No-till gardening is my favorite way to maintain healthy gardens without chemicals.
There are several specific no-till methods such as Back to Eden, Hugelkultur, and no-dig. But these methods share general principles that you can easily use in your garden.
Whether you’re starting a garden from scratch or maintaining an already established garden, this no-till method will work for you.
Benefits of No-Till Gardening
No-till gardening is simply caring for the garden without tilling or turning over the soil. This practice is important in permaculture gardening.
Avoiding tilling or turning the soil helps keep the important soil structure intact which keeps the garden healthy.
- Reduces weeds
- Improves soil health
- Improves soil structure
- Reduces pests
- Is easy on the body
- Is achievable for anyone (no heavy machinery or strong backs required)
I fell in love with no-till gardening quickly when I saw how abundant my garden was with such little work!
Starting a Garden From Scratch
If this is your first year gardening or you’re ready to move from container gardening to in-ground gardening, here are the steps you need to take to begin your no-till garden.
Note that there are many ways to create a no-till permaculture garden, and none of them are wrong, so if you “mess up”, it’s possible that someone recommends doing it that way — so don’t worry!
Layer Organic Matter
The philosophy of a no-till garden is to make a garden that resembles nature. In nature, there are layers of material, including a lot of mulch material.
For example, there may be a layer of fallen leaves with a layer of animal droppings and dead plants on top of that, followed by another layer of fallen leaves the next year.
The leaves are carbon and give some aeration to the soil being built. The animal droppings and dead plants are nitrogen and feed whatever vegetation is around. Keep this in mind while building your garden.
As early as possible (preferably in the fall of the previous year or earlier) start layering your materials:
- Section off your garden using garden twine or whatever method you like.
- Lay down compost or a mixture of compost and aged manure (I don’t recommend using only manure if you can avoid it, but it will work) at least 6 inches deep. Water this layer.
- Cover the compost and manure with newspaper (at least 4 sheets thick) or cardboard. Water again.
- Then add mulch 4-8 inches deep (to keep weeds from growing). I like to use chopped-up leaves because they aren’t sprayed and they are free. I also use hay because it’s easy to find organic hay (unsprayed). I have not had a great experience with wood chips. However, many people like wood chips, straw, etc. Whatever you choose to use, make sure it hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals.
- Sit back and let the soil organisms do their job of aerating and fertilizing. You would be surprised how quickly those worms can soften and fertilize even the most compact soil.
Shortcuts for Impatient Gardeners
This works better when you can give the garden bed a few months to a year to do its thing. But I know that most of us can’t wait an entire year. Here are some shortcuts you can use:
- Opt for raised beds or containers this year. You can start your inground no-till garden for next year and garden in raised beds this year (if you have space).
- Focus on shallow rooting plants like greens, radishes, green onion, and bush beans. You may also have luck with moderately deep rooting vegetables like carrot, peppers, peas, summer squash, cucumber, cantaloupe, and turnip.
- I have also dug holes specifically for one plant (a winter squash for example), filled it with compost, and then planted the plant. That worked fine too.
Prepping the Garden in the Spring
When to prep the garden will depend on your climate and your weather but generally, a few weeks before planting is a good rule of thumb. Here are the things you need to do to prep your garden for the coming growing season:
- Remove and lay down any leftover plants from last year. Doing this adds nitrogen to the garden. One exception is if a plant was diseased or pest ridden in which case they should be removed and disposed of (though you would likely have already done this).
- Use a broadfork to aerate the soil. A broadfork is a garden tool with long metal tongs that stick into the earth. You then move it back and forth to loosen the soil (without turning it over). You can rake the mulch back first if you like (I would if you have more than a couple of inches of mulch). You don’t really need to if you’re using hay for mulch but wood chips are much harder to get the broadfork through.
- Add more compost/manure (4-6 inches) and cover with additional mulch (4-8 inches).
That’s it! It’s really simple when you use a no-till method (and some of the other techniques that I teach, like crop rotation). Each year, do this same thing and after a few years your garden will be so amazingly healthy and abundant you won’t believe it!
Should I Test the Soil?
Some of you may be wondering why I don’t recommend testing the soil and adding amendments. Here’s why:
When you’re just starting out doing all of that can be overwhelming and is unnecessary in many cases.
Almost anything that is off-balance in your garden soil can be fixed by adding compost. It helps neutralize the soil, adds a variety of nutrients, and helps aerate the soil.
If you add lots of compost and still have a problem, then testing may be necessary, but for the most part, the above is all you need.
Optional: Use Chickens
Use your chickens if possible! If you have chickens, they are a great help in the garden. If you don’t have chickens yet, just keep this in mind for the future!
Chickens are really great at eating bugs and plants as well as creating manure. If you let them do these things in your garden you’re saving yourself a lot of work.
They can get rid of pests and clean up old plants while fertilizing the garden. Here are some ways you can use your chickens in the garden:
- Fence off the garden in the off-season and let your chickens clean up and fertilize until the spring (then move them).
- Let your chickens spread compost or mulch.
- Feed your chickens kitchen scraps while fenced into your garden and let them make those scraps into compost and manure.
- Let chickens prep a new spot for a garden. They can scratch up grass and make starting a garden much easier.
I have used chickens this way when I had two spots for a garden. Each year I moved the chickens to one or the other location.
This helps reduce disease and pests since there isn’t the same crop growing in the same spot year after year (in this case there are no crops on the chicken years).
What If I Have Raised Beds?
If you have raised beds, you can still use this method. Raised beds are a great choice for a first-year garden since you’re importing the soil (so there’s very little work to do to prep the soil).
Whether it’s your first year or not the steps are simple:
- Pull out and lay down any old plants (except for diseased or pest-ridden plants — take those out and burn or bury them).
- Add compost/manure (2-4 inches).
- Cover with mulch (4-8 inches).
It’s that simple (but learn more if you’re interested)!
How Long Does it Take to Create a No-Till Garden?
I mentioned earlier a few ways you can avoid leaving the garden empty since many people rely on the food they grow each year.
But if you can give a garden a year to replenish itself, you won’t regret it.
However, it will start improving very quickly once you feed the soil and allow the microorganisms to do their job. If you can give the garden a couple of months, that’s a great start.
But each year that you practice no-till gardening, the soil gets better and better.
So the answer is, it doesn’t take long for the soil to start improving but it will take a few seasons to reap the most benefit from the improved soil (like fewer weeds and pests).
Have you tried permaculture no-till gardening? What improvements in your garden have you noticed?