The key to gardening is digging, isn’t it? Don’t you have to till the earth to make way for new growth? No! This is a very common and prevailing misconception, but it’s beginning to lose traction, especially with small space gardeners. Why are no-dig garden beds — also called no-till gardens — becoming so popular? It’s because they’re better for the environment, better for your plants, and so much easier on your back. It’s a win-win-win. Keep reading to learn about no-dig raised beds.
Can I Garden Without Tilling?
It seems everywhere you turn, you hear that you need to till your earth before planting. The prevailing wisdom is that it prevents soil compaction and spreads the nutrients of compost and last year’s decomposing plants throughout. And this wisdom prevails, because for the first year the plants do tend to grow at a faster rate.
But in exchange for that faster rate, you throw off the delicate balance of the soil and put a lot of stress on the plants.
Plants’ root systems are specialized – only the top roots are meant to absorb the nutrient-rich topsoil. The lower roots bring in minerals deep in the soil and provide an anchor against the wind. If you spread that fertile soil throughout the plant’s entire root system, you’re suddenly forcing the plant to take in far more nutrients than usual, and disturbing its ability to take in minerals usually found deep underground.
Exposing all the roots to rich compost may make for showy, fast growth, but it’s not what the plant has evolved for. And in the long run, it will do more harm to the plant than good.
Problems Caused by Tillage
Your plants aren’t the only ones to be affected by soil tilling. Loosening the soil may improve aeration in the short term, but it also disturbs all the natural bonds holding it in place, making it much more prone to erosion.
Beneficial earthworms and nematodes are essential to healthy soil. Tilling a garden bed not only damages their environment, it can flat out kill them by chopping them up or leaving them exposed to the hot sun.
Last but not least, weeds benefit massively from tilling. Just as all that organic matter benefits your crops, it also benefits any weed that might take hold, causing them to grow bigger and stronger than ever. It also overturns weed seeds that have been lying dormant underground. The time span varies from plant to plant, but most weeds seeds can survive for years in the soil, waiting for the opportune time and conditions to sprout.
The Benefits of No-Till Gardening Methods
There’s no better growing condition for a plant than the natural, carefully balanced ecosystem of soil that’s already below your feet. Here are some of the main benefits of no-till or no-dig gardening.
We covered this above, but it bears saying again – tilling the soil not only reveals dormant weed seeds, it also gives them readily available nutrients. Weeds are fast, opportunistic growers, well-suited to the kind of environment tilling creates. When you till your garden, you’re actually making an idea spot for weeds.
Less soil compaction
This one may seem counterintuitive, since you’re not working a bunch of air into your soil every year. But the thing is – that air doesn’t stay there forever. After tilling, the soil eventually settles, and since there’s no rhyme or reason to how they’re arranged, all of those individual particles will actually squish together under their own weight, leading to more compressed soil and worse drainage.
With the no-till method, all those particles hang together naturally, and are broken up slowly by earthworms and plant roots.
No-till gardening isn’t just for the plants — it also benefits you! Tilling is hard, labor-intensive work, and cutting it out of your yearly gardening routine is a real win. Also, since a no-till garden functions similarly to a natural ecosystem, it’s much more self-sufficient and low-maintenance, requiring less watering, fertilizing, and weeding than a traditionally tilled garden.
How to Start a No-Till Raised Garden Bed
The foundation of a no-till garden is a healthy soil structure. Unfortunately, this doesn’t exist everywhere, especially if you’re building and filling new raised beds from scratch. However, it’s relatively easy to create your own ecosystem of soil for your plants.
1. Get your spot ready
If your desired spot already has grass or weeds, don’t dig them up! Just mow or cut them close to the ground. Lay out the frame of your raised bed, then cover the ground inside with 4-6 sheets of wet newspaper. This will eventually kill the grass and decompose with it.
2. Add your layers
Next, cover your newspaper with alternating layers of compost, manure, and mulch until you near the top of the frame. These layers of organic material are full of nutrients, and will break down more and more over time to create a lasting, rich growing medium. You may have heard of a similar process called lasagna gardening.
3. Finish with mulch
Finish off your bed with a thick layer of mulch. This layer is essential for retaining moisture, keeping your plants’ roots cool, and discouraging weeds. Shredded leaves, grass clippings, and straw (not hay!) are all excellent mulch materials, especially for vegetable gardens.
The key to creating raised beds in urban settings successfully is disturbing the soil as little as possible. Simply make enough room to plant your seeds or transplants, and gently fill the material back in. You can plant in your no-dig garden beds right away, but you should avoid deep rooted vegetables, like potatoes and carrots for the first year while the soil becomes established.
5. Grow a cover crop
This step comes later, but it’s also important. At the end of the growing season, sow a cover crop like barley, buckwheat, clover, winter wheat, or winter rye. These fast growing plants will fill in your otherwise fallow bed and help reduce erosion. When they die back naturally, don’t remove them! They’re an excellent source of organic material and nutrients.
How to Maintain a No-Till Garden
Once it’s established, the best thing you can do for your no-till garden bed is leave it alone. Over time, if undisturbed, the soil in your raised bed will become a balanced, natural environment for plant growth – no digging required!