Cheap compost! till or no till?

ipingfreelyNovember 4, 2010

Yesterday I discovered that 5 minutes from my house, I can get my truck filled up (peak of the pile even with my roof line) for $18. now I have a fresh pile on my 1 year old garden and I can't decided if I should till it in. I was going to go with lasagna style composting, but my composting has been done for me now, and there isn't any soil life or structure to destroy at this point (new subdivision). I'm thinking of tilling compost into the 1 year old garden, and the new adjacent garden, and then no-tilling in the future.

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My experience with no till has been very successful. From what I read lately about tilling, it is falling out of favor, and will bring weed seeds up to the surface, mess with soil structure, and probalby hurt your back. So I vote for no till.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2010 at 11:03PM
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There may, possibly, be a need to till new soil that has been in turf grass once, but beyond that tilling really does more harm to spoil structure than good. Just allow the Soil Food Web to do that for you.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2010 at 6:29AM
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I think you really need try digging in what you have there and deciding what your garden needs. I've always found for me, better early years results in areas I tilled the first time around. Faster to soil I'm happy to work with here.

Still can't decide ? Flip a coin. :) It will all work.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2010 at 6:28PM
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Karchita(WA Z8)

My experience is like plaidbird's.

I don't really like to take anything to an extreme. Not tilling can save a lot of work and helps long term soil structure development, but tilling is not all bad. It will get organic material deep into a new bed much faster than waiting for the worms to do it. Mainly, I mulch with compost and don't till, but when I am replacing a plant in my perenniel beds, I turn over a few shovel fulls and bring some of that thick clay to the surface. There's nothing wrong with that; just don't till the whole bed every year 12" deep. It's good to do a bit of both, though I am sure the more orthodox posters here will disagree.

Plus I like to play in the dirt.

    Bookmark   November 7, 2010 at 12:12AM
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billums_ms_7b(Delta MS 8A)

I'd vote for tilling in a good six inches of compost and then lasagna gardening on top of that.

When you are blessed with cheap and conveniently located compost, you might as well take full advantage of it.

    Bookmark   November 17, 2010 at 11:13PM
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terrene(5b MA)

Unless your garden is really huge, I would simply turn it in by hand. If you were dealing with some very compacted soil, or other special conditions, then tilling might be warranted. But yours is already a functioning 1 year old garden, so I assume the soil is pretty good, and tilling sounds like overkill.

I use a garden fork (aka pitch fork) or sometimes the big shovel and loosely turn the soil. It doesn't have to be perfectly mixed. It's not that much more work than tilling, especially in garden soil, and doesn't disturb the soil structure nearly as much nor shred the worms to pieces. The nutrients in the compost have to work with the soil micro-organisms to be available to the plants anyway, so it seems like 2 steps backward if tilling disturbs them greatly.

    Bookmark   November 18, 2010 at 6:59AM
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I do the same thing, the occasional spading up of a small area here and there--when dividing plants, slaying an obnoxious weed, or before planting something in a bare spot. I, too, find that I am bringing up chunks of more clay-ey soil, despite years of layering compost and mulch, so I figure it must be good to do! That's in the beds with perennials and shrubs. For the veggie patches, I may spade up quite a bit.

    Bookmark   November 19, 2010 at 12:28PM
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I would suggest with so many people advocating no-till (not just in this thread), and I will add my name to that list,balancing out the till-advocates, you go with the easier method. Unquestionably that is no-till.

This is what I do both with compost and also with shredded leaves and alfalfa cubes (and the soil devours it) and what I also do, and suggest to you, is to hold back a good-sized pile, and then as you plant or transplant over the course of next season, dig a few shovels of that reserved compost into the mix when backfilling. You get the best of both worlds.

    Bookmark   November 19, 2010 at 1:22PM
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Goody, a poll.



    Bookmark   November 19, 2010 at 1:30PM
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iping; good plan I think you have it right.


    Bookmark   November 19, 2010 at 3:47PM
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tsugajunkie z5 SE WI

I'm for tilling compost in when a bed is new (first year or two) and then no-till thereafter. How's that for fence sitting?


    Bookmark   November 19, 2010 at 4:48PM
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I don't know but, either way is better than dead dirt. The price of the compost is very reasonable so I would get more and spread it around the property if it is all typical new subdivision dead soil. Depending on how the compost was made you might have some viable weed seed in there so monitor for that as well. Some literature I have read suggests that one just crack the surface of dead soil in a few spots and then put on the compost without further disturbance.

    Bookmark   November 19, 2010 at 9:34PM
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I strongly support those who insist on following a doctrine that doesn't account for whatever condition is to be remedied.

    Bookmark   November 20, 2010 at 6:05AM
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greenmulberry(5-Iowa City)

I have the same situation of cheap finished compost readily available.

I never till when I make a new bed with it. I never saw any reason to and the results have been excellent. Cardboard over turf, 4 or 5 inches of compost, plant, everything does well.

I do have to pretty much plant my tomatoes on top of the cardboard to plant them deep, but they send roots through as the season progresses (so I find later if I am rooting around in the bed).

Of course, this is just my results, might work different for others.

    Bookmark   November 20, 2010 at 9:23AM
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Tilling soil does more harm than good. Tilling soils will disrupt the fungi growth in your soil among many other things. While tilling a seriously compacted soil once, to work in organic matter, may be necessary that is all the tilling that should be done to a good, healthy soil.

Here is a link that might be useful: tilling or no tilling

    Bookmark   November 21, 2010 at 7:15AM
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terrene(5b MA)

Huh, Alphonse??

Kimmsr, that article is kind of silly, the analogies are lame and why on earth would she agree to test out a tiller when she doesn't till?? But it makes good points: 1) As a society we are "addicted" to machines that make lots of noise and guzzle fossil fuels, even with a hobby as peaceful and earth-friendly as gardening, and when it's overkill. 2) It explains a bit more how tilling disrupts the soil structure and the living things in it.

While there are no doubt some cases where tilling is warranted (i.e. dead compacted soil), IMO it doesn't work very well for sod. BTDT many years ago at my previous house, and it results in lots of clumps of grass all mixed up in the tilled soil, which will need to be raked out or some WILL re-root. Laying down paper and lasagne layers to smother the sod works much better, and is easier (albeit slower), and the longer you let a lasagne bed decompose the more amazing the soil becomes and the easier it is to work gently with a fork or shovel.

    Bookmark   November 21, 2010 at 8:48AM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

I lightly tilled my compost in.

    Bookmark   November 21, 2010 at 6:14PM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

Where in Illinois are you? And what is your soil iike?

If you soil is the typical rock hard, compacted clay, covered with a couple inches of imported topsoil, I would till the compost in the first time, and then use topdressing and no-till for future applications.

    Bookmark   November 21, 2010 at 6:24PM
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"Huh, Alphonse?? "

What do we know of the OP's soil, other than it is a new subdivision?
Around here, you might be getting land that has been rock cleared, manured and tended for several generations.
Or rock filled devoid of organic matter silt. Or compacted landfill. Or....

To advocate no till without knowing soil conditions is akin to recommending ingestion of blackstrap molasses to cure mental illness.

My prior post was made in the hope of seeing the lemmings disappear over the precipice.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2010 at 6:28AM
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Alphonse, not sure I agree, or actually I am sure I don't agree, with the substance or approach of your posts...if someone posts a question and you feel you need more information to make a suggestion, you can either not make one or request further information. Making petty and sarcastic (first post) and arrogant/demeaning (second post) comments that add nothing constructive to the discussion is a waste of time...such is the downside of all the upside of Internet forums, I guess!

So much for your approach.

On your substance, my view (informed by experience and research) is that contrary to your view and rightly or wrongly, REGARDLESS of soil condition (and on whatever assumptions we make from what we can surmise by the absence of any specific notes from the poster or assumptions we can make from the fact she is currently gardening the soil) while tilling may (or may not) speed things up for the first year, and may (or may not) do so at the expense of some unwarranted destruction of soil structure, that simply spreading the compost will, eventually, achieve all the good that compost can do. And it does it without the work of tilling. My other suggestion (of a set-aside that is used to work into holes as they happen) is what I do...anyone reading this can take that and do with it what they like. At least it is a suggestion.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2010 at 8:52AM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

I agree with Alphonse.

I think anyone who thinks that no-till can solve every soil problem doesn't have any experience with the tough compacted clay left after new construction, that is very typical in Illinois.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2010 at 10:07AM
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That's fair, Joe. And as should be clear already, I disagree with you, which is also fair. I started with the craziest clay you can imagine and after lots and lots of compost, manure, alfalfa, bags and bags of shredded or not-shredded leaves, etc. dumped on top twice a year, every year, plus manually (literally) breaking and mixing in compost (especially in the early stages) when transplanting or dividing, my soil is dramatically improved and will continue to get better...all without ever tilling.

It took a little while to get going, but once the buffet was discovered, and reproduction subsidized by my feeding, the speed with which these tons and tons of organic matter are devoured (i.e., "worm-tilled") by my clay is a source of wonder and fun to observe.

But apart from my experience, I did quite lot of research (mostly of anecdotal stuff like my own example) in making that my experience.

But hey, till away if you want and I don't doubt (much) that it will be slightly faster, and much harder, and more expensive (since you have to rent or buy a tiller) than not tilling it in. But I don't believe it will make for a better ultimate outcome (especially to just do it this once!), and hence my advice.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2010 at 1:07PM
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Tastes great! Less filling!
Tastes great!! Less filling!!

Fork! Spoon!
Fork!! Spoon!!


YMMV depending on numerous variables.


    Bookmark   November 22, 2010 at 2:14PM
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The big positive in going no till is to keep organics/humus in the soil from getting burned away by exposure of the atmosphere after tilling (is it not?).
If you are putting organinc in the soil then tilling is the way to get it in where it will be effective, (is it not?). The humus load going in far outweighs the purge of the till.
I would not stop with one load if it is good as it seems... the price is right.... PH, salts, heavy metals, all in check I hope... and a few weeds may be a small price to pay for your big gain.

I'd load it up and grind it in...

    Bookmark   November 22, 2010 at 4:19PM
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terrene(5b MA)

The OP mentioned they gardened in this bed for 1 year, so I assumed the soil had been previously worked to some extent, otherwise not much would grow trying to plant straight into dead compacted subdivision soil. Also quickly browsing through the thread again, no one advocates a blanket no-till approach. Even the link which largely discourages tilling says it can be useful under certain circumstances. So I don't see any lemmings here??

If Iping's soil is that terrible, then tilling once is probably a good idea.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2010 at 6:58PM
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T S(zone 7)

Where I am we have nice hard clay. So it is always a till to break the soil up. But if you have have good loose soil I would do a light till just to keep the compost from washing or blowing away. Its just to precious to me.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2010 at 8:25PM
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I want my composted OM in my soil to be consumed. It is this consumption that transforms the nutrients into something the plants can then utilize. When the compost is mixed in thoroughly, it is available everywhere and having some air in the soil is absolutely necessary for the digestion/transformation process to take place.

With our climate, we can till stuff in during the fall and within a month or two it's frozen. Usually when we do this tilling there aren't a lot (if any) living plants there. Come spring and the thaw, it's good to go for seeding. Now if you're talking flower gardens with perennials and such, obviously tilling isn't going to work all that great.


P.S. It's also good to remember that there are many different forms of tilling and not everyone has the same method in mind.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2010 at 9:15PM
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Pettiness, sarcasm, arrogance and debasement are all relative inference made by the reader. I advocate for neither till or not.

But, YES, I'm having a jab at the mindset saying "(snip)...contrary to your view and rightly or wrongly, REGARDLESS of soil condition (snip)".

It would be foolish for me to infer that ALL soils react or transform based on MY actions and observations at MY location.

It would be equally foolish to deny failure with no-till in some soil types.

Since Lloyd brings up a good point about definitions, by "failure"(above) I mean lack of soil life, tilth and even anaerobic condition, no evidence of root penetration. This after several years of admittedly "easy" work- no till is easier than till, but requires more effort than none of the above.

By "till" I mean digging, churning, rotating; displacing the soil strata from at least an inch below the surface.

    Bookmark   November 23, 2010 at 7:04AM
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Now alphonse,
I know if my IQ were 3 points higher I would been a tomato instead of trying to grow one.
...But I spend just to much time trying to figure out what you said?
Was it, Are we trying to answer something we do not know enought about? Thus be cautious with giving feedback.

I'm learning and trying to keep up... keep me thinking folks..

    Bookmark   November 23, 2010 at 12:32PM
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I think alphonse was trying to say that projection is an issue on the forum. People seem to only consider their conditions when giving their opinions. Sometimes the opinions are, how can I say this politely, hmmm, forceful, and are quite contrary to others situations. For example, saying a properly constructed compost pile will not freeze. This is blatantly not true yet the person stands by their opinion and presents it as fact even after being told they are incorrect. Sometimes these participants develop a cult like following (lemmings). Such is the nature of a public forum.

In the end, the best answer is to just say what you would do, but try to make sure you understand all the parameters of the question.

But I could be wrong. :-)


    Bookmark   November 23, 2010 at 1:06PM
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This is what I have been doing:

Around Dec (I am in zone 9a) after all the summer annuals are done. I own a rototiller so I tilt the top 6"-8" or so with compost. Then I put another 4"-6" of mulch on top of it.

Then do nothing for the next few cold and wet months. Come April, the 4"-6" of mulch are down to about 2"-3" at that point. I plant.

Then come winter, I tilt the remaining mulch with added compost. Add another 4"-6" of mulch to cover the tilted soil.

If I miss tilting for that year, I still mulch them heavily.

    Bookmark   November 23, 2010 at 7:08PM
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Lloyd, utellm I stutr

    Bookmark   November 24, 2010 at 7:39AM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

What is feasible for small plots doesn't so much apply for very large areas. Adding 4 to 6 inches of mulch might be fine at the right season of year for smaller plots. I cannot imagine finding that much for a very large area and planting through that in large areas in cool climates in spring.

So as LLoyd so wisely said, we project our experiences and biases continually it seems.

    Bookmark   November 24, 2010 at 10:33AM
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And I have to continually remind myself that sometimes, when people say "plant", they mean putting in an existing plant with rootball and stuff. Whereas when I say I'm going to "plant the crop" I really mean placing seed into the soil.

Two totally different methods, requiring different ground prep procedures (at least up here). ;-)


    Bookmark   November 24, 2010 at 12:03PM
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I'm glady you found free compost. Other than that I'm keeping mum sorry.

    Bookmark   November 24, 2010 at 1:19PM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

I'm sorry you're mum too...we might learn a bit!

    Bookmark   November 24, 2010 at 7:43PM
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