Compost - Tilling in VS Topdressing

coconut_head(5b)September 15, 2011

As I read through thread after thread, I see two lines of thought with composting. One method seemes to be just throw it on top of whatever bed needs it whenever it's fully cooked.

Another group seems to save it a little until they amend a whole bed and then they till or turn the compost into the dirt.

I find myself thinking that turning it in the soil is going to be more beneficial for water retention, drainage and nutrient disbursement. I mean the roots of your plants are under the soil for the most part, not at the top, so topdressing would require the nutrients to be leached down through the soil.

If you are in either camp, please lay out your thought process as to why you do it your way. I do see that it would be much less work to topdress, so maybe that is the only benefit to doing it that way, not that saving a lot of time and effort isn't a worthy reason. But at my current age and energy level, I am only really looking for optimal, so more work is fine by me.

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Yeah, There are all kinds of ways to skin a cat ;-)

My way..of the best way ;-)

But Seriously:
I have mixed up my compost/soil/medium up to four feet deep with nothing but blessings coming my way, After that initial job though, all I do is top dress/refill my beds. If I was to dig down with my hand (up to my elbow), I would find the same consistency throughout, If you do it right the first time, it simply gets better with age (as you continue to amend it.)

Here is a link that might be useful: Jon's Wonderful Soil 2010

    Bookmark   September 15, 2011 at 5:32PM
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hortster(6a, southcentral KS)

Jon Hughes, master composter, has soil within which he can bury his elbow. Geez, I wish we were all as lucky! For all ye with heavy clay, like yours truly, slapping a layer on top and leaving it is usually is not a good idea. In the first place the compost drinks much more rapidly than the clay, and conversely, gives off moisture more quickly than the clay. Mixing 'em is the right way. I slap a 3" layer of good 'post on freshly turned clay, then turn it again. After that, I slap ANOTHER 3" layer on top of that, and turn it again. Wow. Great plant production. I might even be able to dig down with my hand the depth of a shovel (which is the depth to which I turned the soil!). Jon, I'm eating my heart out. Send about 20 tons of your soil to me.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2011 at 9:11PM
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Hi Horster,
You got me all wrong buddy ;-)
I'm with you all the way, apparently my writing skills need some work.
I was trying to say, I literally dug down 4' deep into my Clay soil and added 25% Pumice, 25% Decomposed Granite and 25% Compost and mixed it all up with an excavator until it was completely blended,it can not be done by hand, if I didn't own my own excavator, i would have rented one for the day, a couple of hundred bucks for a lifetime of SOIL/MEDIUM Blessings, now when I top dress my beds, it just adds to the softness/sweetness, this is the end of my second year of my garden and I can go anywhere in my beds and literally stick my arm down as far as I can reach,as it gets down to the 18" mark, by sheer gravity it gets a "little" harder for my arm to penetrate, but I think that is only because I am making a bee line, if I was to toss the dirt away as I went down, there would be no end to how far I could go down,at least to four feet anyway.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2011 at 9:37PM
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"If you are in either camp, please lay out your thought process as to why you do it your way. "

I'm in both camps.
You know that sweet spot in the soil triangle? It doesn't include humus or organic matter. If you had "perfect" soil, but no soil life to draw OM to root levels, you'd have to get it there. Nothing to eat, no soil life.
Once such conditions are established, top dressing can be sufficient. I use no till where I can, and that's how I interpret what Jon has done.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2011 at 6:16AM
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Tilling soil may be necessary, as Alphonse has stated, once or twice but once the soil is worked up and has some organic matter in it more tilling can be destructive to that soil. People with too little organic matter in their soil find that the soil compacts and annual tilling is needed to plant, but a soil with adequate levels of organic matter should not need annual tilling.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2011 at 6:57AM
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tishtoshnm Zone 6/NM

I think the deciding factor is time. If I recall, the much touted experiment done by Organic Gardening with laying compost on top is that after 3 years, you have accomplished a great soil.

When I plant a tree that is going to grow slowly, I just dig the whole the size of the pot, plant and mulch and by the time that tree is ready to produce fruit, the soil will be improved greatly.

For my perennial beds and most importantly to me the vegetable beds, I need the results sooner. I am hungry now! Those areas are double dug and amended with compost before being planted. Afterwards, I just fluff the soil (I am hoping Santa will bring me a broad fork for this) and then top dress with compost thereafter. I do test digs after rains and the improved soil definitely has much better water penetration.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2011 at 11:52AM
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I think alot would depend on what your planning on planting there. If your planning on it being a bed for shallow rooted plants then top dressing might be the way to go deeper rooted plants would benefit from deep tilling. On the other hand I have always wondered if top dressing soil would eventually smoother the plants that have been in it over a few years worth of top dressing. Like plants that have been shocked and are dying after too heavy a layer of compost has been applied.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2011 at 4:52PM
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I'm solidly in the spreading on the top camp because I'm lazy.

However, in the past few years, the veggie garden has gone from hard-packed AZ dirt that required using a pick to dig the planting holes to something I can actually dig holes in with a hand trowel.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2011 at 11:11PM
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Almost 100 years ago Edward Faulkner wrote and published "Plowman's Folly" and the ideas he presented are still being hotly debated.
Sometimes tilling the soil might be necessary, but if that soil is properly cared for it is not necessary to till every year.

    Bookmark   September 17, 2011 at 6:59AM
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One issue that I see come up in these threads almost every time is the definition, or should I say the lack of definition of "tilling".

People have varied thoughts and ideas of what they mean by "tilling". It can be as severe as a plow where the entire top seven or so inches of topsoil is completely inverted. It can be as simple as scratching the top one to two inches of soil with a set of harrows or a rake. Or it can be the complete mixing of the topsoil with a roto-tiller. Each method is different and does different things so keep in mind what one person writes about tilling might not be what you are thinking about when you imagine tilling.


    Bookmark   September 17, 2011 at 8:34AM
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Tilling soil is turning soil, no matter if it is done with a spade, fork, cultivator/disc harrow, mold board plow, or rototiller. They all have the same purpose, mixing soil (and maybe organic matter) and aerating that soil so planting is easier. If sufficient amounts of organic matter are in that soil, and nothing is done to squash, compact, that soil tilling is not necessary since the tilth of the soil is very good without doing that. If ones soil is easily workable without tilling there is no reason to. But if you have a compacted soil that you cannot put a seed into you probably need to till, and add lots of organic matter so future tilling is not necessary.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2011 at 7:23AM
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Lloyd, I agree. Though true that the common attribute is altering soil arrangement, equating rotary tilling with plowing is an apples/oranges comparison.
Even if better definitions were FAQ'd it would be human nature to lump them all together.

We'll just have to keep repeating your summary admonition.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2011 at 8:14AM
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david52 Zone 6

Clay/sandstone here. My theory is similar to tishtoshnm, if planting a tree or something thats going to take a few years, I just stick it in the ground and mulch/top dress with compost. For the veggie and flower gardens, I began with roto-tilling in organic matter, then when the soil begins to improve after a few years, do the top dressing only. Let the worms do the work for you.

Where I am now, I haven't tilled anything for several years.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2011 at 10:34AM
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I have had the same debate with myself for years. this year i came up with a near perfect plan, i used a post hole auger and dug a hole 18 to 24 inches deep and filled it with compost then planted my transplant plants in the hole. The results are fantastic, tomato plants 8 feet tall and well fruited, growing in cages or concrete reinforcement wire. Peppers and cukes squash etc. are all doing fine as well! Yes it took time and work as i dug over 50 holes but the results are being engoyed!

    Bookmark   September 18, 2011 at 5:56PM
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One of the problems with tilling or double digging is you create a tub effect where the water from surrounding soil drains into your nice bed of fluffy soil. During heavy rains my soft veggie bed became a soupy mess.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2011 at 8:35PM
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hortster(6a, southcentral KS)

Geez. Let's face it...all situations are different but OM helps everywhere. My techniques, planting in heavy red and black clay are this: First, I am a "bucket effect" person and believe in not modifying the soil (almost). I use only existing soil for shrubs and trees, but, lets face it, loosening the soil in a hole 2 or 3x the diameter of the container or rootball creates a more percolate soil; I always add two shovelfulls compost for a shrub, 6 shovelfulls compost for a tree to give them some slow release nutruient soil. Heck, the aeration has created a more percolate soil anyway, why not give 'em a slow release feeding (hate chem fertilizer).
Now, in beds I use a 3" layer of 'post over the whole bed then till it in, then lay another 3" layer over that and till it in. Never better plants emerge and grow.
In the garden, for over 15 years, every other year lay a solid 3" layer of 'post on it every second year and till. NEVER use fertilizer and my 'maters and other crops max out (get rusteddave's 8' tomatoes yearly, except this year with 53 days over 100 degrees). Doing the entire bed or garden eliminates the bucket.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2011 at 9:09PM
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This article may be of some help to some people.

Here is a link that might be useful: Bath Tub Affect

    Bookmark   September 19, 2011 at 6:44AM
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I prefer to work in my partially decayed organic matter.
Over this last few years there seems to be increasing evidence that some of the mycorrhizal fungi
are saprophytic until roots become available to form a relationship with.
So they need partially decayed matter, not fully decayed.
I want the fungus healthy, vibrant, and evenly spread once I plant the right roots.
That is why I till deep when I have organic matter to work in.
Otherwise I till shallow to keep the fungus network intact.
But then I grow crops that most people do not grow, like collards, turnip, kale, okra, chicory, etc.
My garden needs both ecto and VAM.

Here is a link that might be useful: Building Up Soil

    Bookmark   September 24, 2011 at 10:15PM
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I also till in organic matter to reduce the risk of nitrogen loss through evaporation.
Improving soil structure to encourage root growth is also a goal of tilling in organic matter.
Admittedly, a well drained garden site is essential.

Here is a link that might be useful: Building Up Soil

    Bookmark   September 25, 2011 at 8:15AM
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Tilling soil disrupts the fine network soil fungi have developed so they need to spend an inordinate amount of time rebuilding that network after you till your soil. If you have adequate amounts of organic matter in your soil, and don't stomp all over it packing it down, there should be no reason to disturb it once it is in good tilth.
This article by Lee Riech might be of some interest to some.

Here is a link that might be useful: Don't till

    Bookmark   September 27, 2011 at 6:32AM
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In "Roots Demystified", the author cites the only long term scientific study I have ever heard of
comparing tilling to no-till.
There was a 30% increase in yield with regular deep tilling over no-till.
I agree, one should not deep till unless the extra organic matter worked in out weighs the distruption of the fungal network.
But, neither method is a magic bullet.
Sometimes I use no-till, sometimes shallow till, and sometimes deep till.
Balance is the key, as the article above recommends.

    Bookmark   September 27, 2011 at 8:27PM
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Nevermore44 - 6a

That bathtub effect article is interesting... but wouldn't the exact same thing happen if you use the native soil for back fill when the plant you are planting is not grown in the same native soil? So the tub effect will just be around the immediate root ball vs an amended larger hole? I don't see how this would be viable unless you are planting seed directly into the native soil

I have slowly moved to totally amending larger areas of the my beds down about a 12-18in. And when amending the soil, you are obviously fluffing the soil, so you overfill the beds a bit for settling and decomposition.

    Bookmark   September 27, 2011 at 8:51PM
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hortster(6a, southcentral KS)

Somehow, this thread seems repetitively convincing that either we till or do not till; we add OM or not; the bucket effect exists or doesn't. I look at the way I have approached my veggie garden - adding OM and deep tilling every 2nd year and see great results. I just finished shovel-turning the soil, quite deeply compacted from being trodded for two years, then overlaying it with a heavy layer of compost and rototilling. Doing this over the years there has been great success for me in my garden without using fungicides, other pesticides or fertilizers. I think that it must be a combo of actions that create positive plant growth and response, including attention to the bucket effect, tilling, and adding OM. If I am destroying the environment by doing this, it has got to be better than what most everyone else in the country is doing.

    Bookmark   September 27, 2011 at 9:26PM
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Clay soils, with very small soil particles, tends to not allow water to move through very easily so digging a hole and amending that with organic matter can create a soil that will allow water to move more easily into the hole, but the structure outside that hole is still impervious to water movement so the water stays in the hole, ie. the bathtub effect. That is why clay pots were made to grow plants in.
Sandy soils, with large soil particles, allows water to move fairly freely so adding organic matter to sandy soils will help hold that water where it is needed, in the root zone. Chemical reactions in sandy soils that create hardpan can slow, or stop, the flow of water and you end up with a soggy soil, but that can be corrected, over time, simply by adding enough organic matter.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2011 at 11:53AM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana


Edward Faulkner wrote a sequel to Plowman's Folly a few years later. He had to clear up some mighty loose ends from his first book. It is on the Library list under his name.

Here is a link that might be useful: revisited

    Bookmark   September 28, 2011 at 10:32PM
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Every spring, just before planting, I gently mix and rake out my beds flat. Once everything is coming up well, I mulch everything with three to four inches of compost from the previous year. That's on top of the soil. The next spring when preparing the beds, that compost I put on top of the soil gets mixed in. If I mix in that fresher compost in the spring, I risk having any un-decayed parts of it sucking all the nitrogen out of the soil that's needed for the plants to grow. On top of the soil it is helping regulate moisture and keeping weeds at bay (even making any that do appear easier to pull because of the loose soil). It eventually gets down into the soil when I mix it in every spring. If I end up replanting mid-summer I essentially do the same thing - just mix in and then mulch heavily with whatever I have that will make good mulch, including partially finished compost or even ground leaves from the previous fall. I collect as many bags of leaves from neighbors in the fall, shred them and keep them in the same kinds of welded wire fence rings as I use for my compost piles. All year long I am building piles, dumping in my kitchen compost bucket, coffee grounds from work, other garden waste, and every time I cover that with a layer of the shredded leaves. That's why I need to keep those leaves on hand all year long. Once it is filled to the top, I take off it's welded wire fence loop, and then set the loop back up next to it. I'll turn the whole pile back into the empty loop, watering layers as I go to make sure it is moist all the way through. Within a couple of months it is usually rotted down as much as half way. I often end up turning two piles that have worked down together into one ring just to save space.

    Bookmark   September 29, 2011 at 5:31PM
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Lloyd, I am with you.
Most city or urban gardener, that I know, that till, go 4"-8" inches deep.
Bigger(an acre or more)gardener with the tools cut 4" with a harrow, add compost, then turn 8" with a turn plow, then cut with a harrow to cut up the turned soil.
Some of us still double dig the first time we put in a new bed.
Most of the No till persons I have met in person, tell me they do not till, because they do not want nasty dirt on them.
But some get in the garden like the till group do.

    Bookmark   October 4, 2011 at 5:31PM
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You have actually met not one, but more than one, persons who have said that to you?

    Bookmark   October 4, 2011 at 8:24PM
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The depth necessary or beneficial is dependent on the particular plant being grown in that particular spot. Some are shallow rooted and some are deep.
As far as how we apply compost it is also partially dependant on how we water and how much rainfall we get. Most compost is not completely rotted. If it is applied to the surface then the primary benefit comes from compost tea acquired by rain or over head watering. With a drip system and low rainfall the compost will act more as a mulch. If the compost remains wet on the surface the plant s upper roots will eventually grow into the layer and it contiues to decompose. If it is tilled in the plant will acquire more immediate benefit from the compost as the roots that have been chopped off from tilling regrow into it. It will also continue to decompose. I also believe that more water retention is gained by tilling in.
As far as digging to great depths with a back hoe, other than drainage I see no great benefit. If you don't have a backhoe the same thing can be done with the use of cover crops. Plant annual rye year after year and it will eventually acquire a root system of up to 54"s. The dead roots form passage ways for water and nutrients. The rye will also bring up nutrients formerly unavailable to the other plants.

    Bookmark   October 5, 2011 at 7:16AM
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Sue is now residing in another post of the same name ;-)

    Bookmark   October 5, 2011 at 11:25PM
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I'm still trying to figure out why a second thread was started for this. I asked in the other one but wasn't answered. Maybe I'll get answered here?

    Bookmark   October 9, 2011 at 1:17AM
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Nope Sorry,
We took a vote and decided not to tell you why, I had your back , I was there for you, but...alas...I was out voted 47 to 1

But... I still Love You Man ;-)

    Bookmark   October 9, 2011 at 1:32AM
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    Bookmark   October 9, 2011 at 2:35AM
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I read all these posts due to the fact I read an article stating to top dress only. I always initially till when I make a bed & since this is my 3 rd year in this garden with the first year being a heart wrenching drought after my initial plantings; then the 2nd year being total water logged. Needless to say: I'm ready for some 3rd year leaping around here. Some of my beds are as the previous posters stated loose enough to put a spade in a foot or so. Other beds- the ones that are nearby 3 huge oaks trees -the plants seemed starved, sickly, slow to get established. I have dug up several plants & replaced with larger ones. They start out fine- the start looking sapped. So - I thought I 'd take the advice to top dress spring, summer and fall to see how they will fare. I believe the oaks are nutrition thieves. The is the 3 rd top dressing. Any thoughts ?

    Bookmark   March 8, 2014 at 7:35PM
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Are the oaks blocking your garden's sunlight? That could be your problem.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2014 at 9:29PM
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Not at all- elisa Z5- This bed faces west - the oaks are 25 feet to the right of it. But in my Zone 7b garden in Georgia - where the norm is pure red clay - this bed - the closer it gets to the trees - natural soil gets sandy. I amended of course.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2014 at 9:44PM
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I should have a helper as adept as jonhughes. Pics are fabulous !

    Bookmark   March 9, 2014 at 10:07PM
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