What is a No-Till Garden?

raised garden with straw surrounding the plants

If you prefer the smell of freshly tilled earth trailing through your fingertips in early spring, a no-till garden may seem unattractive at best or anathema at worst.

If you’re unsure what all the hype is about, we’ll dig deep to discover what no-till gardening is and why you may want to consider this gardening method. 

The tillage problem

For home gardeners, tillage means using a tiller or other tool (shovel, spade, etc.) to dig and turn over the soil. Large-scale farmers use a moldboard plow or disk plow to till up to 12 inches deep into the soil. 

The goal of tillage is to reduce compaction, aerate the soil, and get rid of weeds. Why? So the root system of new plants will have a friable, aerated soil bed in which to grow. Research has shown, however, that tillage may not achieve these goals. 

Tilling the ground breaks apart the soil structure and makes it more prone to erosion. The tilled soil is now likely to become compacted by rain and by the heavy equipment that does the tilling, reducing aeration in the soil. In addition, fungal webs in the soil are destroyed when the soil is tilled. Untilled ground leaves these networks intact. 

You may wonder whether fertilizers or manure will be as effective if they are not tilled into the ground. Research has shown that synthetic and organic fertilizers are at least as effective in no-till operations as in tilled ones.

The no-till solution

Everyone wants a healthy garden with healthy soil. Proponents of no-till say that leaving the soil undisturbed is key to achieving this goal. Here are a few of the main components of no-till gardening:

Key components of no-till gardening:

  • Keeps the soil covered 
  • Uses cover crops in the off-season
  • Minimizes soil disturbance (maintain soil structure)
  • Minimizes erosion (water or wind)
  • Reduces water loss
  • Increases organic matter
  • Adds nutrients
  • Controls weeds
  • Saves time and labor — no tilling

No-till is only one way to improve soil health, but it is a popular starting point for home gardeners who want rich, healthy soil and plants. 

Five steps to make a no-till garden

This method works for raised bed gardens or beds without a frame around them.

Step 1: Mow

Mow the area where the new garden area will be. Leave the clippings on the ground.

Step 2: Cover

Lay down cardboard or about six sheets of newspaper to cover the area.

Step 3: Water

Douse the cardboard or newspaper with water to speed decomposition.

Step 4: Compost

Cover the paper or cardboard with a thick layer of composted manure, compost, or worm compost up to 6 inches deep.

Step 5: Mulch

Cover the layer of compost with a layer of mulch. Use a few inches of wood chips, grass clippings, or chopped leaves. (Don’t mix; layer it on top of the compost.)

You’re done!

It is ideal to start your no-till garden in the fall so the materials have time to decompose a little before your first planting. The following spring, you may want to use small transplants instead of seeds in your new no-till garden bed. If the wood chip layer is still too thick, add a little more compost or topsoil in your planting holes.

Over time, the wood chips and other mulches will break down. (The greater the biological activity in the soil, the faster this will happen.) As this organic matter decays, it releases nutrients and adds organic matter to the soil. 

To add even more organic matter to your soil in the fall, cut off your summer plants at the level of the soil. Remove the above-ground matter, but leave the plant roots in the ground. As the roots decay, they add more organic matter to your garden. If any roots are left in the spring, you can remove these before you plant.

Pro Tip: Make sure the materials (compost and mulches) are free from weed seeds. Also, leave enough room in your walkways for the lawn mower.

How to maintain a no-till garden

Since one of the key components of no-till is keeping the soil surface covered, minimize bare soil year-round. How? Add a new layer of mulch as needed to maintain the height of the row (grass clippings, shredded leaves, compost, wood chips, etc.). 

In addition to mulching the rows, add a cover crop at least once a year. Cover crops reduce erosion, add nutrients (like nitrogen) to the soil, and help suppress weeds. Fall is the perfect time to add a cover crop if your beds lie fallow. If you use the beds to plant fall veggies, you can sow cover crops in between rows.

Advantages of a no-till garden

✓ Controls weeds 
✓ No gas or oil used for mechanical tillers 
✓ Saves labor (no digging or tilling)
✓ Saves time
✓ Saves physical wear and tear — less work 
✓ Intact fungal webs and earthworm tunnels
✓ Limits soil erosion
✓ Cover crops and mulch return organic material to the soil
✓ Improves soil fertility
✓ Increases moisture retention/reduces evaporation

Disadvantages of a no-till garden

✗ There is an initial outlay for the compost, wood chips, etc. 
✗ May have to pay for materials if you make raised beds

FAQ about no-till gardening

1. Are there other common names for no-till gardening?

You may have heard no-till practices called by other names. Each one may be slightly different in its execution, but the idea is the same.
Sheet mulching
Sheet composting
Lasagna gardening
Zero tillage

2. Is no-till an ideal method for organic gardening?

Many organic gardeners (and larger-scale organic farmers) use some form of no-till or low-till gardening. Soil health is a foundational principle for most organic farms, so a method like no-till that decreases erosion, increases organic matter, and improves fertility is ideal. 

3. Is no-till a profitable way to garden?

A recent 30-year study shows that, over time, no-till farmers can expect increased yields from their fields. As such, many conventional farmers and gardeners use these techniques as well. 

While you’re busy working on your new no-till garden plot, contact one of our local lawn care experts to take mowing off your outdoor to-do list.

Main Photo Credit: Piqsels

Sarah Bahr

Sarah is a writer who has previously worked in the lawn care industry. In her spare time, she likes to garden, raise chickens, and mow the grass with her battery-powered lawn mower.