To Till or Not to Till?


BIU Gardener Billie Anderson’s 2018 garden

Why go No Till This Year?

When spring rolls around and you want to get started with your garden, you may think it’s necessary to till up the soil.  With our predominantly clay soils, it is easy to see why we play host to the headquarters of a major brick company in Johnson City.  Can you successfully grow in clay soil without busting it up and turning it over with a tiller each spring?  YES!  Yes, you can.  And there are many benefits to putting the tiller away permanently.

No-till methods work with natural soil building processes, to create soft, workable soils without the need to till.  It builds nutrients into the soil by feeding the microbes with cover crops and mulch, and it prevents weeds from germinating by never giving those seeds the sunlight they need.  Good, healthy soil will grow good, healthy plants and good gardeners know that they are first and foremost stewards of the soil and not just growers of plants!

How to start no-till in the spring:

  • Add organic matter to your garden. Pile on layers of composted materials, shredded leaves, straw and other similar materials onto your garden beds.  This stuff will rot down, providing a steady stream of food to the wee and not so wee life in your soil.
  • Smother your weeds with layers of cardboard or opaque tarps.  It takes about 3 weeks to kill plants this way, so plan ahead before you need that bed to plant in!
  • Use cover crops.  Spring oats and field peas make a great early spring cover crop mix for any garden areas that aren’t going to be used immediately.  Two important principles of soil health are to keep your soil covered and live roots growing at all times.  Bare soil grows weeds, so keep the weeds out with cover crops.
  • Rotate your crops.  Don’t plant the same plants in the same spot year after year.  This causes plant pathogens to build up in the soil, making it harder for those crops to survive.  A minimum three year rotation among crop families is recommended.

Converting your garden to no-till will be an on-going series of posts in 2019, so stay tuned for more tips and strategies over the next few months.  For extra credit reading, check out these sites:

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