Till vs No-till

A collage photo of a tiller, a garden fork in the soil, and lasagna gardening

A timely topic when preparing your garden beds is the debate of whether to till or not to till. This is a subject of debate as a gardener must choose between short-term soil texture versus the ongoing health of the soil and the ecosystems that live within it.

First of all, what is tilling? It’s the turning of the soil to prepare it for planting and to incorporate compost or fertilizer. It may be done using a roto-tiller or a shovel, and the result is a smooth, friable soil. However, this benefit comes at the price of severely distressing the habitats of the microorganisms that live in the soil and upon which most plants depend. 

Weighing the pros and cons of tilling largely depends on the quality of your garden soil. If the organic matter in your soil is more than 7%, then tilling will have limited value. Similarly, if your soil is not clay-heavy, tilling may not be needed. Finally, monitor how much life there is in your soil – insects and earthworms usually indicate a healthy ecosystem, which means there’s more downside to tilling than upside.

Whether or not you till the soil is ultimately up to you. This write-up aims to ensure that you know the pros and cons.

Some compromises or alternatives to tilling are:

  • Instead of tilling, aerate the soil using a broadfork or a garden fork without turning it over, and then add organic matter.
  • Instead of tilling, use lasagna gardening – add successive layers of leaf litter, cardboard, more leaf litter, and compost and then let nature loosen the soil for you.
  • If tilling is necessary, only till once and then maintain healthy soil afterward by minimizing compaction (i.e., don’t walk on the soil) and regularly adding organic matter.
  • Till in a shallow manner (only 2-3″ deep) to gain some of the benefits of tilling while limiting any damage to the top few inches – then plant deep-rooted vegetables such as carrots, daikon radish, pumpkins, or sweet potatoes to loosen up the deeper soil naturally.
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