to do it. I find some confusion where you state that there are certain microbes and others that require more or less oxygen than others and that by slicing, dicing and or up-ending the soil takes years to come good. I really can’t see the difference between tilling the existing soil and adding organic matter to it and that of adding a brand new (non-indigenous) 12 inch or so, imported soil layer structure. Either way you’ve imported soil with nil structure and placed it upon an existing soil structure (albeit poor) and have now placed indigenous layered microbes some 12 inches or more under the new non-structured layered soil.I’m thinking I would rather lightly till an existing soil structure and add to it where necessary. This is based on the thought that at least you have a soil structure that would no doubt have microbes suited to that specific location whereas you’re just taking pot luck in creating a completely new soil base from an unknown origin. The only thing you could really have an impact on is the adjustment of the pH which is often required with soil imports.I’ve just had much more success in amending an existing soil structure over the instant garden approach which comes with its own problems.Cheers, Ben.
I left out the most important point! I NEVER till the soil once it has been established. I just add organic matter and/or replant… 🙂
Hi Ben, I’m not sure where I suggested bringing in a new soil layer in the article? But the bottom line is, I think I agree with what you’ve said. I would much rather work with my existing soil than bring new soil in. Sometimes in a new garden I will till or double dig in some compost, but in the long run, I don’t till much. So I think we’re on the same page.
Hi Phil, Thanks for a very helpful article. I have been learning about the soil web for a few years now. One thing which you did not address which I have heard or read is that tilling is a way of knocking down the population of pests that pupate or hybernate in the soil. I do not till. I don’t often have an insect problem, other than one year, I had an infestation of squash bugs, but learning more about that, too! (Bugs don’t see healthy plants– “so how did I fail my squash plants that year?”, I asked myself). I do rotate my crops, use lasagna gardening (as I guess one might call it– I started a brand new garden last year by scattering some sphagnum peat moss around, then laying down flakes of old mixed hay over a large area of lawn the fall before. This did a very good job of smothering the lawn. In the spring, I transplanted my nightshade plants tomato, peppers and potatoes in this garden and they did fine. I did have some hornworms, but let the parasitic wasps take care of those that did and hand-picked the rest for my chickens. BTW, I also bring home the used coffee grounds from the coffee house, toss the chicken manure in here from the coop (not at the feet of my plants, but still uncomposted), and water plants from my goose pool. So, any thoughts about shallow tilling to reduce pupating or hybernating pests? I don’t see the need, but that’s just another reason for tilling that is talked about out there.
Thanks for all your thoughts. Overall, I think tilling for pests is missing the point. The focus should be on creating healthy plants that won’t get attacked in the first place.That being said, during the stage when you’re transitioning a garden from sick to healthy, I could see that being a useful strategy in the hands of a knowledgeable gardener/farmer, just as with controlling weeds with tilling.But I don’t see it as a long term strategy, and I wouldn’t feel confident enough in my own abilities to know how to do that without destroying just many of the good guys.
Thank you. I am beginning to understand how this whole soil web works and what you are saying about creating the healthy plants (by creating healthy soil) and therefore avoiding infestation of insects (and also vulnerabilty to disease). It is interesting to me that not tilling seems so foreign an idea to many of the gardeners that I meet. I read somewhere once something to the effect that if one doesn’t keep a record or journal and do some reading, then you end up being a 40 year gardener with one years experience! I don’t want that to be my story… thanks again ;D
I burn leaves and sticks from the yard on my garden spot ,was wondering if that damages the soil.
Good question, I’ve never looked into that. I suppose it will kill a lot of the biology in the very top of the soil, but whether it’s the top 2 millimeters or 2 inches, I’m not sure. I would rather see the leaves used as mulch, and small sticks too, but not sure about harm from the burning.
If the Soil is already Humus in structure sure then by all means Tilling is not necessary, however if You are trying to improve the Soil conditions quickly and easily Tilling is without a doubt the best option to get things moving in the right direction.So it’s really open only to the condition of the Soil itself as to which method is or will become the method of choice.Happy Gardening to One and All after all, One should Love the Garden or find something they would or could enjoy that brings the kind of Joy and selfuliment that Gardeners experience on a Daily basis. Have Fun it’s contagious as more and more People are discovering not to mention, the Food tastes better and is Healthier for us than Conventional or Traditional Gardening could ever be.Besides if we don’t start repairing the damage that has been done there will be no benficial organisams left for Us to worry about anyway.
Hi Phil,I do bokashing of my home compost and that requires me to dig in my soil to bury it for the best effect. My gardening is for both ornamentals and edibles. Do you think the harmful effects of digging up soil can be compensated by the benefits of EM bacteria and fermented waste, which in a few weeks time turns into humus and is often filled with earthworms anyway? I have no idea about the science but I hate to kill earthworms when I do the initial digging…Thanks,Thomas from Australia
Hi Thomas, it’s often worthwhile to do exactly what you’re doing – getting that compost or bokashi down into the soil, bringing many benefits. In my view, it’s not something you do do forever, but just in the early year(s) of a garden.
Hi Phil,This topic seems to have raised some interesting questions.The soil where I live is almost beach sand, as the region in which I live isbasically one great sand flat and contains no clay particles at all. There are manyviews on the way to turn sand to soil although many are contradictory.Currently I’m following the method of soil improvement of adding compost andmanures (composted) to develop the soil structure. This took many months ofcompiling these organic components and finally tilling them in, in a double digmethod. Months later I’ve found my first earth worm in the garden. Now there’sthe hard decision should the soil be tilled again next spring to increase theorganic level or would this be risking damaging the little structure that hasbeen created? Currently around three inches of various compost mixes andbatches have been added to the sand in the first till. Should i till in thenewly made compost in spring or apply it in a no dig manner?Thanks Noel
Great question, Noel. Difficult to give an answer either way. In a soil like yours, it may very well make sense to till in another few inches in the spring. Then long term you may move to no till.
I think growing peas, beans and clover improves sandy soil. So I would do that and cover with leaves as well as adding compost and manure. Sandy soil is good for root vegetables like carrots and is easier to dig than clay soil because of the structure. I would also try and find some worms if there is a farm or horse stalls not too far away. I am trying to compost my kitchen and plant waste using an indoor mini worm compost for the fourth time and hope that this time will not be a complete failure. The compost worms are my only pets.
Great question, Noel. Difficult to give an answer either way. In a soil like yours, it may very well make sense to till in another few inches in the spring. Then long term you may move to no till.
Hello, I have thought about doing the no-till method for a season and a half. I did not have the supplies to do it, so I planned on waiting for a season. During that time, I went to some master gardener classes and they said no-till methods won’t work in my area due to disease and pests. They say that our temperatures don’t get high enough or low enough to keep disease and pests in check. I live in Southern Oregon and I do have to say that the gardens I have seen where people have attempted this are pretty sad. Do you believe there are area’s this won’t work or do we just have to tweek the method some how?Thank you,
Hi Lori, good question. As I explained in the 1st lesson, pests are there because of unhealthy plants. It’s true that moderate temperatures allow more pests to survive, but that has very little to do with them eating your plants – that’s a plant health problem.(There are lots of excellent master gardeners out there, but I’ve found the organization as a whole isn’t up to date on the science of gardening. They’re still managing pests instead of managing plant health.)I’m not sure why anyone things tilling is good to deal with pests. More often it hurts the soil and kills just as many beneficials as pests.So no till and sheet mulching can definitely work in your area. The one thing about wetter climates is that a big sheet mulch can invite slugs, which is why it’s important to have your garden in as warm and sunny of an area as possible, to decrease moisture. And it’s nice to lay the sheet mulch in the fall so it can break down over winter before planting in spring. Hope that helps, Phil
Phil, I have a 9′ by 9′ lasagna garden. I started it this spring in march, (we live in Missouri). I plan to change it into a 4 by 27 after this growing season. (I can’t reach the stuff in the middle) How much damage will this do? Should I try to mix it all up really well when moving the soil/compost mix, or leave it as big of chunks as possible? Lasagna is the same as sheet mulching: newspaper/hay/bone meal/bloodmeal/straw/topsoil(garden soil)/compost/garden soil. Its producing more than we can eat. Not sure how to tell all those tests on ph and such?Thank you for your time, Emi
Hi Emily, I’m not sure what you’re asking in your last question, but to answer your main question, it’s not a big problem to rearrange the bed. You wouldn’t want to to that every year, but in this case, it’s important for you to get a better shape.To me, the layers aren’t all that important – they’re mostly just to make it easy to lay the mulch. I actually incorporate some of the layers rather than keeping them separate. Just be sure to top it all off with a mulch layer when you’re done the move.
Phil, i have a question, if i dont till and the roots of vegies can go as deep as 5 feet, where do the roots go? i dont think this is giving the roots a head start and besides when we dig we must put the goodness back in to feed and attract more worms, what do you think?
Hi I’m new here. I read Ruth Stout’s books years and ago and learned then about the layers of soil, and I mulch heavily with straw. I love not weeding .. !! I just put the spading fork in and twist it around to loosen the soil up a bit without disturbing the layers too much. Do you think that is OK? I have a question about veggy transplants. I dig out about a shovel sized hole and fill it with compost or store bought soil or stir it up with existing soil. This does not seem right to me as to retaining the natural layering. What is the best way to do this?Thanks Phil. Joy
Hi Joy. You’re doing it right. I use compost for all of this. It does disturb the layering, but planting is an unnatural process anyway, so that’s just part of it. As for using the fork to loosen the soil, it shouldn’t be necessary unless your soil is chemically or biologically imbalanced. In other words, microbes, insects and earthworms should do the loosening for you if they have the nutrients, water, food and habitat that they need (and if they’re there in the first place).
Thank youEvery one till in my area this done through thousands years. I am all organic.Machine tilling will make compaction worse. Now I am satisfiedWith tilling by hand only the place I intend to put the plants with extra room. I use drip irrigation and no weed found.This year I brought hay to cover my whole garden, but sad to know from you that the improvement will take years. I use organic fertilizer,I still need to learn a lot.Thank youGhaith
Wondering about this quote:”If you want to put a wood mulch on to make it look tidy, it would generally be better to not use bark, and preferably it would be from hardwoods, not softwoods such as cedar and fir.”Why use hardwood instead of softwood? Up here in coastal BC, there’s a heckuva lot more soft that hardwoods. I wouldn’t use cedar, but there’s a large douglas-fir (pseudotsuga) in the back the cones of which I plan to shred and mulch with. And getting shredded/chipped wood from the local tree service would be mixed of course, but with a lot of conifers.
Hi Janet, the softwoods tend to manufacture much more toxins, especially in the bark. If you’re not using the bark, you should be okay. Hopefully you have good nitrogen and humus in your soil to balance it out.
conifers are acidic. Check the pH of your soil
Hi Phil. How much of the fallen leaves in autumn should I leave on my yard? I have many huge oak trees which produce leaves over a foot deep which rots the grass and produces a lot of fungal growth.Thanks.Jay
If your mower can handle it, you can try mowing those right onto the lawn and see what happens. but it would be great to pull some of them onto your garden beds as a mulch, and some could be composted or just piled up in the corner to make leaf mold, which can go onto the beds in the spring.
So we’ve been tilling to destroy the gopher runs…Not really a big bug or disease problem in the garden. I would prefer not to til. It does seem to drive the gophers out long enough to get the garden started. Still they are an issue. We will cover crop this fall/winter. How to incorporate a tall crop?
I incorporate it before it gets too big. So I hoe or mow or weed whack or just till very shallow.
Hi Phil, I have a spot in my lawn that gets enough sunn to grow vegies. I want to make a raised bed. the lawn is 20 years old , but I’m sutre the soil was just the dirt dug out of the basement area (as so many are). If I were to put cardboard down first and then add compost, other garden dirt and leaves this fall, maybe to a depth of 12 inches. would that be sufficient?
Hi Bob, there may not me much of any benefit to adding more soil unless the existing soil is essential subsoil without any life to it at all. But the cardboard, compost and leaves to 12 inches deep should be sufficient. Sounds great to me.
It would be a great start!
I have horses so about Oct I start putting manure with saw dust in it on my garden, then about March I stop. Then in about May 1 I till down to dirt. That makers a very good garden. Good -bad or not?
There are probably good and bad sides to it.-Do your horses receive antibiotics or other drugs that will be in their manure and consequently in your soil? If so – bad. If not – good.-Does it end up being a fairly thick layer of manure? If so, it can cause some real soil imbalances, both chemical and biological – bad. If it’s just a thin layer – it may be good.-Tilling is always bad for earthworms and fungi and soil structure, while organic matter is often good for soil. My method is to till in lots of composted organic matter in the early year(s), but then I don’t till much after that.My advice would be to compost the manure and sawdust first, thereby decreasing the big fertility changes and decreasing the detrimental microorganisms. Then if your soil already has good organic matter, I would put the compost on top and not till it in, or only till the top 2 inches of soil so as to not hurt soil organisms and soil structure.
Very good discussion of the different degrees of tilling and matching them to actual needs in the soil. I’d sure like to learn more about the cal/mag and sodium balancing you mentioned. Can you point me toward more information on that? Thanks so much for all your great work! J.
I discuss it in my book ( https://www.smilinggardener.com/book/ ) and in my online gardening course ( https://www.smilinggardener.com/academy/ ) and there are many soil books from Acres U.S.A. that get into it, too.
what do you thinkj about container gardening for vegetables -older and harder to harvest in the ground?
It’s a great idea – from root vegetables like potatoes to greens like lettuce to climbing plants like tomatoes, containers can work wonderfully.
THANK YOU for the videos/awesome information. What is the proper way to introduce worms in a vegetable garden, please? Compost and rock dust have been added; soil testing has also taken place. But, not near enough worms were seen. Thanks again. What a blessing!
You can certainly add earthworms (you generally want burrowing worms, not topsoil or compost worms), but if they are already in your area, they should come when your soil is right for them. As you’ve implied, you need to take care of them by having a nutritionally-balanced soil with lots of organic matter (compost in the soil and leaves on top) and adequate water. It seems like you’re on the right track. It might be worth while to test your soil (or compost) for toxins like pesticide residues, as that could be why the worms aren’t there. But most likely the soil just isn’t ready for them yet – they should come eventually.
This is such a great topic. I’m planning to sheet mulch an area of lawn to plant some trees and eventually understory shrubs, etc. I’m toying with the idea of tilling the area first to make room for deep roots (there are no existing trees or shrubs). What do you think?
The only reason I would till is if you think you should incorporate compost and fertilizers into your soil. Otherwise, just sheet mulch on top and let the biology (earthworms, etc.) do the tilling for you.
I’ve been using mushroom compost this year plus a combination of kelp and fish emulsion. My hens have found a way into the garden and are currently munching on the cabbage and scratching in the straw. Of course, the ladies deposit their waste very politely too. I know chicken manure isn’t good fresh, but am wondering how much damage they could do – 7 hens in a garden 15 x 135? Picked up some good old fashioned “roasted” cow manure today and intend to brew some tea with that along with some clover and grass clippings for an added boost. The kale, tomatoes, onions, peppers, squash and carrots and basil are loving it so far. The beans, however, look like they’re going to loose their leaves – all yellow at the bottom – and my rose that climbs on the arbor for the gate into the garden has lost all its leaves this summer after its first bloom – (which was gorgous and smelled wonderful). We’ve had a huge amount of rain this year in the GA mountains and I’m wondering if that is the prob with the beans and rose. Also, please advise what I could possibly do to encourage the earth in the garden. It was GA clay when I started last year. Appreciate any advise you can give me.
The hen manure is fine, but they sure can destroy plants quickly by eating and scratching. The rain very well may be the problem – if plants are too wet they will sometimes lose their leaves, and they may put out new leaves this year or maybe not. One of the most important steps to improving clay is getting a soil test done from a good organic soil lab and then following their recommendations, because fertility imbalances can contribute to a really compacted clay.
I was wondering where do you take your soil to be tested. I know you prefer a lab to the home kits, but where are labs and where would one send a soil sample for testing?
What about an area which gets re-invaded with tree roots every year? I moved into a house with a garden plot in the back yard which I have been trying to reuse. For the past two years, I had been double digging and pulling out tree roots. This year I broke down and rented a tiller to reduce my effort. Is there a better way to do this? Should I just give up on this bed location?
This might be a case where a tiller will be helpful for one season – it definitely has its occasional uses. You can definitely get your bed back.
Phil, do you have a YOUTUBE video on this topic (tilling) ? Or did I miss it ? Rob, Australia (Adelaide)I LOVE your youtube channel ! 🙂 I am not so much a vegetable gardener but rather a native plant/natural revegetation gardener. We bought an 80 acre property about 10 years ago in a low rainfall (rain shawdow) area. To get anything to grow (particularly with the recent 10 year drought) have found you need to give your native seedlings every chance of survival !Have also found that I could not learn everything (tips & tricks etc) about gardening over night.Regards here from South Aussie (Australia) 🙂
Nice to hear from you Rob. No, I never did make a video on tilling. Sounds like an awesome project you have going on there – agree those first weeks in a seedling’s life (and the first season in general) are incredibly important.
Phil, what do you suggest for people that have recently built their home in an area that used to be a forest? While I tried not to disturb a good portion of the land, I did terrorize the forest by taking down trees, grinding stumps, moving soil to make my home.
I see no need to till at this point Josh. Maybe you can tell me a little more what you’re thinking.
2 years ago, I selected a piece of ground, used an excavator and took down trees and brush and cleaned a 50’x50′ section. Then hauled in 10 yards of top soil from a local landscape company and spread the soil evenly. 3 months later, I fenced a 40’x40′ section and planted a garden. The first year was not much to shout about except for an abundance of weeds! I cleaned it up after harvest and covered the beds with old hay, goat manure, and the mess from the chicken coop. The following year, I built raised beds on top of the garden bed and then had hauled in 10 yards of a blend of peat moss and worm castings from a local organic soil manufacturer. I filled the raised beds with the peat blend and planted my vegetable garden. Great results! Now I want to clear another section of land near the barn that has great sun for berries and grapes. How do I remove stumps, trees, brush without tilling up the soil?
Okay, I see. Well yes, if you’re removing that stuff there’s going to be some soil damage in the short term. The goal is just to minimize that. And you don’t necessarily have to till the whole area, or maybe that is what makes sense for you. Sometimes tilling is necessary – it’s just in the long run that I like to limit it.
I till mine – it looks like a wiggler holocaust
I have been no till gardening for as long as I have been gardening and want to stay that way. But I have been reading about gardening for high brix / nutrient dense food and it appears that the expectation is to till the soil amendments in to 6 inches. Any advice?
Tilling can be occasionally useful. We just don’t want to overdo it. If you’re bringing in soil amendments, you might lightly till just the top couple of inches of soil in order to incorporate them, or you might just put them on top and let them more gradually get down into the soil.
I hate tilling my soil because I feel bad for the trauma I cause my worms, however my experiment with not tilling two beds ended in disaster. I have let black locust shade my garden, since I am in Southern California desert. Not tilling resulted in giant roots taking over the beds! Only a couple of pigs in the garden for several months could fix it.
Yes, gardening is always more complicated than saying 1 solution is best for everything. We need to think about the process rather than just imposing blanket solutions. Thanks for helping illustrate that 🙂
I’ve roto-tilled for years and years. The garden soil around the raised beds almost doesn’t even grow weeds anymore. The soil in the raised beds has to have compost and manure added to it every year to grow the vegetables I plant each year (primarily tomatoes, squash, beans, cucumbers, and occasionally corn). The result has been mixed. Some years the garden does not do well, i.e. the plants do just fine but produce very little in the way of vegetables. Some years, like this year, the raised beds produce more than I can deal with. The garden I am talking about is medium size, about 60′ by 40′, all raised beds. I’d like not to use the tiller, but I’m not sure how to proceed. I put a great deal of compost into each bed on an annual basis, so my vegetables are pretty expensive, but the taste is well beyond anything available in food stores, even those that specialize in organic food. Advice?
Your soil fertility may be imbalanced from adding so much compost. I would send a soil sample to a good organic lab like Crop Services International or International Ag Labs and see what they say. You may need to cut out the compost and add a couple of other things instead in order to balance the fertility.
A buddy of mine who is an ecological scientist with San Diego State University told me I am killing the soil with the rototiller. His statement seems to be born out by the lack of weeds in the walk areas (the areas that do not get compost). I rototill the entire garden area, walk ways and all, once a year. Testing the fertility of the raised beds seems like a good place to start. What about the rest of the soil in the garden? I use it to replace decreased soil in the raised beds, so I would prefer not to damage it beyond repair. Do I continue to rototill at the risk of destroying the soil in the garden, should I stop all together, or is there some compromise between the two? Thanks for the input.
Rototilling can be useful to turn in compost or other organic matter, especially if you don’t go too deep. It doesn’t damage it beyond repair – just sets it back a bit, so to speak.
excellent coverage on this topic.
I would never use a rototiller because not only would that massacre my most important helpers, the worms, but weeds such as couch grass get transferred by the rototiller. Enticed by the attractive notion of not needing to work as hard, I tried mulching (probably not enough nor the right kind) instead of autumn digging. The following spring I had to dig, break up and weed soggy, heavy, couch-grass-bound clay soil before I could sow anything, hard work as never before. So I learned my lesson and understand that autumn digging is essential for the clay soil I have. The winter cold and ice breaks it up. I also cover the soil with thick layers of leaves after I dig it up if I have kept it weeded. The allotment I have was neglected for a long time and is a bed of couch grass, thistles, tanzy and dandelions so I am seeing to it a bit at a time. This year I managed to grow some vegetables and sow some clover even in the parts that are still congested with weeds. I do not want a quick solution but prefer to imitate nature. Hopefully the worm population will increase. Next year I shall sow lots of peas, beans, some potatoes and green manure in that allotment but with some broccoli, sukumawiki. rainbow chard and hope-against-hope Joseph’s coat in the cleared bit where the potatoes and beans were this year. The soil is actually rich so I have 2 rows of broccoli and 1 row of sukumawiki (chards from Kenya) that are huge. I shall weed there half an hour each day I go to the allotment before the winter freeze. Gradually I hope to get more manageable soil and the weeds under control.
Thanks for sharing Edwin 🙂
I just see the worms and dig a little to feed them my mulch from juicer
Very timely. I have just abandoned the idea of soil-tilling and go for applying compost on top and mulch and not to disturb my friends down under. Have also experienced that even how hard or compacted the soil is, when applied weekly with Indigenous Microorganisms, the soil eventually will just loosen up. Tiny microorganisms are simply that great! Thanks Phil.
Hi Phil, I have enjoyed your emails and information. I find myselt unemployed with time on my hands so I want to increase the size of my garden this year. Unfortunately with unemployment also comes lack of funds, hence my inability to join your group. I have difficulty with an kind of heavy digging or deap working of the soil (physical limitations), so not having to do that would be a bonus. I was hoping you could share the best method for sheet mulching; it looks like others have requested the same information.Regards…Lori BoydVancouver, BC, Canada
Sure thing Lori, I wrote about that here: https://www.smilinggardener.com/organic-soil-management/sheet-mulching/
Heavy metals would be my concern with mulching with newsprint. Colored print usually has heavy metals, so I don’t even burn those since I use the ash in my compost.
I’m not sure if colored print still has heavy metals these days, but like you, I tend to try to leave the colored pages out – same with the glossy pages.
This was an EXCELLENT article and much to think about. I am fortunate having become a Master Gardener and being around Master Gardeners much more experienced and well read. One of my mentors believes in what he calls Biomimicry. Basically, you follow natures own rules for taking care of it’s self. I use a cultivator but never a deep tiller. The soil is a living thing and if you can get the LIFE in it then you can grow anything you want.
I have used the Majic Lift. It is a universal shovel/ pitchfork optimizing attachment with angle and leverage changing capacity. Simply attach to a shovel, snow shovel or pitchfork set the angle and save your back. After insertion into the soil, sod or snow simply press down on the garden tool handle to loosen the resistance of sod, roots, rocks etc. This eliminates the need to use force to break the resistance with lifting. The Majic Lift prevents the straining and injury to the lower back, shoulders, neck and cardiovascular system. It reduces the amount of energy and time needed to do a task!Just waiting for a manufacturer to partner for production.Inventor: Frank Amato Jr., email@example.com
What do you recommend now that it’s late March and I missed trying sheet composting over the winter? I have heavy clay soil…………..
firstly, a balanced soil will never require tilling…………….. secondly, while tilling, we cause unnecessary damage to the ecosystem of the soil, and the homes of our friendly earthworms, and kill them, and the trillions of microbes in the soil…………. and we destroy the humus cover of the soil, that sustains the balance of the soil……………….. so the article above is a confused bit of literature! 😀 it takes a long time for the soil to recover from every tilling…………… that’s why manure or fertilisers are required in tilled soil……….. in a balanced soil, none is required………….. remember, manure/fertilser = intravenous saline drips! If your soil requires manure, then it is dead or dying!
Did you even read the article Sandeep?
i was reinforcing the basics, your article is so long winding, some people might miss it! 😀 (y)
We till our garden every spring and fall. Small in city organic garden that produces extremely well.
My reason for rototilling though is because I have a compost digester that holds a years worth of kitchen scraps. I shovel it out in the fall (60 gallons worth) and it smells awful. I have that, a full compost bin that is mainly grass clippings,and shredded news paper, and as many bags of leaves as I can locate. All of that gets rototilled into the garden to kill the smell in as short a time as possible. Keep the neighbors happy!
In the spring time I dump the grass clippings on the garden until ready to plant then get it worked up right before planting.
Aside from the problem of the smell would it work as well to spread the compost on top of the garden and leave it over winter then just rototill in the spring time. I’ve never had an adverse affect from tilling spring and fall but thinking only of saving the cost of tilling.
2 concerns are the smell and possibly attracting mice if food and garden waste are on top of the garden and not tilled below the surface.
Yes, it’s fine just to spread it on top. It’s a good idea.
Will it be broken down enough by spring time that a good rototill will be sufficient?
It depends on how well it’s broken down already, among several other factors, but yes, I’d go for it.
Is there any benefit to leaving a garden in a fallow state every few years? I know farmers used to do it a lot more but haven’t really heard of gardeners doing it. Was thinking that if I do I’d add as much organic material to it over the summer and the following year it would be a very good producer.
The main time farmers do it is when there’s insufficient moisture to grow a good crop. When you leave the soil unplanted for a time, the rains can gradually increase soil moisture and the next crop can be better. There can be other benefits and also downsides, but long story short, if you have irrigation water, fallowing is generally not relevant, whereas if water is an issue, it can make sense to leave the soil fallow for a while.
The food waste in the digester varies in time because it’s a full year worth waste from last fall to this fall so the material on the bottom is older than on top. It also had a winter freeze which seems to help break down the material when it thaws.
Like I said the biggest reason for fall tilling is pest control and burying the smell. In the spring time after a good tilling nothing can be recognized. Might be pointless to do it in fall but does make the yard nearer over winter.
I’ve heard several people say that rototilling can destroy soil structure. Not arguing the point just asking questions about it.
We’ve been tilling our garden 2x a year for 4 years now and have had great crops. That is with adding a lot of organic material in both spring and fall. Is this something that will eventually not work as well? Or cause a problem years down the road? I’ve already stated my reasons for tilling but have not also said that I do like that nice clean look in the fall. I spread a lot of coffee grinds on the garden and with that comes the filters. Tilling helps bury most of them and the ones left behind can be buried in a small hole or thrown in the composter. Either way there is not trash blowing around the yard. And even with everything that we spread on the garden by spring nothing from fall is recognizable. I don’t know if that’s a good sign or an indication that our garden is low on lots of nutrients and soaks them up as fast as it can get them. This year on a 20×20 garden we got 50 cobs of corn plus other stuff so it seems healthy.
Tilling is one of those practices that’s often a compromise. When we till, we do destroy soil structure, fungal hyphae and insect/earthworm habitat, as well as killing insects/earthworms directly. On the other hand, we may bring organic matter and nutrients into the soil, which is often a good thing.
“Is this something that will eventually not work as well?” It may continue to work well forever. Basically, you’re taking over some of the work of the fungi and insects/earthworms, plus doing some work they don’t do as much of (big influxes of organic matter and nutrients), minus some work they would do if they were there (bringing water and nutrients to plants, protecting roots from predators, etc.).
There are examples out there on both extremes that can work well, for example biointensive gardening on the soil interference extreme and permaculture, in the long run, on the soil non-interference extreme. Each has proponents and detractors and we all get to figure out where we fall on the soil interference spectrum.
Hey, first thanks for the research. Next, a good friend who is a professor of ecology told me the same thing you said, that is constant rototilling kills the soil. I went a bought a broad fork and use it periodically (as in every few years). What about broad forking? It doesn’t break the soil up lime my big Troybilt does. It tends to break it up in big chunks. One comment, I have a large annual garden, well large for me. It is about 70′ x 50′. We mainly grow vegetables and fruit in raised beds. Productivity, especially from the tomatoes, tends to drop off steeply after a couple of years. It is almost like I have to start over. The soil here is pretty acidic, but I believe that rototilling has had the effect you mentioned in your article. Once again, what about broad forking?
Broad forking is much less disruptive. Just be sure while you’re doing it that you’re also incorporating something your soil needs, such as compost, fertilizers, microbial inoculants. That partially makes up for the soil disturbance. I talk a little about this here: https://www.smilinggardener.com/biointensive-gardening/double-digging-garden-beds/
Hello Phil and all who have contributed. I wanted to share my success with tilling since most of the support and commentary is for the no tilling approach. I have a fairly large home based garden which I tilled religiously for many years having enormous success with both summer and fall crops. I live in south Texas so the soil is challenging (mostly clay) and the temperature is problematic. I had a period of about five years when I did not own a tiller and therefore did not till my garden other than a light, manual turning each season. My yields dropped significantly and I spent more time “tending” the crops than I had to do previously with a tilled preparation. Three years ago I returned to tilling my garden each season and lo and behold my yields returned to the days of plenty. Now I know my experience is anecdotal but the results don’t lie. I believe there are two primary reasons that tilling has worked for me. First, it allows better distribution of the fortified nutrients I put down with my tilling and it loosens the soil which can become hard and compacted over time even with proper composting due to the clay content. So the moral of my story is not to convince people to incorporate tilling but to suggest that tilling may sometimes be the best approach for certain conditions. Good luck with your fall planting.
Thanks for sharing, Kevin. I haven’t revisited this article for a while. It may be time for a little update. I do think it depends on the situation. For example, biointensive gardening makes great use of tilling. Here’s a little video on that ( https://www.smilinggardener.com/biointensive-gardening/double-digging-garden-beds/ ).
I have been tilling for quite some time. Garden yields are inconsistent. I have several oak trees in my backyard and endeavor to use those leaves each and every year and turn them into the garden area with my garden tiller. My garden area is quite extensive. I live in Redding, CA where in most areas (except river bottom) the soil is hard, reddish, and nitrogen deficient. I cannot imagine not tilling. I usually augment the soil with peat moss and steer each year and like I said, keep pouring on the leaves, grass clipping, etc. etc. each year. The soil is pretty healthy, but can tighten up due to the clay content. I have added vermiculite to combat that. I certainly am not a master gardener, but being retired, could learn to be one. Thanks for the information and will definitely consider moving forward.
Sounds like you’re doing a great job getting organic matter into your soil but that’s just one part of the puzzle when it comes to compaction – and soil health in general. Other big components are 1) nutrient balance (which can be improved by applying specific nutrients based on a soil test), and 2) soil biology (which can only be optimized by stopping tilling, since tilling cuts up fungi/earthworms/insects/etc. which are needed to build soil structure).