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No-Till Gardening Methods: Learn the Expert Ways for Success
With a Video About Back to Eden Gardening

Fresh Vegetables And A Raised Bed Garden.

Would you like to know how to start a no-till garden?  Well, you’ve come to the right place.  This article will show the best no-till gardening methods to improve the soil for lush, healthy crops. This is great for home gardeners since it eliminates the burden of tilling the soil.

Let’s discover how to raise plants the way God intended.

Video: Back to Eden Gardening

This video is an absolute gem, and will probably change your thinking. Enjoy.

Why is No-Till Gardening Better Than Tilling?

No-till gardening has one significant difference versus tilling:

Organic matter composts on the soil surface the same way it happens in nature.  This is the major difference, and it makes all the difference.

See our companion article, “What are the Best Reasons For Using No-Till Gardening?.”  It provides more information about this fascinating subject.

Here’s a table that compares what we see or do in a tilled field versus what we see in nature:

What We See or Do in a Tilled FieldWhat We See in Nature
The ground may have some mulch, but usually, it’s bare.The ground cover is decaying organic matter, leaves, twigs, plants, and grass.  Nature likes to keep the soil covered.
Tilling compacts the soil, and it needs breaking up for aeration and drainage.The soil is loose enough to dig into it with a finger.  Natural soil has excellent drainage.
Unless it rains, the soil becomes dry and needs occasional watering.Under the thick layer of surface material, the soil is always moist.  Plants have more than enough moisture to survive between rains.
The soil needs organic or chemical fertilizers mixed in during tilling.  Tilled ground always needs fertilized.Soil fertilization happens at the surface when deposited organic matter decays.  God’s plan maintains rich soil.
Tilled soil is prone to wind and water erosion.Ground cover and an undisturbed soil structure protect the soil from erosion.
Every tilling alters the soil structure.  It also destroys living things in the soil or interrupts their good work.The soil structure remains undisturbed.  Earthworms, soil organisms, plant root systems, and beneficial fungi follow a normal life cycle.  Living plant roots exude substances that nourish beneficial bacteria.
Tilling brings buried weed seeds to the surface so they can sprout.  Weeds plague almost all tilled fields.Natural ground cover prevents weed growth.  The established plants maintain a balance.
The lack of ground cover causes the soil temperature to change with the weather.Ground cover insulates the soil from temperature swings.
Digging into soil tilled for several years shows it is dead and unhealthy.Natural soil is full of life and fertility, showing that it’s healthy soil.

That’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea.  The tilling side is full of negatives, and the natural (no-till) side is full of benefits.  Tilling the soil to grow plants is nothing like how plants grow in nature.

A Story From the Real World

I spent most of my life tilling my gardens.  This is how my father, grandfathers, and uncles did it, so “it must be right.”

I remember many years ago (around 1993) when I had to water the garden.  The kids were small then, so my wife was busy with them while I worked long hours seven days a week.

The garden got a bit droopy, so I started giving the veggies a drink.  While doing that, a thought hit me.  Why was the garden beginning to wilt, but the brush at the edge of the woods looked healthy and green?

That made me realize that something was wrong with how we were gardening.  As time permitted, I studied the problem and got into no-till gardening.  It turned out to be the solution to several problems.

The Best No-Till Gardening Methods

Now, we can discover how to make a no-till garden.  These no-till gardening techniques result from years of successful use by organic gardeners and farmers.

When setting up a no-till garden, you can put the beds on the ground or surround them with a frame.  The beds shouldn’t be more than four feet wide to make it easy to reach any spot.  Allow a two-foot wide path between the beds.

The Back to Eden method is perfect for larger fields.  The wood chip mulch is resilient to pressure from foot traffic and wheels. That makes it easy to reach any point in the field.  This has become our favorite technique.

According to the Soil Health Institute, there are four steps to healthier soil:

  1. Minimize soil disturbance.
  2. Maximize diversity.
  3. Keep living roots growing as much as possible.
  4. Maintain residue cover as long as possible.

No-till gardening methods fit all those criteria.  Here are a few things you should know ahead of time:

  • A few options are available for the “anti-weed layer.”  If you have the budget, use weed guard paper.  Less costly options are 1 – 2 layers of butcher paper, or 3 – 4 layers of newspaper overlapped on the ground.  This layer is essential for suppressing weed growth.  It also becomes worm food as it decomposes.
  • You can also use layers of cardboard if they’re plain with no glossy inks or coverings.  Likewise, newspapers shouldn’t be glossy or have colored inks.
  • Corrugated cardboard could be a problem in dry areas.  In that case, it will take too long to break down and can form air pockets that could give weeds a foothold.  It isn’t a problem in wetter areas.
  • If your growing area doesn’t have weeds, you don’t need the anti-weed layer.
  • Remove all plastic tape and staples from any cardboard.  Staples won’t hurt the plants, but you’ll regret it if you’re digging around and one stabs your finger!
  • Mulch includes grass, chopped leaves, straw, hay, pine needles, and wood chips (not bark).  These materials will decay and create new soil.  That means the mulch can’t be anything artificial.

Back to Eden Gardening

Paul Gautschi developed Back to Eden gardening, and it’s the subject of the video at the beginning of this article.  We prefer it because it works so well.  The wood chip mulch allows you to walk in the planting area without compacting the soil.  They also seem to work better than any other mulch.

The best time to build a Back to Eden garden bed is in the fall.  That gives the organic matter and the anti-weed layer time to decompose.

You could plant this type of bed immediately, but you’d have to cut holes in the anti-weed layer for root expansion.

  • Select the area for the garden and cut down any weeds or tall grass.
  • Lay down the anti-weed layer and wet it thoroughly.
  • Cover the weed barrier with 4 – 6 inches of finished compost.
  • Top the compost with a mulch of 4 inches of arborist wood chips.  Arborist wood chips come from tree removal companies.  Besides wood chips, they also contain the bonus of shredded leaves.
  • Plant seedlings or seeds in the compost layer.  Move enough wood chip mulch out of the way to expose the compost.  Seed rows are easy to make by running a hoe or the edge of a rake through the mulch.
  • Smooth over the compost and cover it with the mulch again.
  • Give the seeds a regular watering until they sprout.  They won’t need watering after that.

Please don’t use the wood chips or bark sold as landscaping mulch.  They’re the wrong materials.

Chip Drop is a nationwide service that will deliver arborist wood chips for a donation.  Many tree removal companies will even work with you to drop off a load of wood chips.  Call your local companies ahead of time to get on their list.

Add two more inches of arborist wood chips every two years to maintain a Back to Eden garden.  Over time, the wood chips become soil.  This happens through the actions of soil organisms, fungi, and earthworms.

As time passes, the soil needs less wood chips for replenishment.

The Sheet Mulch Method, also known as Lasagna Gardening

What else would you call it if you’re building a garden bed in layers?  Have no fear, though; you won’t need any tomato sauce!

This method uses alternate layers of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials.  Composting experts call these materials “browns” and “greens.”  See our article “How to Make Compost at Home” for more information.  You can download a handy free chart listing the most common browns and greens on that page.

Start this method after the fall harvest.  It takes about six months to build the soil for planting.  The amount of organic matter you have available determines the size of the bed.

Since this technique uses layers of raw organic matter, it isn’t a good idea to plant anything early.  That raw material needs to go through composting first.

  • Select the area for the no-till bed(s) and cut down any weeds or tall grass.  Cut them as low as possible.
  • The selected area can contain grass, rocks, sand, or clay.  We’re going to build good soil on top of the bad soil.
  • Cover the selected area with the anti-weed layer.  The newspapers should be 4 – 6 pages thick.  Wet this layer thoroughly.  This first layer is a carbon layer (browns).
  • Next, lay down a one-inch or more nitrogen layer (greens).  Aged manure or unfinished compost works well in this layer.
  • A one-inch or more layer of browns comes next. Suitable materials could include chopped leaves, straw, or bark.  See the chart on our composting page for more ideas.
  • Continue with another one-inch layer of greens:  aged manure or compost.
  • The layers can continue this way as long as materials are available.
  • Top it off with a one-inch layer of finished compost.  This will be the planting layer in the spring.
  • Cover the compost with a layer of straw or wood chips.
  • Finally, cover everything with garden sheeting until the spring.  The soil should be ready in about six months.  This time allows the anti-weed barrier to break down and compost the organic matter.

In the spring, remove the sheeting.  Transplant seedlings or plant seeds in the top layer of compost by moving the mulch out of the way.  Then, put the mulch back in place to cover the soil.

Maintain the bed by adding a new layer of greens and browns after harvest.  The browns should always be the top layer, followed by a layer of mulch on top.  The mulch can be straw, wood chips, pine needles, etc.

The No-Dig Gardening Method, or Instant Soil Garden

This is the fastest way since you’re only waiting a few weeks for the anti-weed layer to soften.  You could also start at the beginning of the growing season.  Cut holes in the anti-weed layer to allow for root growth, and you’re ready to plant.

  • Lay down the anti-weed layer and wet it thoroughly.
  • Next, add about 6 inches of weed-free topsoil or compost.
  • If you started with 6 inches of topsoil, cover it with 1 – 2 inches of finished compost.
  • If you started with 6 inches of compost, cover it with 1 – 2 inches of topsoil.
  • Add a layer of mulch.  This can be straw, pine needles, shredded leaves, or wood chips.
  • Continue watering for a few weeks to break down the anti-weed layer.
  • Cover everything with garden sheeting if you won’t plant right away.
  • Don’t fret if you start planting and discover the anti-weed layer is still firm.  Give the roots growing space by cutting holes in the barrier.

Square-foot Gardening

This method works with any no-till garden since you’re planting by the square foot and not in rows.  It doesn’t work well with the hard soil left by tilling.

  • Create a bed of compost and topsoil as described in the No-Dig Method, but don’t add mulch.  Square-foot gardening needs soft soil to make it easy to plant seeds.
  • A square-foot gardening grid makes it easy to plant the seeds.
  • Since planting occurs in a dense pattern, mulching isn’t necessary.
  • Add compost to the soil every spring instead of mulch.

This method works well with raised bed gardening.  Try filling the bed with a mixture of 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 compost, and 1/3 vermiculite or perlite.

Using Cover Crops With No-Till Gardening

According to Ohio State University, cover crops restore nutrients lost by constant tilling.  Farmers report a 5 – 10 percent drop in corn yields for 5 – 7 years after converting to no-till methods.  The OSU article at that link gives excellent scientific support for no-till gardening techniques.

The claim is that tilling adds oxygen to the soil.  This exposes nutrients and stimulates bacteria to decompose organic matter.

Corn likes to grow in these conditions, but the benefits are short-lived.  Over a few years, there’s no more organic matter, and corn production drops.  As reported earlier in this article, tilling also destroys the soil structure.

OSU further reports that long-term research shows no-till methods become effective after 7 – 9 years.  That’s how long it takes no-till methods to replace the nutrients lost by tilling.  When you think about it, that’s an enormous negative effect caused by tilling!

After 7 – 9 years of no-till techniques to rebuild the soil, corn production is greater than it ever was by tilling.

The research found that soil will rebuild much faster by using cover crops.  These crops add nitrogen to the soil.  They also add organic matter when they die.  Using cover crops reduces any lost yields while the soil is rebuilding.

Cover crops are more practical with large-scale farming.  Some no-till gardeners use them, too, but they aren’t necessary with the methods discussed in this article.

Compost is a mixture of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials.  That means you don’t need to grow additional plants for those nutrients.  Our small-scale gardens are easy to cover with compost, but it isn’t easy with huge commercial fields.

In that case, the cover crops planted yearly become compost to enrich the soil.

Conclusions

You see some glaring differences when you compare a tilled garden to how plants grow in the wild.

You’ve heard people say, “You have to fertilize your garden.”  That’s true for a tilled garden, but why don’t we have to fertilize wild plants?  Fertilizing equals work and money.

Your tilled vegetable garden gets the same amount of rain as wild plants.  So, why does your garden wilt when wild plants stay healthy and green?  It would take a catastrophe to kill off the wild plants after your garden had died away much earlier.  Watering equals work and money.

Tilling destroys the soil structure and disrupts soil organisms, among other issues.  Seeds in the wild grow from the compost layer on the ground without tilling.

Tilling the soil means you’ll never get ahead.  The soil always needs organic or chemical fertilizers.  Soil compacted from tilling needs broken up, and plants always need watered.  After all that work, you still have dead soil without minerals or fertility.

Make your life easier and avoid mankind’s “make-work” method of tilling your garden.  Follow God’s “less-work” method and choose no-till gardening for the sake of your garden soil!  You’ll be glad you did.

If you’d like to learn more, try these books:

Bob Styer

As a child, I hated gardening. That was mainly because Dad expected us to work in the garden every so often even though we thought play was more important. Over the years, though, I've developed a real appreciation for growing things. Whether you're growing plants for food or to enjoy their beauty, gardening can make your life better. Seize the moment!

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