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No-till gardening: soliciting advice

Posted by LorinK 8 (My Page) on
Tue, Feb 1, 11 at 7:48

Hello,
I'm new to the forum. I've been organic gardening for about 6 years. I've wanted to do the no-till method (http://eartheasy.com/blog/2009/01/no-till-gardening/) for many years, but have yet to build up the nerve. I did a search of this forum but only really saw a thread on no-till as it relates to carbon emissions. Can anyone offer their personal experiences with this method? I mulch heavily every year, so at this point my bed should have a pretty good percentage of organic matter.

Still, some of my concerns:

1. lack of sufficient aeration for tall plants and good yields. Can anyone compare and contrast the difference here between no-till and conventional methods?

2. Amount of mulch used. Exactly how much are we talking and what should I anticipate in terms of additional expense?

3. Proponents of the double-dig method (which I normally do) sell the benefits of turning the soil to make nutrients deeper in the soil more available to the plants. Will no-till require a higher than normal soil amendments to achieve the same results?

4. Other differences I'm not thinking of?
I consider this a big step. If I do it wrong, I lose a lot of veggies that go to feed my family all year long. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

1. lack of sufficient aeration for tall plants and good yields. Can anyone compare and contrast the difference here between no-till and conventional methods? Unless the ground is compacted to cement-like consistency, there is plenty of O2 in the soil without tilling. Think about it - if tilling were necessary, how do plants manage to survive in uncultivated areas?

2. Amount of mulch used. Exactly how much are we talking and what should I anticipate in terms of additional expense? A THICK layer of something, over several layers of newspaper. If you compost and use that as mulch, no added expense at all. I use shredded tree limbs for long-lasting mulch, and just keep dumping com,post on top of the garden. Check with local tree trimming companies. They are often willing to dump a load of shreddings on you when they are working in your area. It saves them money on dump fees.

3. Proponents of the double-dig method (which I normally do) sell the benefits of turning the soil to make nutrients deeper in the soil more available to the plants. Will no-till require a higher than normal soil amendments to achieve the same results? No.

4. Other differences I'm not thinking of? Way less work!


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

Lorin ..... since your garden's yield is important, you might not feel totally comfortable with a radical change. May I suggest that for one growing season ... or one crop season .... you experiment with no-till method in part of your garden. I can guarantee you that the time/energy saving alone will make a true believer of you .... not to mention that crops seem to really thrive when the soil [& all its magic-making microbes/critters] is not disturbed.

BTW ... I'm a reformed double-digger. Now I let the earth worms and plant roots do the digging for me.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

Thanks. I may just go all-in. One more question: What is the best book on the no-till method to use as a reference guide?


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

I should preface this by saying that I don't at this time do no-till, unless you count my perennial herb bed.

If you're reluctant to try it, which I definitely understand, I would agree with borderbarb that trying it out in a segment of your garden sounds like a great idea. Who knows, I may do the same this year. :-)

Here's a thing that might improve your confidence...do you have good earthworm activity? I understand that earthworms are an essential part of the no-till process, as they help with mixing in the nutrients for you.

Also, have you already arranged your beds so that you're not walking in the planting area? That's important, too.

Truth be told, my intention has been to amend my soil in the Fall, post-season, and let it sit over the Winter. If I had done that, I would probably be comfortable with trying for no-till this Spring...but as it is, I'm going to be crossing my fingers for the snow to be gone and the soil to be dried out by the time that planting season rolls around this year, so I will probably leap into my old single-dig ways. Or then again...maybe the fact that I expect the soil to dry out late this year is all the more reason to just plant as-is, and put my organic matter on top later. Hmmm.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

How well no till would work in any garden depends to some extent on the soil type. No till works much better with sandy soils then with clay, although eventually and after being properly amended with organic matter clay soils will alos be really good no till subjects.
I have worked both types of soil no till and have noticed that when large amounts of organic matter are placed on clay soils and left for several months that clay becomes so workable that a garden fork can be easily sunk in to the top of the tines with very little effort.
Tilling soil is known to bring up "weed" seeds that will germinate while no till does not do that.
In any soil with an active Soil Food Web aeration of he soil is not a concern since the Soil Food Web takes care of that.
How much mulch? 4 to 6 inches unless some light barrier such as newspaper or cardboard is used. 8 inches has not been a problem in any of my gardens. If you live where the trees drop their leaves every year you have a renewable resource at hand to use for mulching and composting.
In my no till planting beds periodic soil tests have shown an increase in soil nutrients just from the compost and mulches I have added to them. Must be since that is all I have put on those beds. Soil pH over the years has gone from 5.7 to 7.2, Phosphorus, Potash, Calcium, and Magnesium has gone from low to high optimal without adding those things from other sources.
No till is a lot less work, requires considerably less energy from you, and gives the same results.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

Since you mention double digging, I assume this is a brand new bed? If so, I'd fork in finished compost the first year or two and then go to no-till. I went to no-till 8-10 years ago and it works great, however, I spent the previous 15 years forking in finished compost, so the soil was primed for no-till. If it is an existing bed, then no time like the prest to start no-till. I use compost as my first layer of mulch and then mulch on top of that with something that'll last longer than compost does. I top dress the beds in fall with compost.

tj


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

Since you live in zone 8, keeping mulch around for long may turn out to be difficult. Insects will start to build up. At the bottom of the web site below, it specifically talks about the difficulties of mulching. You may need to clean out the mulch every fall.

http://www.soilandhealth.org/03sov/0302hsted/030202/03020205.html

Here is a link that might be useful: Weed Control


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

Many of us, who have been gardening organically since the 1960s, have not found the problems with maintaining a year around mulch that some much newer gardeners seem to have. Some newer gardeners also seem to not realize that there are good insects and bad insects and a continuous mulch attracts both and both are needed in a balanced garden, because manyu of the beneficial insectgs feed on the insect pests.
Many of us long time gardeners have also plunked down freshly chipped wood chips as a mulch and have not had any problem so there is no really good reason to allow them to "age" before applying them, as mulch.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

I live & garden in zone 8. I mulch heavily with pine straw, wood chips, shredded pine cones & leaves mixed in all the others. I've never had a problem with any bugs being in my mulch! Just don't use pecan shells as mulch...since they are oily they will draw roaches & other bugs. And mine is certainly going to stay where I put it! I have a 3-5 acre (depending on if you count the side yards)front yard! No way am I removing & replacing mulch in my beds!!!

OP, check your local library for Ruth Stout's book, No Till Gardening. It is an older book but still has good info. It was published by Rodale Press back in the day!


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

I would like to clarify my earlier post. I did not intend for anyone to assume I was stating that all mulch should be removed every where every year. I never remove the mulch from my perennial beds or walk ways. But after 30 years of organic gardening, I have simply learned that if I do not clean culture my ANNUAL beds every year, disease and insects start to build up.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

  • Posted by jolj 7b/8a-S.C.,USA (My Page) on
    Fri, Feb 11, 11 at 23:34

I am a big fan of tilling, but one day I will be to old to till my garden. So I am working toward a no till garden.
I think the BIGGEST mistake no-till gardeners make is thinking no till mean do not till.
It sounds true...but there is much more 1) you need a very high amount of humus in your soil.
2) you need to have many companion plants, that work & grow close. Like the square foot garden, but vertically as well as horizontally. Example: 3 sisters- corn grows tall giving running beans a place to grow up & squash is shaded from the sun, as it shades the beans & corns roots as it keeps the weeds out as a living mulch.
I am going to try 3 trail beds this year, one will be tilled & till in compost, then I am going to build a compost pile over the bed. When it rots I will put up sides & add more greens & browns. Then when it is composted I am going to plant it & mulch heavy. This will be my no till bed to see what all the fuss is about, first hand.
First hand is the only way to learn a thing. You can be informed, but to know you must do for your self.
The best book on no till, that I have read is
The Ruth Stout No-work Garden Book. She was 80 years young in 1971 & still gardening no till, using rotten hay.
That was her big secret, rotten hay, always 6" deep.
If a weed came up she pulled the hay back & pushed the weed down & covered it up again.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

Wow, I guess I've committed the biggest mistake, because I thought no-till meant do not till.

I was thinking the biggest mistake would be a lack of diversity in types of mulches applied, or not having a soil test to know what supplements are needed.

I think the link posted by GreeneGarden above should be required reading in school. It really does explain the dynamics of soil life very well. I've included the link below starting at chapter 1 since some people might find it difficult to navigate back.

Here is a link that might be useful: Soil health


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  • Posted by jolj 7b/8a-S.C.,USA (My Page) on
    Sat, Feb 12, 11 at 22:17

In a no till garden, NO-till should be the LAST thing you do.
As for mulch, most forest have one mulch, a mulch hold in water, holds down weeds, why do you need diversity in mulch/
A soil test is needed no mater what kind of garden you have.
The dynamics of soil was explained by Organic gardener Robert Rodale in the 1960's.
What about the Asians, who used this type of gardening for hundred of years before the microscope was invented. It is not that hard, but you can add more to a tilled soil & it will compost quicker in the soil. If you do not till then you need better soil to start with. So no till is the last step in a no till garden,especially if you are a new gardener or are starting in a new plot.
Just stop tilling will do nothing for your garden.
It is like stopping using chemical fertilizer, but not having a compost pile. You are now organic gardener, but your crops will do very little without humus. Being a smart alick will not make a no till garden grow.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

People do not annually till a perennial flower garden, unless they put in a new plant and then it is just a very small piece of the garden. With that in mind a properly planned vegetable garden can also be a no till garden as long as one does not walk or ride on the soil the plants are to grow in and compact it.
A variety of material in any mulch means the Soil Food Web has a varied diet and can then supply the plants growing there with a more complete list of nutrients. The mulch in a forest consists of a wide variety of materials, ranging from the many leaves of various tree species to bits of wood from the trees branches to flowers that grow in that litter on the forest floor.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

No till for several years now, let the worms do the work for you. As early as I can, I lay down a layer of compost, then cover that with grass clippings and keep that up all summer long. Leave a heavy mulch on over the winter, its mostly gone by spring.

This is on clay/sand soil.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

Jolj,

To compare a forest to a vegetable garden makes no sense. A forest is a DIVERSE community of flora and fauna that have evolved together for many, many years. A vegetable garden is a diverse grouping of exotic plants plunked down wherever we decide to put them.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

  • Posted by jolj 7b/8a (My Page) on
    Mon, Feb 14, 11 at 11:46

Here in the south we have pine forest that are 95% pines.
You still did not address why you need more then one kind of mulch.
kimmsr, I see your point, but most flower gardens are many years old & use fertilizers to stay healthy.
Maybe everyone you know have great soil, but I know people who tried no-till & or organic gardening. They want the same growth as the old garden with out building up humus.
Everyone on this thread may know this, what about the new person who reads it tomorrow. We should away cover the whole system in a thread. Building up the humus in a bed that has to support live without adding & tilling in humus each year is something that should not be over looked. Sure you will put the humus on top & it will work down, but slower then tilling. Which is fine if your soil has what it needs while the no till magic works slowly.
A clear plastic cover over a green house is important, but it is one of the last thing you should do. No till as in stop tilling is the last thing you should do to have a no till garden. You should be prepared for the new way of doing things.


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  • Posted by buzzy 8PugetSound (My Page) on
    Tue, Feb 15, 11 at 2:06

do check out Ruth Stout - she's the first popularizer of this kind of gardening. I have a book called "How To Have A Green Thumb Without an Aching Back,"

She was Rex Stout's sister and a well-known garden columnist in the 40's and 50s.

the ONLY mulch she used was HAY year after year and her yields brought people from Stokes seeds and ag colleges to see it. Don't worry so much folks, plunk down the hay or leaves or woodchips or weeds and let nature work.


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I too know some people that have "tried" organic gardening but failed to follow even the most basic directions and mostly simply stopped using the synthetic "fertilizers" and did nothing to improve the soil and when that failed to provide good, helathy growth they said "organic" gardening does not work.
People that do follow directions, from knowledgable people, find that as the level of organic matter in the soil inceases and the Soil Food Web becomes more active plants grow better with fewer problems. I have no need to use synthetic "fertilizers" in my perennial beds because they get compost as well as other types of organic matter often enough to maintain the health of that soil.
If you, and people you know, are having a problem making organic methods work you need to look at what you are doing because it probably is not what needs to be done.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

  • Posted by jolj 7b/8a-S.C.,USA (My Page) on
    Tue, Feb 15, 11 at 12:27

kimmsr, this is a little off this thread, but do you have to lift your perennials &/or bulbs more because of your composting?
Are you careful not to put to much in perennial beds or does it matter not. I mean to say with annuals you could put down 1-12 inches of compost & it would not matter, With perennials it would matter.
Is it a problem, if not why?


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

My experience agrees with Kimm that a mulching low-till system works well on sandy soil. I also think it is true that double-dug beds give such great results in part because of stirring up fresh minerals. Sandy soils leach the inputs of OM and minerals rapidly.

So I use both: most of the time mulching and very little soil disturbance, and occasionally renovating beds with double-digging.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

When I moved in to my house 8 years ago - we had solid ( and I do mean SOLID!) clay soil that was the result of building a new house. No worms at all, and digging in it was like trying to chip away at brick. I made gardens by simply piling layers - lasagna gardening by sheer blind luck. It worked. I have never tilled any of my gardens, and I after 4 years, the soil was soft and loaded with worms. Like Kimmsr, I simply apply compost and mulch to my beds - and I get beautiful, healthy plants. I've never used any other methods to fertilize my perennials/flowers. The only bed that gets "tilled" is the one I plant my potatoes in - if you consider digging up the potatoes 'tilling'. With a very active compost pile, the only expense I have in maintaining my gardens is the occasional purchase of straw bales, and only because I live in an area where horse farms sell/give their spoiled straw/hay and manure to the local mushroom and organic farms!


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

I'd really like to do some no-till gardening but just can't seem to bring myself to do it.

When I first moved to my piney wood hill four years ago all I had to plant in was what has been described as waterproof flour. Water runs across the top and disappears but it only gets half an inch down unless you soak it for an hour. I knew something needed done so I started with manure.

I've added a truck bed load of a mix of horse horse, cow, and goat manure mixed with hay. A few inches got worked deep into the beds. I followed that with hay and grass clippings. Little by little, year by year, I've added more hay, grass clippings, shredded leaves....mostly oak, and the occasional handful of blood and bone meal.

Over this past winter I covered all the beds that were empty with at least six inches of leaves. Last week I went to pull back the leaves to get them ready to plant. I really didn't want to till those beds but as I knelt beside the first one and pulled back what was left of the leaves something came over me and I started working what leaves were left into the soil. Before I knew it, I was up almost to my elbow, digging through fluffy black goodness.

It was a 4x8 bed. I don't know how long I spent there but I tilled the entire bed with my hands about a foot down. It was great to see how loose it was....and the smell was better than anything that comes in a bottle.

I'm slowly working the rest of the idle beds the same way...all three of them. Then I get to start on the ones that have been growing things all winter.

It's been four years of working good stuff into the soil but I finally have something better than waterproof flour and my plants show their approval by producing more and more every year.

Yeah, I'd really like to do some no-till gardening but I just can't seem to keep my hands out of the garden. Maybe one of these years I'll give it a try....maybe.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

jolj, I have not had to "lift" any plants because of the compost and mulches on the planting beds although most everything needs replanting about every 3 to 5 years because they get too crowded to leave alone.
No one tills a perennial garden and Ma Nature does not till the meadows she maintains and they grow fairly well.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

We can't compare nature with veggie garden.
In nature plant will survive if seed appeared in condition appropriate for this plant. In our gardens we try to make plants to survive in conditions in which some of them will not survive in nature. Till - notill depends on your conditions and plants that you want to grow. I always think about plants as my "babies". We can't say that because wild animal babies survive in forest, human babies will always survive in the same conditions.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

  • Posted by jolj 7b/8a (My Page) on
    Sun, Feb 27, 11 at 12:03

KIMMSR, I understand the 3-5 year rule & was excluding it from my post. I meant to ask if you had to lift the plant earlier then 3-5 yr., because of the compost. I understand your answer to be no.
My perennial garden is organic because I do not add store bought fertilizers(10-10-10-).
I do not add compost most years, only mulch of dry brown leaves & grass clipping.Thank you for your answer.
briergardener, Thank you, I agree, my plants are my babies too.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

I started all my perennial beds by laying down cardboard and 6" of wood chip mulch right on top of the grass. Where I live, that's crabgrass and Bermuda grass. I still have to weed often, but the weeds come out easily and the soil underneath all the mulch has improved dramatically.

-I do not add compost most years, only mulch of dry brown leaves & grass.

Essentially that's the same thing as compost, it just breaks down in the garden bed rather than in the compost pile.

I have to re-mulch pretty much every year because it breaks down very quickly here. It turns into this lovely soft black compost that I disturb at least once a year and try to dig a little down into the soil beneath it.

I recommend scratching the mulch with a cultivator or rake a few times a year for aeration at the very least. Once it becomes soil-like it needs to be replaced because it won't really do what mulch is supposed to do, which is preventing weed seeds from sprouting, retaining moisture and shading the soil.

Just my 2 cents.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

Organic, no-till gardening, in permanent beds, using hand tools, take almost no funds, increases yields, reduces labor by 50% to 75%, reduces input/expenses to nearly 0, increases soil fertility, stops soil erosion [no rain water run off], eliminates most weed, disease and insect problems. Drip irrigation or bucket drip irrigation [DIY] as needed.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

Try reading "Roots Demystified". He points out a long term study that demonstrated a 30% higher yield for tilling than no till. Actually, we would all love to notill all the time since it is weed and care free. But the bigger your vegetable garden gets the more expensive it can be. Even Rodale only uses notill every 3 years. I use notill only ocassionaly when it works in my rotation. I only mulch about 20% of my beds every year.

Here is a link that might be useful: Crop Rotation


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

Several years ago, I sowed my okra seed in my usual deeply tilled bed. Some seed evidently got spilled on an adjacent area that had never been tilled. I was amazed that the okra which germinated in the never-tilled ground looked as good or better than the okra planted in the conventional deeply-tilled soil. That sent me to the internet to read about no-till methods.
Since that time, I may "tickle till" the first two or three inches of soil prior to planting but mostly I do no digging except in the process of harvesting root crops, garlic, etc.
Here in West Texas with our hot, dry conditions, organic material exposed to the open air quickly oxidizes. We must continually add compost and mulch to our beds to maintain adequate fertility. The ground still gets very hard four or five inches down which worried me until I dug up a clod and examined it closely. It was riddled with worm holes! It was obvious that the worms and other soil life were doing the job for me.
Nowadays, I do not till unless absolutely necessary. I'm happy and the plants seem happy too.

Here is a link that might be useful: In the Charamon Garden


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

Just like sheets on your bed - a well made bed tucked in lasts -- at least for me in my part shade areas. In my full sun vegetable beds it doesn't seem to last as long & I need to reapply compost, manures in fall, mulch to keep my soil in good condition.

Amounts vary, but probably 6-12" sheet mulched in fall after harvesting & 2-4" mulch applied after planting in spring sounds about right. If I heap on too much in fall I will remove some to other beds in spring that had crops growing in fall & missed the application.

I haven't as much success with no till if I just layered on top of unimproved soil & didn't dig it in at some point down the road.

SOunds like you've already double dug the area & added amendments for past 6 years. Your soil might be ready for no till.

Different methods for perennials or annuals - vegetables or shrubs/perennial ornamental flowering beds.

Earthworms do dig things in, but only so far. Seems like the moles also follow the worms & do their share of tilling in.

In my raised veg beds where I don't walk on I don't till anymore - just dig in a bit of compost & some complete organic fertilizer with hand trowel when replanting (amount depends on the crop grown), add mulch when plants established.

Some have been in use for just 3 years & others up to 20 years. The older beds are easy to dig with my hands. That's the difference over time & I don't dig there anymore other than how described above.

Never used a tiller. Mostly the kids & I with just garden fork & shovel layering amendments in fall & turning in spring.

Cost depends on what you have available cheap or free. Some ideas:

-Raise chickens, ducks, or rabbits for nearly free soil amendments (have to buy feed & bedding for animals)
-gather sweepings from feed store hay & straw mixture
-try Craigslist for straw after Halloween,
-wood chips from tree trimmers & let compost well before using
-bag or contain pile of shredded leaves in fall to use in compost piles in spring with green grass clippings
-call ahead to get a good amount of coffee grounds from St*rbucks
-make friends with a horse rider. Horses can't eat hay that's spoiled, but it works fine in the garden.

You can try it & always go back if you don't like it.


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RE: No-till gardening: soliciting advice

A garden is not an organic garden simply because one does not buy or use synthetic fertilizers. An organic garden or farm is much more then that and starts with the soil and then expands to include your total environment. A true organic gardener/farmer is going to know the soil they have quite well, just like the old farmers did before the 1950's. Organic gardening/farming is not simply substituting "organic fertilizers" for synthetic fertilizers, "organic pest controls" for synthetic pest controls, "organic weed controls" for synthetic weed controls but it is knowing your environment well enough so you can make changes to that environment so those products are not necessary. People making the transition will have a need for those products, but if after 5 years, or so, you still do then you need to make more changes, or correct the ones you did make that are wrong.
People that think perennials grow differently then do annuals are grossly mistaken because all plants need 1) a good healthy soil, 2) sufficient moisture, and 3) adequate sunlight. Makes no difference if what you are growing is a tree or a squash that is what each plant needs. Supply those and the plant will grow strong and healthy and will not be bothered, much, with pests or diseases.
There may be some soils that will need to be tilled once but few soils need to be tilled every year unless abused.


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