To Till or Not To Till

by Chowgene Koay

The Potential Social and Economical Benefits of Leaving the Soil Alone


Tilling the soil removes compaction allowing for aeration, water penetration, and the addition of any soil amendments for plant roots. In the short term, this can be a benefit and can be a necessary measure when working with poor soil conditions. However, in the long term, routine tilling has shown to ruin soil structures by destroying the complex structure of life and organic matter.

The University of Nebraska conducted research in 1981 to determine the affects of tilling and no-till methods on a 300-acre farm, and within a few years, the advantages of the no-till method began to show its profitability to the farm.

By removing annual or seasonal tilling, the soil is stimulated with microbial activity ranging from earthworms, beneficial bacteria, fungi, organic matter decomposition, and a huge range of biological activity. Digging into this soil structure routinely releases large amounts of nutrients that cannot be used effectively by plants and kills off the beneficial organisms that we want. Eliminating tilling also retains water effectively, disposes of organic matter to the plant roots due to microbial activity, increases carbon storage, reduces labor, and more.

If you are starting a new garden, consider the benefits of no-till methods and determine whether it will be beneficial for your environment. Heavy clay or poorly drained soils may require digging to aerate the soil. However, there are other alternatives. With patience, planting perennial plants in a raised bed can penetrate the clay soil without too much backbreaking work. One other method is to introduce plants that can break up the clay without you having to dig too much (google it, and you’ll find it). Keep in mind, that clay tends to hold lots of nutrients. The opposite is sandy soils, which do not retain nutrients well at all.

If in doubt, it does not hurt to try whatever works for you. The beauty of gardening and working with nature is the number of ways you can solve one problem.


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