No-Till Gardening


No-Till Gardening is simply a method of gardening that values the soil as its own important ecosystem. Tilling can cause soil erosion and disturbs the organisms and microorganisms that help feed the plants we grow. No-dig methods of gardening help to regulate soil moisture, and make crops more resilient to extremes such as heat, rain, or wind. Climate change is increasing the volatility of our environment, causing more extreme weather events, longer or shorter seasons, and altering the pests we have traditionally dealt with.
Most no till methods focus on adding organic matter to your soil, usually from the top, the idea being that nature doesn’t come in and clean up after the summer. The leaves fall, the grasses die, the organic matter is left on and in the soil, just like the leaves in the forest or the grasses in the meadow. Furthermore, the rich, nutrient-dense soil allows many beneficial insects and other organisms, such as earthworms, to flourish. No-till gardening is working with nature, rather than against her.

Mulching provides a layer of organic matter that gradually breaks down, providing rich nutrient-dense soil. Mulch can be almost anything: straw, leaves, hay, or woodchips, for example. Often, no-till gardeners leave everything they grow that they do not consume, in or on the soil. Many “chop and drop”, meaning that dead plants in the fall or spring are snipped at ground level, and laid on the soil to decompose. The roots in the ground, now dead, will decompose, providing more nutrients. But what about weeds? The few that do get through the deep mulch, consider them free mulch, growing where you need it. In actuality, few weeds get through. Those that do, just “chop and drop.” You won’t need to water as often. There are some weeds that I personally do not “chop and drop”, such as wild parsnip (poison parsnip), for example. If any of those leaves get through the mulch, they get cut at ground level, and the leaves get composted, but I wouldn’t compost huge quantities of wild parsnip. I always garden with bare hands, and sometimes in bare feet, best to keep wild parsnip at bay. Besides, it takes two years for that stuff to grow to flower. The first year it only grows leaves. As to weed seeds, or seeds from hay, they don’t germinate when covered with mulch. Those that do, get chopped and dropped.

There are a few different names you might hear when practicing no-till gardening. They each have some notable differences, but are essentially the same: organic matter on top of the soil. Ruth Stout’s system features a thick layer of mulch, about eight inches. Purportedly, her husband was too busy to till her vegetable garden, so she started mulching, and planting seeds right into her favourite mulch, piles of hay, or spoiled hay. Your garden won’t mind if the hay has gotten wet at some point in its post-harvest existence. Ruth was born in June of 1884, so this method has been around for a while! A book of hers, published in 1955, was titled: How to have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back. Now who can’t embrace that goal!

Back to Eden uses wood chips for mulching. Same idea, different mulch. Charles Dowding practices no-till gardening in the UK. He favours compost as mulch, in part because of the dampness of the UK climate. He claims that compost doesn’t attract slugs in the damp. There are many people on YouTube showing how it is done. There is a couple who reputedly live somewhere in eastern Ontario and practice the Ruth Stout method. I don’t know who or where exactly they are, but their YouTube channel is called Back to Reality.

Healthy soil draws down and sequesters carbon. Regenerative agriculture is an important tool in our efforts to combat climate change. Soil stores carbon and no-till methods of growing maximizes soil bio-diversity. If you are starting a brand new garden, start by laying a decent layer of cardboard, which will break down, wet it well, top it with compost and a good bunch of mulch. If you can plan ahead, start the cardboard the year before, in the summer or fall.

For those of you trying the no till method, let me know how it works!


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