No-dig gardening isn’t for everyone. If you must dig or till your garden, here are a few helpful tips for healthier soil cultivation…
There is a passionate and ongoing debate in the gardening community about whether or not to dig or till your garden soil. Some die-hard no-dig gardeners prefer to only add mulch and compost to the surface of the soil, while others till in cover crops in the spring, and still others choose to cultivate the entire garden area before planting.
No-till proponents cite the health of soil organisms and improved soil structure as reasons to avoid soil cultivation. Others point out that tilling your soil (especially in the fall) can lead to nutrient depletion and erosion.
However, to some degree, the need to cultivate will depend on your soil type. For hard, clay-heavy soils like we have here on our homestead, it is nearly impossible to plant without doing at least a bit of cultivation. However, over time, as we gradually improve the soil in our garden, it should require less in the way of digging or cultivating.
If you do have dense, heavy soil like we do, or other reasons why you may need to do some digging each garden season, it would be wise to heed the following tips for sustainable soil cultivation:
- Be as gentle as possible when cleaning up after spent crops, disturbing only the top few inches of soil. Save deep cultivation for when you are preparing soil for new plantings, and need to mix in compost and organic fertilizers.
- Do use your spade to turn under cover crops, or to chop through the roots of spent plants to help them decompose faster. But when you want to loosen and aerate your soil, a digging fork or a special tool called a broad fork can do the job with minimal disturbance to the soil’s secret world. A digging fork or broad fork is especially useful in spring and fall, when earthworms are most active. These are the worst times to use a rotary tiller.
- Cultivate beds or rows individually, so that parts of your garden remain undisturbed. Earthworms, ground beetles, and many other beneficial life forms prefer stability to change.
- Avoid cultivating in the fall if you can mulch instead. Pull out spent plants and compost them, and then scuff up the surface with a hoe to kill weeds. Mulch through winter, and save actual cultivation for spring.
- Never cultivate when you know an abundance of weed seeds are present. Sweeping them up or sprouting them out makes more sense than mixing them in. Should an area of your garden receive a heavy rain of weed seeds, use the false seedbed technique to reduce the number of weed seeds present. This involves cultivating only the top inch of soil in spring, allowing the weed seeds to germinate, and then repeating the drill. The spot can then be planted with a fast-growing summer crop that quickly forms a dense, light-blocking canopy such as cucumbers or bush beans, and the rehabilitation is complete.