If you’ve been curious about no till gardening, this is for you! After 10 years, I this is my take on the no till gardening pros and cons!
What is No Till Gardening?
No till gardening simply means that you don’t till up the soil before you plant. Sometimes you’ll hear this method called “no dig” or “no till”.
I use a method called Back to Eden. Essentially, that system has you cover the ground with newspaper or cardboard. Next, lay a few inches of compost on top of that. Finally, chipped wood is on top of that.
The first year, you plant into the compost. Over time, the grass dies and you’re planting into the compost and the soil underneath.
This is a photo of when we were building our current garden. You can see the three distinct layers of newspaper, compost, and then chipped wood.
The basic premise of most no till gardening is that the soil is not worked. It is also covered with some sort of leaves, grass clippings, straw/hay, etc.
For the purposes of this post, I will be going on the assumption that the ground is covered with chipped wood. This is not mulch (only wood). This is when a tree service cuts down a tree and chips the branches – leaves and all.
After about 10 years of using this method, I’ve experienced good and bad. I thought I would give you the no till gardening pros and cons from my perspective!
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No Till Gardening Pros and Cons
No Till Gardening Pros
So let’s dive into the no till gardening pros and cons. We will start with the benefits. Obviously there are SO many reasons to garden this way! Here are my greatest reasons why I keep moving forward with this method.
Your soil is ready to plant whenever you are!
Typical gardeners till the soil each spring. Before planting can begin, someone needs to go out and rototill the soil. So you buy a big piece of equipment, or rent one from Home Depot, or borrow one from your neighbor. Either way, it’s a huge hassle.
However, with no till gardening, it’s a whole new world! You just go out to your garden, pull back the chipped wood, and plant into the soil beneath. You don’t need to do anything to prep the ground. It’s just always ready to go!
Very little watering is needed
Have you heard of something getting water logged? One day, my kids were at the lake and large branch was floating in the water. They tried to lift it and it was SO heavy because it had soaked up all the water and became water logged.
The chipped wood in the garden does the same thing! When it rains, that wood soaks up all the water and retains it. Then over time as the ground needs it, it releases the water.
Another thing the chipped wood does is to protect the open soil from the beating sun. It keeps it covered so that the sun can’t evaporate the moisture that is already in the soil, leaving it dry and crumbly.
So I do water my garden, but normally just when I’m planting seeds or seedlings. After I establish those plants, I don’t really water again! I do live in Northeast Ohio, so we get plenty of rain. If you live in a more arid climate, you’ll need to water, but those wood chips will help you retain that water you’re spending all that money on!
Little to no weeding
I call this “gardening for the lazy gardener”. I’m pretty lazy when it comes to gardening. After I’ve done all the work of starting seedlings, hardening them off, planning the garden, and planting everything, I’m kind of done. The last thing I want to do is go out every day to weed!
The great part about a no till garden is that the soil has to be covered with chipped wood! If you go to my blog post about organically taming thistle, I talk a lot about the benefits of putting a thick layer of chipped wood on your garden. It naturally supresses the weeds because it makes them have to fight really hard to grow through that thick layer.
Additionally, because you don’t really have to water the garden, you also aren’t watering the weed seeds that blow into your garden. The only time those weed seeds that are sitting on top of the chipped wood get watered is when it rains. They begin to grow, but their roots are just in that top layer of wood and are super easy to pick out.
Normally I just hand pick a couple weeds every few days when I walk out into the garden first thing in the morning with my coffee. Ain’t nobody got time for weeding!
Built in fertilizer makes your soil better and better over time
The chipped wood we talked about using is a mixture of greens and browns – greens being the leaves and browns being the branches. If you have ever composted, you’ll know that you need that mixture of greens and browns to break down into nutrient dense organic garden food.
So basically, when you use this method, you’re composting on top of your soil! As the chipped wood breaks down over time, it creates that healthy compost that feeds your garden and continues to add nutrients to the soil. Bonus!
You don’t hurt the beneficial microorganisms in the soil
Worms are not the only thing that builds soil health! There is a dense population of microorganisms that feed on dead and decaying matter and live roots in the soil. Tilling the soil breaks up those live root systems and ruins the environment those microorganisms thrive in. Sadly, that lowers the overall health of the soil.
I’ve linked a really short article here that goes into more depth about why tilling hurts soil health. They are WAY smarter than I am and can explain it better!
No Till Gardening Cons
It’s important to look at the no till gardening pros and cons because there aren’t just benefits. There are also drawbacks! Here are some I’ve experienced over the last decade.
Can steal nitrogen from your plants
That amazing chipped wood is so great, but as it’s breaking down, the wood components need nitrogen, especially during that first year. Unfortunately, it will take it from wherever it can and that includes your plants!
In the Back to Eden method, Paul is really clear that you need to use aged chipped wood – at least a year old. But, if you’re having a local tree company drop it off at your house, it will be completely fresh. If you don’t have a place to store it for a year to age, and you put it directly on the garden like most of us have to do, it detrimentally affects the garden.
I try to have the chipped wood delivered in the fall so it has 6 months to age on the garden before I plant. That’s what I did last year, but I’m still having some issues this growing year because it isn’t aged enough. The way I’ve dealt with this in the past is to pull the chipped wood away from the base of the plants and to surround the plant with aged manure. This tends to boost the plant with enough nitrogen to rebound.
It’s sometimes hard to get chipped wood
I had this problem for the last few years and it was SO frustrating! I had a tree company I had used in the past that supplied me with chipped wood whenever I needed it. For some reason, they got super flakey and told me they were coming every time I called over a two year period, but never came.
Last year I spent an afternoon calling around to tree companies in the area and found a great guy who was happy to dump his chipped wood for me for free. Now I have his phone number saved in my cell phone for when I need it again!
In the interim, I did find some piles of chipped wood that the surrounding cities provided from when they trimmed trees. You just need to make sure you have a truck to be able to pick up loads from there.
It’s a little cumbersome during planting time
While the soil is always ready to go, depending on how deep your layer of chipped wood is, it can be a pain to plant. The chipped wood needs to be pulled back to expose the soil in order to plant into it. I keep a pretty deep layer of chipped wood, so I have a huge trench or hole in which to plant.
But that chipped wood needs to stay out of the trench or hole until the plant is grown enough for the chipped wood to be moved back to place. So you have piles of chipped wood mounded up. It also slides back into the hole when you have teeny tiny seeds popping up. Just like it inhibits the weed growth, if it slides on top of those little sprouts, it will keep them from growing too.
What I often do to combat this is to pull the chipped wood away and then fill that space with compost and plant into that. Then the chipped wood can’t slide back into the hole because it has been filled. That tends to solve my problem.
It still needs additional nutrients
Even though the chipped wood adds vitamins and minerals to the soil as it breaks down, you still need to be adding beneficial nutrients to the soil to compensate for the ones that your vegetables and flowers take out of the soil.
This can come in the form of worm castings, or compost, or compost tea, or natural fertilizer (this is my favorite), or aged manure. Either way, you’ll want to give your seeds and plants a boost when you plant them. You can fill the hole with compost like I spoke about above. You could put a handful of aged manure in the hole when you plant, or feed them with compost tea.
Either way you do it, you’ll need to add a little nutrition to your soil when you plant, even though the soil in a no till garden gets more rich every year.
It doesn’t always produce well the first year
Remember how we talked about the chipped wood needing to age? That can really affect the harvest you get, especially in your first year of using the no till method.
I’ve heard that when some people make the switch, they keep a bit of their old gardening method and then switch a portion of their garden over to no till. Then as the soil gets richer, they convert the rest of their garden. That is a great idea if you’re already a gardener and want to make the move to no till.
It can be expensive to get started
Remember when I said you cover the ground with newspapers and then a few inches of compost? That is what you’ll be planting into the first year, so it has to be around 5″ deep. My garden is 36’x24′. It was quite costly to cover that area with compost.
Luckily the chipped wood is often free, as are the newspapers. But that layer of compost can get super pricey! That was definitely a drawback in the beginning when we were building.
If I had been more patient, I probably could have skipped the compost step if I had been willing to cover the ground with newspapers and chipped wood in the fall and allow it to sit all winter long. Then in the spring, the grass would be dead and the newspaper would have broken down and allows you to plant directly into the soil.
If I were doing it again and I was patient, that’s how I would do it.
So those are the no till gardening pros and cons that I have experienced over the last 10 years. Do you have anything to add to it? I’d love to hear!