To Till or Not to Till

April 1, 2019

Rototilling the vegetable plot can be quite satisfying. A compacted, rutted piece of ground harvested last fall is transformed into a fresh, new, rich-looking expanse of earth ready to be planted with this year’s dreams. Some expert tiller operators, eager to justify the ownership of a thousand-dollar-plus soil-stirring machine, have perfected their art to such a degree that they can rototill a large garden site without so much as leaving a footprint in the newly prepared ground.

But not all gardeners agree with rototilling the soil every year—if at all. Each time that soil is cultivated or tilled, thousands of weed seeds are brought close to the surface, where they find just the right conditions to prosper. Roots of perennial weeds such as quack grass and dandelion may be sliced into several pieces, each chunk capable of producing another plant. It’s no wonder that weeds most often beat the crops up on a newly planted vegetable bed.

The solution? Try no-till farming. Used properly, it conserves soil moisture, protects soil structure, and doesn’t disrupt beneficial soil organisms. Once the garden site is readied, the soil warmed, and the first flush of weeds dealt with, apply a thick mulch such as a few inches of compost, several inches of straw, or even sawdust. (Since sawdust robs nitrogen from the soil as it breaks down, add some fertilizer with it.)

The results of mulching are many: Weeds are kept at bay, nutrients are released slowly to the soil, and plants are protected from temperature extremes. Above all, soil moisture is conserved during periods of drought. Adding new mulch every year, instead of tilling, keeps the soil in excellent shape. Just pull the mulch back to sow seeds or set plants.

Before taking out a classified ad to sell your rototiller, remember: Tilling is still considered beneficial when starting new gardens, borders, and lawns because it is a good way to incorporate soil amendments. Anyway, most of us still can’t resist starting a vegetable garden on a piece of ground that wipes last year’s slate clean.

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