How often should i till the soil in my garden?
There are some people who practice no-till gardening and never till their gardens. If you do till, I wouldn't till more than once a year.
Once, to get rid of surface plants, grass, etc. After that, simple tools like a good fork, spade and hoe is all you should need.
Tilling is extremely useful for working organic material and other soil amendments into the ground.
Its also good for keeping invasive roots out of your garden space. Tilling in the off season exposes insects to the effects of weather and predators. And, of course, it softens crusted, compacted soil.
The main limitation on my current ability to get the most out of the amount of ground I have is the lack of a tiller -- without which a small, less than athletic, 45yo woman with a bad knee and a bad shoulder cannot do much more than sit on the ground and scratch at it with a 3-prong cultivator.
I have a teenage son, but he has other things to do with his time than performing hundreds of hours of peasant labor in my garden without even benefit of an ox or mule to assist him.
Its possible to way overdo the tilling, but when you've got trees continually sending roots toward your carefully enriched soil and layers of fall leaves to incorporate there is nothing to beat regular tilling between crop seasons.
And exposes more weed seeds to light. And upsets soil biota. And creates a till pan if always done at same depth. And loosens the crust and allows for wind erosion. And breaking the crust means more soil moisture escapes.
So. I'm with m lorne but if you must, I'd do it in spring after the soil can be worked (crumbles when squeezed), but there is no need to till yearly. We just got back from the US Midwest and were pleasantly surprised at the number of no-till farms in Kansas.
Might as well weigh in here....
First, I used to till-in fall leaves every year. I have a great big Troy-Bilt tiller, so I figured why not use it? Then several years ago I changed my way of thinking. Nature never needs tilling. All that is handled by worms and other soil life. If you have a good population of worms, your soil should never need tilling -- let them do the work. They will incorporate leaves and other matter into the soil -- that's what they DO.
At first, I didn't have that many worms (4-5 sq. ft.), so I was tempted at times to break out the tiller, but I fought the urge and just let nature take its course. I figured that tilling would be a short term solution. It would break up the soil and incorporate the organic material, but it would also kill a bunch of the worms that were there, along with disrupting the complex soil food web.
Fast forward to now: When I checked earlier this spring, I was finding in the neighborhood of twenty (20) worms per square foot in my garden soil. It's so easy to work that I pretty much just use a trowel for planting, unless I'm digging up horseradish roots or some other crop -- then I'll use a digging fork. I also use the Ruth Stout year-round mulch system, and I'm a BIG believer in it. People are always asking me how I have such healthy plants and big yields, and I always say "Build your soil, build your soil, build your soil, and then mulch, mulch, mulch." Simple, but very effective if you commit to it.
P.S. I still bring out the tiller when I break new ground. Then I'll used it once or twice more to till-in a buckwheat crop. Other than that, it's no-till for me.
No-till farms make liberal use of herbicides and have mechanical equipment specifically designed for planting into the unbroken ground.
The organic material to be worked into the soil and the mulch on top are two different things. :-)
Twice in a row now I've moved into houses where the yard had received little or no attention for several years as the place sat empty and twice in a row we've had a multiple-year accumulation of heavy, matted leaves to rake off the portions of yard that had trees.
The ground under the leaves may indeed be the richest ground in the yard (though if you scratch it to the depth of planting beans you reach white sand below the half-inch layer of black. Underneath its just like the rest of the yard so its only rich in relative terms). But the leaves themselves, rather than supporting growth choked out all but the most vigorous weeds.
If the worms didn't turn my leaves into useful soil more than half an inch deep in 3 and 5 years respectively I'm skeptical about it happening on a timescale shorter than decades. Especially since both these houses with the deep accumulations of leaves were in warm climates where the ground does not freeze hard for more than a few weeks.
I know that tilling 6-8 inches of fall leaves into the sand of my home in New England made that soil more productive that very year than the area that I did not have enough leaves for. I know that working them in every year for 5 years gave me a moisture-retentive soil, noticeably blacker than the unaltered lawn while the paper mulch, applied after the soil was warm, kept the weeds down.
After each spring's tilling, I could work the ground with my hands for the rest of the season if I was careful to walk only on the designated paths.
Of course djsgravely is also reporting his/her personal experience, and I believe that the report is true -- though he/she didn't mention the timescale.
Perhaps the difference is the nature of the soil itself?
I haven't gardened on a nice, clay-loam since I left my father's house for college. My soil in New England was unsorted glacial till -- mainly sand, but the grains were geologically young and unweathered -- presenting a greyish overall appearance flecked with color from the various mineral grains -- so it was more fertile than would usually be expected from sand.
The two houses with the yards lost under layers of leaves were on nearly pure quartz sand first in Delaware, (the Del-Mar peninsula could well be described as a chunk of an unusually persistent sandbar between two rivers), and now in the NC Sandhills (an ancient beachfront remaining long after the ocean receded). Perhaps quartz sand does not support a worm population capable of dealing with the amount of leaves that a richer soil would?
My neighbor has no deciduous trees on his lot, but he tills in his garden waste every fall and grows a cover crop every winter to till in come spring. His ground is far superior to either my fresh ground or the ground under the trees where the leaves had lain -- with organic matter down in the soil rather than just spread thinly on top to be washed aside by the rains. :-)
I'm of the "till if there is a specific reason to do so" crowd. Which means, for example, I tilled in eight inches of organic matter in a bed for permanently planting artichokes this spring. But just one bed. Nothing else needed it, because the worms had been busy.
I noticed that where I don't till, the surface soil has risen as the worms aerate it, work the organic matter in. It's easier, too.
Simple answer when ever you want its your garden
I till spring and fall and I just ran my troy built down my corn patch now its mulched so I will not need to again
I am not sure if my thinking is right (or wrong) but I til my raised beds upside-down with a shovel in the spring for two reasons. First to add organic material and second to mix the soil well up and own so that I would not have to worry about crop rotation. I think that by mixing the soil top to bottom eliminates crop rotation need from nutrient depletion point of view unless a definite disease was observed with a specific crop. I would prefer to do the tilling in the fall but the winter always creeps forward unexpected and spoils the plans.
My feeling is that if Mother Nature had wanted us to till, then at some time over the past 200 million years She would have covered the earth in hogs instead of covering the earth in antelope, cattle, horses, elephants, giraffes, buffalo, sheep, goats, and related species. Hogs dig the dirt up. The other species press it down. When they are playing or attacked by predators, the animals hammer it down. Nevertheless, there has always been enough grass under the feet of the grazing and browsing animals to feed everyone. I firmly believe the reason for the success is not tilling from the top but letting insects and other critters bore aeration holes and water channels throughout the soil.
That depends. If you are breaking new ground for a garden you may well need to till that several times a couple of weeks apart to kill the "weed" seeds that would be turned up be that tilling. If you till when that soil is too wet you may need to till several times to correct the problems that would generate. If you are tilling in lots of organic matter you may need to till several times to get that OM mixed in well.
Tilling also disrupts the Soil food Web and the fungi that form that symbiotic Mychorrhizal relationship with plant roots, destroys soil structure, and has been found to be not generally the best thing to do to soil. So maybe the first year of tilling you may need to till several times but if that soil is then properly cared for tilling is unnecessary from then on.
I have a neighbor who tills his garden with a tractor/12" tiller at least 2x a year, and will 'cultivate' between his rows with a walk-behind tiller. We have the same soil. He has done so for, I dunno, at least 50 years. He grows a beautiful, very productive garden.
The difference is; he *has* to till, because his soil, no matter the amount of organic matter - manure/compost, and he adds a lot - the soil compacts down very quickly. Like the first time he irrigates. After that, it's like pavement.
My garden, I rarely till, many beds haven't been tilled in 8 years, and I can easily use a hand-trowel to plant anything. I heap up the organic matter on top and let the worms do the work.
I've been watching the big, commercial farmers around here shifting over to no-till practices, due largely to the cost of the equipment and the operating cost of the equipment. But they also shift crops for the same reason, as the major expense they have is running their tractors.
I appreciate that there is an issue with weeds and, perhaps, more herbicide use, but I don't think that is necessarily applicable on the 'home garden' scale. There are too many other alternatives for weed control, and the same guy who tills constantly has just as many, if not more, weeds than I do.
farmertroy - try posting this on the Florida Forum .
Florida is primarily a no till state .
Our gardening is unique in Florida so the good advice from other states usually does not apply .
Tilling in Florida is recommended if you are preparing an area for new sod or you have clay soil .
Look at solutionsforyourlife.com for a really good reference source to bookmark .
I can see how extremely sandy soil wouldn't have much structure. I never see worms at the beach. :)
Tilling the soil is a terrible thing to do, which is why after only 2,000 years some farmers have gone to no-till techniques. Keeping the soil food web intact is very important, just look at the low yields hydroponic farmers get, and the crappy growth plants show in sterilized potting mix.
This is a shades of gray topic, not black and white. If I dump compost into my soil every year, and have the proper nutrient levels, and vary the depth of tilling (and use a spading fork occasionally), I do not have to worry about loss of to much organic matter to high aerobic bacterial activity in turned over soil, the plants do not need mychorrhizal fungus to provide phosphorus from low phosphorus soil, I do not need earthworms to do their minimalistic job of mixing the soil, and I will not have a hardpan develop.
You are right. There is no structure to my soil.
Its white sand on top and white sand underneath. Eventually, if you dig at least a foot or two down, the white becomes more yellow.
In the digging of a hole 18" wide and 8-10 inches deep in completely undisturbed lawn (it has neither been fertilized nor treated with weedkiller -- only mown occasionally), it is unusual to see even a single worm.
I don't till my garden beds with a rototiller, but I do work the surface of the beds before I plant. I use a large four pronged 'rake'. I seldom step on the soil in my beds. I use a plank to walk on when I need to fertilize or harvest inside the beds.
The exception to that is the strawberry bed. I do walk on the soil in that bed, but not on the rows where the berry plants grow.
I worked the soil for my potato patch pretty good with a fork and the rake. A tiller would have made that easier. It's bare dirt and the potatoes seem to prefer it that way. I think that a corn patch could be tilled, too. Otherwise, I'd only use a tiller to break the ground for a new bed.
If someone must till their soil repeatedly because that soil will compact if it is not tilled then that soil simply does not have enough organic matter in it. One thing I have found is that tilling in some organic matter several times gets the soil bacteria working on and digesting that organic matter so fast that repeated tilling of OM into soil results in even less than you started with. When I did that I had no humus (residual organic matter) in the soil at the end of the growing season. However, when I tilled in a large volume of OM and then mulched that sand with more OM the humus level started to increase. With clay more care is required because clay soils with too little OM can hold too much moisture and can easily become water logged, especially it they do not drain well.
When I add organic matter to the soil, I just spread it on top, and it always works great. I do this in my perennial and garden beds, just mulch with compost. In the fall I use grass clippings, and this prevents springtime weeds for me.
This is primarily because I am lazy, and tilling is hard work! Plus I do not own a tiller anyway. I have found the organic matter on top of the soil works just fine. I have few weeds, and my soil is fluffy from this type of management.
This year, I also shared a garden plot with some friends, because I have black walnuts so I cannot grow healthy tomatoes. They are big time tillers. Now this is just a few blocks away, conditions are pretty similar, and they tilled three times, each time, a week after tilling, every exposed scrap of dirt was a carpet of weeds. I just don't get it. We did eventually put newspaper and mulch down, what a relief. I have never seen weeds crop up so fast in a garden.
I always wondered if I should get a tiller, but after seeing THAT, I am convinced I am doing this the right way for my area.
Tilling is a wonderful way to break ground on a new plot. It will do in one afternoon what would take you a solid week to do by hand. It does three things at once: it breaks up hard chunks of earth, aerates the soil, and does a great job of working amendments into the existing soil. Be sure to set the depth gage so that you can go as deep as you can. Some tomato plants, for example, can send roots as far as five feet. So do your plants a favor and go as deep as you can.
There is one big thing to keep in mind when you use a tiller. Do NOT pulverize the soil. Do not be tempted to go over it and over it and over it until it is a fine powder. This will destroy the soil's structure. ALSO, be sure to only till soil that is moist - not bone dry and not muddy. If you walk on the ground and you can see any moisture around your shoes then the soil has too much moisture in it. If the plot is bone dry then water it well a few days before you plan to till it. As you till the area you should have small (pea gravel size balls of earth,not dust. I know I have been repeteive here, but too many new gardeners grab a big tiller and just pulverize the soil without really understanding what they are doing.
An even better way to create a new planting bed then tilling is to spread newspaper over the area and cover that newspaper with a good mulch to hold the paper in place and hide it. Of course this takes some time so this new planting bed is not immediately ready to plant in, although proper tilling also means at a minimum 6 weeks before using that bed.
I created a no till garden last year. The portion outside the fence was made by having 28 yards of aged manure from county stables dumped. I spread it out about 6 inches deep. It killed everything except a few bindweed plants. Wherever I planted something, I pulled back the manure and placed a small pocket of good soil around the roots of the starts. That was all I needed to do to grow some of the lushest largest plants I ever had. Our new garden at our home on Huffman was just started this spring and is no till too.
I collect vast amounts of material to compost, which is a lot of work for sure . . . but at the same time I eliminate (or make easy) so much of the work I would have to do otherwise (weeding, watering, not tilling) . . . and the results are spectacular.
Here is a link that might be useful: A NO TILL GARDEN
This topic always gets a lot of action whenever it gets asked.
I say, it depends. If you have a very short time in order to put in a garden then you may have to till. But if you do till then remember these items. 1. only till when the soil is damp. Do not till dry soil or all you will do is pulverize it and destroy the soil's structure. 2. when you till you will expose a lot of bacteria and fungi to the air which will oxidize them, which kills them. 3. the process of tilling brings up weed seeds that normally would never see the light of day. So do not be surprised if after you till you have weeds sprouting everywhere. 4. On a first time garden be sure to till as deep as you can. Get the soil as loose as deep as possible. Give those roots somewhere to go. 5. till in as much organic matter as possible. put in as much compost at possible because you will need to replenish the soil with all the microbial matter that will be destroyed when you till. Our forests do not till and the soil is always fluffy and rich with organic life. Things grow well in the forest because of all the microbial life that live in the soil. If you look at healty soil you will find that up to half of it is actually organic matter that comes from bacteria, fungi, and worm poop. Tilling hurts all the good stuff.
We don't always have 18 months to do a lazagna bed. Sometimes we need a prepared bed now. In that case we either till in the material or do it by hand. With my back I go for the tilling. But it is the only time I will ever till the plot. By having lots of good microbial matter in the plot you will never need to till again. No tilling is the best way to protect the tilth of the soil and make sure that the microbial matter (the stuff that acutally makes for healthy soil) remain in high numbers.
There is actual science to this stuff. If we don't pay attention to it you could actually see another dust bowl, even on a micro level. Soil that is not tilled acutally holds together much better even when very dry.
But if you till twice a year happy gardening to you. If you till four times a year happy gardening to you too. I just think the soil is better seved by not tilling. Check out what Bob Webster has to say on You Tube about his rock-hard clay soil that he could not bust with a breaking bar. It is very interesting.
As a person with a college degree in ecology, ...
Things actually do not grow well in the forest at all.
Things grow well in clearings in the forest, especially clearings where the soil was softened and loosened either by storms knocking over trees or by the animals rooting and scratching for their food.
The ground level of undisturbed, mature, old-growth forest is barren and open -- with almost all growth other than the ancient trees themselves being smothered out by the shade, water-hunger, and dead leaves/needles of the mature trees.
The rampant, luxuriant, mixed growth modern Americans -- who may live their lives without ever seeing a mature forest -- associate with forests is characteristic of young growth at the forest edges, clearings, and disturbed areas.
Grasslands are the same way -- old growth chokes out everything else and diminishes in vigor until disturbance from fire, flood, or grazing animals allows it to rejuvenate.
Tilling can be overdone. Tilling can be done in a way that makes the ground worse rather than better. But turning over, softening, and fluffing up the soil is neither evil nor unnatural. :-)
Thank you iam3killerbs! I've seen mature forests myself & can vouch for your statements here. The floor was hardpan underneath all those lovely leaves.
Um, I have an undergrad in forestry and also did a year of ecology in grad school, and this statement
The ground level of undisturbed, mature, old-growth forest is barren and open -- with almost all growth other than the ancient trees themselves being smothered out by the shade, water-hunger, and dead leaves/needles of the mature trees...grasslands are the same way -- old growth chokes out everything else and diminishes in vigor until disturbance from fire, flood, or grazing animals allows it to rejuvenate.
is woefully incorrect for most ecosystems, including eastern pacific coastal forests from, say, mid-CA through the Tongass, and Sierran forests save red fir, and much of the Applachian...etc. Western Pacific forests from ~35 N to taiga are the same way (why were there so many collecting trips there by the Brits and Americans if it is so desolate??), The highest NPP ecosystem on the planet is the forests of the U.S. PacNW, which include dense undergrowth and multiple canopy .
The bquoted is only true in, say, the Intermountain West, Southwestern deserts, Mediterranean climate low-elevation forests .
And grasslands have evolved under ungulate grazing regimes and fire, so the grasslands description is facile at best.
Not a good description or metaphor for soils and management at all.
Well I'm a grade 12 dropout, and have a sum total of 45 minutes of university education (sat in on a french class with my daughter when we visited a university she was intereseted in) and I think sometimes tilling can be helpful and sometimes it ain't.
Trees seem to grow well in forests. Grain or vegetables? Not so much. Although with no degree or special courses I am clearly unqualified to make such a statement. LOL
I've never been to the west but I can assure you that there is almost no mature forest remaining in the Appalachians. The part I have personally visited, near the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, is indeed barren of understory vegetation -- except in clearings and on the edges, where the soil has been disturbed.
Almost every square inch of the Appalachians was logged and/or cleared for pasture by the mid-1800's and only let go back to forest after the Great Plains -- with their deep, rich, superior soil -- were settled and farmed.
Additionally, the chestnut blight devastated the eastern ecosystem so that the original, chestnut-dominant forest was replaced by the current, maple/oak-dominant forest.
So the vast majority of the Appalachian forest is very young -- less than 100-150 years.
Yes, and you have expended energy describing highly disturbed ecosystems, which is not supporting evidence for your assertion above that I b-quoted @ Mon at 14:20.
And the old pre-Columbian Appalachian forest had some of the highest biodiversity on the continent, esp in the southern reaches, which were a refugia from glaciation; this spp richness does not nor cannot solely reside in overstory canopy. Many stands in current Appalachia, NE, and Ozark forests have high levels of biodiversity in the understory. We were (both of us with the same undergrad education) just in the Ozarks and enjoyed botanizing the decent spp richness in the understory, no barren floor there, no sir.
As I said, the floor of most climax forests are not barren, which is basic knowledge. I have Barnes et al Forest Ecology on my shelf at hand, and would be glad to briefly identify key passages from chs 15 and 20-22 if you wish. I won't be able to reproduce the pix in chs 15-16 that illustrate the concept, however. Return to your texts and read the stories of the great Brit plantsmen who made forays to China for new garden plants - forests with extensive and new (to the West) understory plants.
Back to more correct and germane applications of the topic, I think Lloyd's got the right idea, and we return to the assertions above, reflecting the consensus view that it's OK to till to get started and incorporate amendments, but regular tilling isn't optimal for several reasons, including disrupting soil biota, negatively affecting structure, surface crusting and tilth, exposing weed seeds to light, and till pan.
Never EVER till wet soil, you'll screw up the structure.
I use mulch hay over the garden now, and just part it a little bit to seed or put seedlings in. It suppresses weeds, keeps the soil from eroding, keeps veggies cleaner and prevents rotting, and it doesn't muck up my feet!
2 years back I realized all my tilling was creating a hard layer about 10 inches down that roots couldn't penetrate. So I used a tractor mounted sod buster to break through, and till no more! I also notice a lack of worms in the soil, and I use alot of compost every year...so it had to be the excessive tilling.
Biodiversity estimation based, I presume, on fossil pollen is a straw man here. Pollen is carried by various means far from its point of origin. Clearings, edges (which include stream banks as well as the boundries between different ecosystems), and areas disturbed by wildlife and the forces of nature hold the majority of the biodiversity.
Climax forest is open and easy to walk through with very little biodiversity once you are deep in away from such edge zones.
If absolutely undisturbed soil were the ideal growing medium you could drop your seeds onto the surface of the mulch or, for that matter, onto hard-packed ground and they would require no further care.
Every time a no-till gardener pulls back the mulch to access the suitable growing soil beneath then digs into that soil to plant his seeds he's doing on a small scale what tilling does on a larger scale.
Loosening the soil and working organic material into it is not evil. The hooves of the grazers, the feet of scratching birds, and the snouts and claws of the rooters and burrowers do those tasks daily.
Tiller tines and plows are faster and more efficient, but they are not evil or even unnatural.
With very few exceptions our food crops do not and cannot grow wild. They need some help -- whether that be from the traditional digging stick of Buffalo Bird Woman's grandmother or the fanciest setup John Deere can provide.
Like any other activity tilling can be done right or wrong. Done wrong it is useless or even counter-productive. Done right it facilitates the luxuriant growth of our domesticated crops by loosening packed soil and incorporating beneficial organic material.
In some cases a single tilling will be all that's needed for many years. In others more frequent tilling is needed.
But talking as though disturbing the "natural" soil is an act of black-hearted malice is really quite silly when you consider that if you left nature to herself few, if any, of the crops we gardeners plant would grow where we live.
Gardening is about creating an environment where our unnaturally productive and tasty plants will grow in a place they would not normally live.
Tilling is a tool to assist that process. It is not the only tool. It is a tool that can be misused by the ignorant or careless. But it is a valuable tool that should no more be banned from the garden in the name of ideological purity than hammers should be banned from the literal toolbox because some people hit their thumbs or use them when they should be using screwdrivers or drills.
Once upon a time, I was in a hardware store in late September and they had some knock-off Mantis tiller, those small things, on end-of-season drastically reduced sale. On a whim, I popped $125 for it.
Next spring, after the warranty had expired, I dusted it off and set out to till a bunch of compost into a flower bed just like the TV commercials.
Thing caught on fire. By the time I got the gasoline/plastic fire out, it was pretty well fried. I took it to a small engine guy to get a repair estimate - couldn't even get the parts.
It had maybe 20 minutes on it.
Thanks for walking that erroneous metaphor back and...erm...recanting of sorts so the OP can go forward with good advice. Good day to you.
I am not the one who brought up the undisturbed forest as the ideal soil.
I recanted nothing. My very first post contained the phrase, "Its possible to way overdo the tilling ..." -- acknowledging that tilling is not an always and only thing.
What needs recanting is the arrogant elitism of those who turn no-till gardening into a cult religion, preach vehemently against all other forms of gardening, and denigrate anyone who does not slavishly obey their pronouncements from on high.
LOL, my kinda Gal! :) :) (really big smile)
Well, iam, I mistook your misdirection yesterday as recanting the numerous errors in the reply @ Mon, Jul 13, 09 13:22. Apologies for misreading that, and suggest that the aforementioned reply should be disregarded, as it is erroneous.
I'm with you, though, that tilling is overdone, and we can return to Lloyd's got the right idea, and the consensus view is that it's OK to till to get started and incorporate amendments, but regular tilling isn't optimal for several reasons, including disrupting soil biota, negatively affecting structure, surface crusting and tilth, exposing weed seeds to light, and till pan.