No-Till Gardening: Less Time + Less Money = Better Results

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

But can we have those lovely gardens without the weeding?

Absolutely! No-till gardening is all about creating good soil through layers and layers of material and then leaving it alone.

“Using a no-till gardening system is hard for most people,” says Liz Joseph, Garden & Education Coordinator at Heifer International, based in Rutland. “The first step is a mental shift. You have to let go of the image of all that freshly tilled soil in the spring. Using no-till gardening takes less time and less money. I can’t believe how much better the gardens are now at Heifer International. There are fewer pests and less weed pressure, and the vegetables taste better and each plant has much better yields. We can actually have fewer plants because each one is producing so much more.”

“You can have an instant garden in about two hours,” says Rick Baruc, from Seeds of Solidarity Farm in Orange. “This is really the fastest method going.”

Want to start a no-till garden?

Here’s how:

“Take a look at your yard and figure out where the sun is coming in,” Joseph says. “You can start with part of your lawn or use some established garden space.”

“Start with a 15 x 15 foot section of yard,” Baruc adds. “Then gather cardboard to cover it. Every 2 or 3 feet, cut a 1-foot-square hole. Remove the sod and soil. Replace them with compost and then transplant a tomato or squash plant from your local farmer’s market.”

“The cardboard is going to kill the sod and weeds. It will also be your walking space,” Joseph says. “Make sure the cardboard doesn’t have wax on it; try to get out the staples and remove tape if there is any. Then get the cardboard wet to begin the composting. This will also attract worms.”

Look for corrugated cardboard at local stores and businesses. Many will be happy to pass it on and the pieces are usually fairly large.

Worms are a key component of a no-till garden. They not only aerate the soil by leaving small holes for air circulation but they also eat all sorts of organic material, and their waste, or castings, provide nutrients to the soil.

“The next step after the cardboard is to make sure you control the weeds. Mulch with whatever you have like mulching hay, grass clippings, or straw. And you have to reapply this often over the season. The mulch will break down and that can happen fast,” Joseph says.

“Put the mulch right on top of the cardboard,” Baruc adds. “The sod won’t be getting any light and that will kill it the first year. There is no need to remove it, since as it breaks down it will provide the soil nutrients and will attract worms.”

One commonly used mulch, easily available to most of us, is newspaper. If you use newspaper, only use the white parts, or newsprint, not the glossy ad inserts or fliers. Glossy ads can have additives that you may not want in your soil, especially if you are growing vegetables for your family.

As you mulch between rows, no matter what you use, make sure that the mulch layer is at least 2 inches thick. Sunlight can travel down through most mulch, and weeds will germinate if the mulch is too thin. It is difficult to err on the too-thick side.

“If you aren’t going to use the garden for a bit, plant cover crops. These act like green mulch. Oats and field peas are excellent choices,” Joseph says. “The final step comes back to the worms. You need to keep the soil aerated. Worms do a great job but you have to add humus, or compost, too. Just add that layer over the mulch.”

Many people also add layers of manure. Gardeners have strong opinions about what sort of manure is best: cow, horse, pig, chicken, or bat. For this type of garden, any will help to enrich the soil. Finding a local source is an excellent option for many gardeners who are interested in supporting the local economy.

You can start a no-till garden in the spring, summer, or fall. Once the garden layers are set up, make sure they are wet enough for the composting process to begin. The warmer it is, the faster the process will happen, but at the beginning these layers can stack up to be 2 feet tall. The garden area will compost down to only about 6 or 7 inches high.

Crops that grow over-winter or grow over many years succeed well in this type of garden. For example, asparagus, herbs, and garlic all grow magnificently in a no-till garden. Asparagus grows over many years, and once established will produce edible spears for years to come. Many herbs will grow nicely over more than one year, and garlic grows best if planted in the fall for harvest the following summer.

“Before we started using no-till gardening at Heifer International, we had three rows of tomato plants that were about 2 feet apart; it was about 140 feet. The yields were OK. Now we only plant about 90 feet of tomatoes and the plants are 3 feet apart. The yields are way better with fewer plants. The plants are so much stronger because they aren’t getting attacked by as many pests and diseases. The best part, aside from less work,” says Joseph happily, “ is the tomatoes taste better.”

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