Gardening without Tillage—Why?

by Harold Schrock | Mar 4, 2022 | 0 comments

Garden vegetables
Photo © Dreamstime.com.

I realize that having a garden without tilling might sound strange. My earliest memories of gardening include plowing, disking, and tilling. For many years I never knew there was any other way of preparing a garden. It was/is a system of garden preparation that works and, combined with enough inputs of compost and other fertilizers, can continue working well.

But there are significant reasons why we should consider other methods than the complete till, fine seedbed as our standard method of gardening. To achieve disease- and insect-resistant crops and produce the very best quality food, our soil needs a complete ecosystem. This will include a balance of bacteria and fungi with accompanying pre-complexed nutrients. Nutrients need to be plant-available but not necessarily water-soluble.

This situation is almost impossible to create with complete tillage. The tillage of soil destroys fungal networks leading to bacterial dominance. Bacteria create most of the non-soluble plant food in the soil. Though plants are not overly-impacted in the short term, the loss of fungi is a problem if our goal is highest quality. Fungal networks serve as extensions for plant roots, especially the mycorrhiza variety. The loss of fungi doesn’t necessarily harm the growth of plants, at least not initially, but many vegetable species (especially more modern hybrids) have relatively weak root systems and, without the help of fungi or the continual application of fertilizers, they cannot reach their fullest potential.

Fertilizer application is the norm for commercial growers and many home gardeners. I am not against fertilizer; in many cases it is needed, and for many years I have made my living selling it. What I have come to discover is that even with the best of technology (regular plant sap tests and accompanying high-quality fertilizer applications), we still cannot come close to matching what God created with living soil networks. Man-made fertilizer cannot grow the highest quality produce. That is exclusively in the domain of a functional soil full of life, taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide.

What are the levels of quality that cannot be reached without a soil full of life in a proper balance? The metric that can be measured is the level of fat within the produce. Many people do not think of vegetables as containing fat. Some might recognize coconuts and avocados as having fat. The truth is, most produce contains too little fat. To be sure, a tomato will never contain the level of fat found in an avocado. However, there is significant benefit when the tomato reaches a higher level of fat content. Plant secondary metabolites (also called essential oils) are created from plant fats. The higher the fat content in produce, as a rule, the more essential oils it will contain and the more medicinal our daily food.

Fat testing as a laboratory process is expensive and not practical for an individual. Fortunately, there is a very simple thing to monitor if you want to know where your produce is in the spectrum. The simple thing is shelf life of harvested produce. There is a very direct correlation between the quality of the soil a plant is grown in and the length of time the product will stay fresh and consumable after harvest. A standard leafy green grown with soluble fertilizers will deteriorate into mush within a few weeks of harvest, sometimes even a few days. I’ve seen lettuce that was perfectly fresh and edible more than three months after harvest. I have also seen tomatoes and peppers that would not rot when left on a kitchen counter at room temperature; they slowly dehydrated, remaining edible at every step of the process. I don’t know of any way to achieve this outside of a highly functional soil. This is why today I place a premium on learning to garden without tillage.

I should probably explain the link between soil life and fat content in the produce. It is simple to understand. Fat will build to higher levels when there is more energy available than is immediately needed. When animals or people eat more high-energy food, particularly carbohydrates, than what they need to function, the result is most likely weight gain and additional fat accumulation. There are other possible reasons for fat accumulation, and we should never assume that an overweight person has been intemperate. The same general rule applies to plants, but, unlike people, it is always a good thing for plants to have more fat.

As I understand it, the only way for plants to build higher levels of fat is to receive nutrients in a pre-complexed form. A plant can survive on water-soluble nutrition like is found in a fertilizer bag, but it takes more energy, and there’s nothing left over for building fat. When microbes deliver more complex nutrition to plants, it takes much less energy within the plant to grow and produce. This allows the plant to store the excess as fat and create all the extra goodies a healthy, high-energy plant is capable of. The result is not only longer shelf life, but more and better flavor as well.
Produce quality is the big reason for reducing tillage and creating a healthier soil ecosystem. But there are other benefits as well.

Tillage creates additional weed pressure. In the system that I described in the beginning of this article of starting with a clean, tilled seedbed, weed control was a season-long endeavor. Of course, this resulted in a whole lot more tillage. Our standard practice was to regularly go down between the rows with a tiller and use a hoe within the row between plants. This is quite easy and effective if done regularly when weeds are small. Almost invariably in my experience, we got behind, and it became much more difficult to prevent weeds from taking over the garden.

When we avoid tillage, far fewer weeds germinate. In transition to no-till gardening, we will still have to deal with weeds that do germinate, and it may in some situations mean more hand labor in the short term. Long-term, weeds do become less and less of an issue when tillage is left behind. Most weed species pop up to help heal damaged soil. When our soil becomes less damaged, many weed species are minimized.

Consider a house construction sight, as an example. Weeds pop up in the disturbed dirt. Once the dirt bed is turned into a healthy, grassy lawn, the weed pressure is minimized.

To get away from tillage requires us to think and to plan, and we ought to be doing that. Tillage is easy to do, at least if we can get the tiller started. So, when we don’t have a plan and are scrambling at the last minute to put in a garden, tilling is what we have to resort to.

No-till is not physically harder, at least not in the long term, but it does require more thought and more planning. I think this is a good thing. Any time we put more thought and planning into an enterprise, our enjoyment of it is likely to increase.

Over the next few months I plan to lay out some practical ideas for successful gardening with low- or no-till methods.

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