Till in the spring?

grovestead(4)April 7, 2014

I tilled up a large plot last fall and worked in some manure. I left it bare over winter (but it was covered with snow). Now the snow has melted and i will likely start planting within the next few weeks. My question is, should I retill the soil before planting in the spring?

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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

I just till where and when I am going to plant something or to kill off weeds.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2014 at 6:53PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

You can till the whole thing, sure. But i just spring till the planting rows, work in the compost and winter mulch and any fertilizer if using it. No need to stir up what will be the walking paths.

Just make sure the soil has dried out enough for tilling or you end up with hard large clumps that make planting difficult at best.

Dave

    Bookmark   April 7, 2014 at 7:15PM
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ltilton

I till in the fall and plant without tilling in the spring, because my soil tends to be too wet for it.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2014 at 8:38PM
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theforgottenone1013(MI zone 5b/6a)

I too till in the fall but not in the spring. I just rake the beds smooth in spring and plant. This gives me an earlier jump on the season (no waiting for the ground to dry out).

Rodney

    Bookmark   April 7, 2014 at 9:36PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

I also till ONLY planting area (beds . :D).

I think tilling does good: It aerates ; kills the weeds ;Fluffs up the soil ( good for the roots). Soil gets compacted over a year by water, rain. So it get hard for the air to penetrate. Also, tilling and leavin the bed under the sun has benefits too. Sunshine can help the chemistry of soil, especially if it left longer.

Then , of course, when you amend, got to till to the depth that roots will grow in.

I fully respect the practice and views of those who don't believe in tilling. IT IS YOUR GARDEN, YOUR CHOICE.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2014 at 10:17PM
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djkj(9b)

It always help to till with some compost and manure when preparing the beds. I find them to better integrate with the soil that way

    Bookmark   April 9, 2014 at 12:44PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

It seems so obvious to me that most plants do better in fluffed up soil than compacted one. Most garden soils become compacted after a year. So spring tilling is a good practice.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2014 at 1:42PM
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grovestead(4)

This is my quandry, since i tilled late in the fall, with manure, I'm not sure if my garden needs another tilling this spring. Like Rodney mentioned, it takes a long time for the soil to dry out enough in my climate. I could lose another 10 days or so.

Next year I plan to sow a cover crop in the fall so Spring tilling will be the norm. But for this year, i am still weigh the pros and cons.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2014 at 1:53PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Yes: if you mulch in the fall or have a cover crop in place that prevents compaction that occurs with a bare soil left sitting unprotected over winter.

And you never want to till wet soil.

Much repeated tilling even when the soil is not wet grinds the soil down, another reason to minimize the frequency by keeping the soil covered over winter.

In hot summer climates you can also keep vegetable plots mulched through the summer. A well known example of this was Ruth Stout and her mulching with hay (or straw, I don't remember) instead of cultivating.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2014 at 2:01PM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

You can sometimes speed up soil drying in early spring by using a potato or similar fork to lift up the soil a bit and speed drying.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2014 at 3:46PM
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elisa_z5

Ruth Stout mulched with hay. And she began her no-till gardening method precisely because she got sick of having to wait until the soil dried out in the spring in order to till and plant.

Just to add to the minimal till perspective -- each time you till you burn up organic matter, disturb the soil food web, and disturb your soil structure. So tilling as little as possible is the rule of thumb for many gardeners.

I'd say don't till, just plant. And as wayne mentioned, you could aerate the soil by doing what Eliot Coleman suggests, which is sticking a fork into the soil and loosening it a bit (without turning it over.)

    Bookmark   April 10, 2014 at 11:59AM
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CaraRose

I use a garden claw to break up the soil, then work in a bit of fertilizer and rake smooth. Just in my garden beds.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2014 at 3:17PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Not to turn this into yet another debate on till vs. no till as that wasn't the question posed or being discussed.

Just to add to the minimal till perspective -- each time you till you burn up organic matter, disturb the soil food web, and disturb your soil structure.

But this no-till propaganda statement really bothers me and not just because it is off-topic. What or who is this claim based on please? Is there any scientific documentation to support it?

Burn up organic matter how? You adding additional organic matter. What damage is done to the soil food web? It is not a static thing, some layer that cannot be disturbed. The soil food web is alive and it thrives on the additions of new organic materials and aeration. And disturbing soil structure is often considered a good thing as it improves the tilth.

Dave

    Bookmark   April 10, 2014 at 4:58PM
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elisa_z5

I got most of my propaganda from the book Teaming With Microbes (Lowenfels and Lewis), Eliot Coleman, Ruth Stout, Emilia Hazelip and a couple other "no dig" books. Teaming with Microbes bases all of their claims on scientific explanations as to why their claims are true. They provide photos (those ones taken through a microscope) to illustrate. I certainly thought they were to be trusted.

To provide the explanations you asked for, I'll provide what I learned from these sources.
Example: Tilling burns up organic matter because of the quick addition of oxygen. If you're tilling in a cover crop, then you're also making up for the loss. If you're tilling bare ground, you're losing om in the process.
They say tilling disturbs the soil food web by ripping up fungal strands and displacing soil biota. And that it disturbs soil structure by collapsing the pores between soil particles. I also read David Bodanis' "The Secret Garden" which give such a vivid account (and photos) of the "cities" built by the bacteria, fungi, nematodes, worms, etc . . . that I feel like Conan the Destroyer whenever I dig!

I do not consider the statement off topic, because the OP was weighing pros and cons, and that was the core of the question. So, I offered the minimal-till perspective that would give a vote for not tilling, just planting. Some people offered pros (fluffing up the soil is good for roots, etc.) I offered the cons, which I *thought* I had learned correctly from my sources. If I've been misled, then I've spent a lot of time not disturbing my soil (carefully digging out weeds) when I could have been rototilling!

I'm not interested in a debate -- apparently there were till vs no till debates on here before my time, because folks seem to be worried about militant no-tillers whenever the topic comes up, but I've never seen it really. Though I would like to know if Coleman, Lowenfels & Lewis, and Hazelip have been discredited.

This post was edited by elisa_Z5 on Thu, Apr 10, 14 at 17:47

    Bookmark   April 10, 2014 at 5:27PM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

Elisa, I do prefer to plant in looser soil. Of course, we all like to feel we are doing things in a decent manner. I believe that my gardens would not be improved by sticking plants and seeds into a cold wet hole. How in the world would amendments and any fertilizers be added to 7,500 sq. ft.

The thing that bothers most is that no-tilling comes off as perhaps a pc type of thing ...like you need your hands slapped for disturbing that filament, worm, or whatever.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2014 at 10:01PM
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elisa_z5

."like you need your hands slapped for disturbing that filament, worm, or whatever."
LOL, Wayne!

Folks gotta garden the way that feels right to them, and fits their energy level and sensibilities, and makes their garden look the way they want it to look. I happen to hate black plastic and the noise of tillers, dislike the look of bare ground, but love hay and clover and any weed that flowers. So a messy garden full of seedy hay mulch and all the flowering weeds the hay has planted for me suits me just fine.
I was merely giving a vote for not tilling *now* to someone who was trying to figure out which way to go this week. Didn't realize I'd stumbled upon politics!

    Bookmark   April 10, 2014 at 10:38PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Discredited?

Not at all. Just considered one school of thought - among many other equally well-documented schools of thought. Somewhat anecdotal and definitely not garden gospel.

For example, They say tilling disturbs the soil food web by ripping up fungal strands and displacing soil biota. And that it disturbs soil structure by collapsing the pores between soil particles.

The argument is made that the fungal strands are not so much "ripped up" as increasingly dispersed throughout the soil in a beneficial fashion. And that rather than collapsing pores (a minute opening through which gases, liquids, or microscopic particles can pass) the aeration provided by tilling can actually improve the pore osmosis, the soils ability to drain and to better disperse nutrients.

So as with many things in life there are always at least 3 sides to any story and it serves us well to keep that in mind. Rather than buying into one school of thought completely, personal experimentation with the various approaches is usually the best way to learn which combination of them works best in your particular soil and situation.

Dave

    Bookmark   April 10, 2014 at 11:07PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

The only way to settle this 'Till" or " Not to Till" is to take a piece of land, divide it into two halves: ONE tilled, OTHER not tilled and plant identically, fertilizing , water, exact the same way and then measure productivity. I am willing to bet on "TILL IT !".

This can be done easily. And does not require a million dollar research fund. I wonder if any Ag. Ext. or university has done it already or not. My gut and my head tell me that tilling is better. I could be wrong.

Let me add one more thing:
HOW CAN YOU PLANT A TOMATO WITHOUT TILLING ? Digging a hole to put down your plant, in effect is an act of tilling. Just think about it. And the deeper, fluffier the soil prepared in the hole , the more vigorous the plant. Same goes for peppers, eggplants, potatoes, squash and a host of other garden veggies.

BTW: I like to debate. Nothing wrong with it. I find it most educating. It can open windows of thoughts and ideas.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2014 at 9:05AM
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elisa_z5

"The argument is made that the fungal strands are not so much "ripped up" as increasingly dispersed throughout the soil in a beneficial fashion. And that rather than collapsing pores (a minute opening through which gases, liquids, or microscopic particles can pass) the aeration provided by tilling can actually improve the pore osmosis, the soils ability to drain and to better disperse nutrients."

Now THAT'S interesting. It's as though people assumed that what was happening on a microscopic level meant one thing, but how do we really know?

seysonn -- I may well take you up on the experiment idea. I've got an area where I want to plant potatoes, and I decided last year that hilling potatoes when you haven't tilled is for a stronger person than I. But I have one bed where I can keep it minimal-till. I'll report back if I actually follow through.

And yes, of course there is no such thing as zero till -- it's all about digging as little as possible. Or not.

I will say this -- that even though I immersed myself in the no-dig philosophy after being led there by my CSA partner years ago, I have observed something that goes against it.
Because of my "let all clover, yarrow, Queen Anne's Lace, daisies, dock, dandelions, twitch weed, black eyed susans, etc. grow if they want to" attitude, I have some beds that just get out of hand and go wild. Then there is nothing to do except till the next year.
And . . . yes, I get better production after tilling these wild places. Is it because they lay fallow for a year or because they got tilled? Only the microbes know for sure!

    Bookmark   April 11, 2014 at 1:37PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Only the microbes know for sure!

How true! And since they so outnumber us and will be here long after we are gone I'm inclined to trust in their ability to survive, :)

I wonder if any Ag. Ext. or university has done it already or not.

Many of them have been done and there are many pros and cons to all sides of the issue. In some situations no-till works exceptionally well, in other situations, poorly. Same goes for tilling. So we need to remain flexible and adjust accordingly.

Dave

    Bookmark   April 11, 2014 at 3:33PM
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elisa_z5

Ha! Yes, they're built to survive floods and earthquakes, so why not a little tilling?

Dave, where can I find the research you're referring to? Sounds really interesting.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2014 at 7:32PM
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tracydr(9b)

If I don't use a garden for a season, I try to plant a cover crop which then gets tilled before planting. I don't do this often because my gardens are usually year-round. I do till lightly every time And add manure to bring the level of the beds back up. Our heat seems to cause compost to disappear very quickly. Even pine needles and straw rot down in six months or less. I do a lot of lasagne style garden and get beautiful compost in the beds.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2014 at 11:51PM
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tracydr(9b)

Isn't the no-till method designed to be used with strip farming and Round-Up? I haven't seen much written in journals or by real science organizations touting no-till organic. Maybe the Kerr Foundation has a little information.
I do mulch heavily but I like to incorporate last season's mulch to compost. I don't mulch much in winter because its hard with closely planted lettuce and greens. But, I add 6-12" of aged manure before every planting, along with carbon from straw,,pine straw, tree trimmings.
When the organic matter disappears into rich soil I don't consider that burning up.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 12:01AM
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zeedman Zone 5 Wisconsin

Moving back to the original question, I prefer to till in both Fall and Spring. If I am able to do so, I usually have a great year... but if the soil gets wet early in the Fall, then I rely on a Spring tilling.

Most of my garden is heavily mulched (20-25 bales of marsh hay & grass clippings), to which I add leaves in the Fall. If I turn all of this under in the Fall, it will have mostly broken down in the Spring; tilling again helps further disperse this material throughout the root zone.

There is no way that I could plant 10,000 square feet of garden without tilling. Even if I planted from a balloon, so that no foot ever touched the ground, the heavy soil in my area would still get compacted by heavy summer rainfall. Furthermore, I might only have a planting window of several days between storms... if the soil was not already loose, I would never get the whole garden planted.

Note that I don't disagree with no-till gardening, nor square foot intensive gardening, nor raised beds, nor any other widely used garden technique. They all have both good and bad points, and a gardener should use the one(s) that best suit their lifestyle, their soil type, their climate, and the scale at which they garden.

But two points have been brought up that I would like to respond to. The first is that tilling "burns up" organic matter. I would lump that statement into the same category with "fat burning" commercials... it is meant not as a statement of fact, but to elicit an emotional response. I can firmly assure you, there is no smoke rising from the soil after I till. ;-)

What tilling does is to accelerate the decomposition of organic material deposited at the surface, by turning it under where conditions are more optimal for decay. Isn't that fundamentally what you do when you turn compost? That decomposition is what releases nutrients from the organic matter to be used by the plants being grown, and enriches the soil... so I wouldn't equate a constructive process of soil building through decay, with the negative term "burning".

The other point I would make about tilling is that it does more than just break up the soil. It also destroys insects & disease organisms that shelter themselves in garden debris. One of the best ways to prevent this year's minor insect or disease from becoming a major problem the following year, is to destroy all crop residue at the end of the season. Cleaning the garden & either destroying or composting garden debris accomplishes this. So does tilling... but only tilling can be accomplished on a large scale. Furthermore, only tilling will destroy insects which pupate in the soil - such as squash vine borer.

While I acknowledge that no-till methods work well under some circumstances, for me the insect harboring issue is a deal breaker.

This post was edited by zeedman on Sat, Apr 12, 14 at 1:57

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 1:50AM
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