Updated: Nov 2, 2022
2022 certainly saw no shortage of farmers and gardeners touting the benefits of no-till growing. With no-till methods rising in popularity, you may be wondering if they might benefit your own garden. But before we dig into the specifics, let's talk about what we mean when we say "no-till". On the surface, the term "no-till" refers to a method of growing plants that aims to keep the soil undisturbed. Soil on a no-till farm is never plowed or sprayed with toxic chemicals. Looking even deeper, no-till farming aims to honor the natural processes of the planet. It's about trusting the relationship between plants, soil and microorganisms and knowing that it works best without any human intervention. No-till farming offers countless benefits, from eliminating the need of synthetic fertilizers to reversing the effects of soil erosion. But before we can understand how no-till farming works to create healthy soil, we first must understand what healthy soil really is.
At The Root Of It All
Healthy soil is teeming with life. From microscopic bacteria to giant earth worms, healthy soil is comprised of a complex, living food web. In the soil food web, every player knows their position. Plant roots help feed microorganisms like fungi and bacteria. These microorganisms are then fed on by larger organisms like nematodes, who become food for even larger arthropods, and so on. All this feeding within the soil food web creates a waste by-product that becomes a food source for plants. It's a symbiotic relationship that benefits both the plant and the living soil. In order to keep this food web in balance, healthy soil requires the following four factors:
- Plant roots. Plant roots are responsible for delivering the carbon that soil microbes need for fuel.
- Water. It’s vital to many processes within your soil, from photosynthesis to enzymatic mineral breakdown by microbes. Even earth worms require moisture-rich soil – they use water to breathe through their skin!
- Soil organisms. Soil organisms are responsible for breaking down soil nutrients into a plant-available package. This means that soil organisms aid in the photosynthetic processes through every stage of a plant’s life. They keep a plant healthy, productive and protected.
- Nutrients. Nutrients must be available in healthy soil in order to feed soil organisms. These soil organisms, in turn, package nutrients into a usable form for plants. When we think about fertilization, we should consider that we’re actually feeding our living soil and it’s our soil that feeds our crops.
The Problem With Plowing
So what does plowing have to do with the soil food web? Well, the obvious answer is that it destroys soil life. Fungi creates expansive, nutrient-mining networks, earth worms break up soil compaction through complex tunnels and fungal-feeding arthropods feed from plant roots. When we till or turn soil under, we’re physically breaking up these vital soil structures and destroying the life the depends on them. But tilling can also create domino effect of consequences.
- Desertification. Tilling soil encourages moisture loss in several ways. First, tiling exposes more soil surface area to the air, causing higher rates of evaporation. Tilling also destroys living plants roots, creating bare soil. Bare soil has a more difficult time absorbing and retaining water than soil that’s planted with living roots.
- Compaction. Soil that lacks moisture or living soil structures tends to be more compact. Soil compaction makes it more difficult for plant roots to spread out, creating stunted plants. Soil compaction is a common reason that most people till their soil, not realizing that tilling is only exacerbating the issue.
- Less nutrient availability. Because nutrient availability is tied to every part the soil food web, any disruption can cause the loss of plant-available nutrients. Anything, from low microbial activity to the loss of moisture, will effect a soil’s nutrient density.
- Encourages weed growth. Weeds seed can lie dormant deep within your soil for years. When we turn soil over, we’re bringing those dormant weed seeds closer to the surface, where they’re encouraged to germinate. Because tilling encourages weed growth, it also encourages the use of toxic herbicides, in most conventional farming situations.
No-till Growing at Home
So how can you implement no-till practices into your own growing methods? It's easier than you might think. Any home gardener can reap the benefits of no-till growing in their own garden with these few simple practices.
- Disrupt the soil as little as possible. Avoid any tilling or heavy digging. Once a plant is ready to be removed from your garden, cut the plant’s stem at the soil line, leaving its roots in the soil to be fed on by soil organisms. When starting new beds, layer heavy cardboard over existing grass and then top with a few inches of soil and compost. In just weeks, the cardboard will smother any existing plants and then breakdown into the soil itself.
- Keep it planted. The goal is to keep living plant roots in your soil at all times. In areas where a freezing winter shortens your season, plant a cold hardy cover crop, such as winter rye, in early autumn. Or, use season extenders like cold frames or low tunnels to keep winter greens and root vegetables planted all winter long.
- Feed with compost. Compost is a nutrient dense super food for soil. It’s full of microbial activity and plant-available nutrients. Whether you make your own or buy it from a trusted source (locally, we recommend Tilth), compost is one of the best methods for feeding your soil.
- Rotate crops. Because the aim is to keep your soil planed at all times, it’s important to use smart crop rotation practices. If we planted the same crop, season after season, in the same bed, we would deplete a specific set of nutrients from our soil. Rotating crop families in your soil each season creates a balance in nutrient use.
At Fifth Acre Farms, we’re using no-till growing methods to create healthy soil, nutrient dense food and a more biodiverse ecosystem. I truly believe that when we honor the earth we’re tending, it gives back to us ten-fold. And honoring the earth is at the heart of what we do. But you don’t need acres of land to implement these practices. No-till growing is a great option for environmentally minded home gardeners too. You just need to remember one simple philosophy – healthy soil grows healthy plants. Happy growing!
More Resources - There are plenty of people, much smarter than me, that are writing on the topic of no-till farming. I will never profess to being a scientist and I encourage anyone interested in the topic to seek out more information. I've linked some of my favorite resources below.
The Living Soil Handbook by Jesse Frost
The Chef’s Garden: A Modern Guide to Common and Unusual Vegetables by Farmer Lee Jones
The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm by Daniel Mays