University of California
UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County
No-Till Food Gardening
It may seem counterintuitive to reap the benefits of a garden without digging into the soil, but recent scientific studies have shown that no-till gardening makes the most sense. Master Gardeners are joining in the effort promoting minimal soil disturbance for nurturing the underground ecosystem of macro- and microorganisms. When new planting areas are created in difficult locations, however, a one-time tilling may be the best way to begin.
- A one-time tilling of a new bed breaks up compacted soil or sticky clay and incorporates large amounts of organic matter.
- A one-time tilling removes massive and invasive roots.
- A one-time tilling loosens soil for removing large, thick, invasive weeds in a new food garden when other organic methods are ineffective.
- A one-time tilling offers a quick change in soil acidity (i.e., incorporating limestone or sulfur), a rare need, however, for most gardeners.
- A one-time shallow tilling creates small soil particles for broadcasting seeds in a new bed.
Reduced physical effort is an attraction for gardeners, but a no-till approach offers far more to the vast web of life beneath the soil that is easily destroyed when that environment is severely altered. A no-till approach results in an improved method of growing food.
- No-till preserves the natural web of soil life that includes earthworms, fungi, bacteria, and a myriad of other macro- and microorganisms.
- No-till prevents dormant weed seeds from being pulled up to the soil surface.
- No-till reduces frequent stirring or cultivation that compacts and breaks down soil structure.
- Untilled soil preserves a structure of soil aggregates that allow for higher water infiltration and greater soil water storage capacity.
- Untilled soil builds up a system of pores that moves water up, down, and sideways resulting in more efficient use of water.
- Undug soil is better able to retain humus, leading to improved plant nutrition, disease resistance, soil aeration, and water-holding capability.
- Undug soil retains, not releases, carbon dioxide in the ground in the form of compost decomposed from previous crops.
- Untilled soil holds layers of compost and fertilizers on top of the soil where nutrients can be lightly worked in when planting and transplanting.
- Untilled soil keeps dead roots in the soil after crops are harvested, increasing carbon content as food for microorganisms, resulting in a healthier soil life.