To Till or Not to Till

Tardiva Hydrangea

A few years ago I was lamenting my clay soil at work one day when a friend mentioned Ruth Stout and the lasagna gardening method. It sounds great, skip the tilling and layer hay between green organic materials and boom, great plants without any weeding, tilling, or digging.

This simple idea set the tone and has been my approach to gardening until now. No tilling, lots of organic matter, and lots of hot wheelbarrow action.

Lately, I’ve been asking myself if I haven’t caused myself a lot more work than necessary. It sure wouldn’t be the first time.

How valuable is your time? We are the wealthiest country in the world with access to affordable dirt by the truckload. Is all this hauling and chopping and turning necessary?

What about composting? Sure, the plants love it, but one season I spent considerable effort hauling food scraps from a catering company, layering in browns, and turning it once a month with a turning fork (not easy). A few months later all that work got me a few bags worth of compost, something I could have bought for $40 or $50 at the mulch yard.

There are a lot of old-timers that grow serious gardens around here. They till it every season, fertilize it, and grow great plants. There is practical wisdom to that method, working the soil as we’ve done for millennia, though plowing has gone in and out of favor at different points in history.

Every piece of land is different. The no-till method might make sense for you. It’s one way of getting good results out of your garden, but I wouldn’t say it’s easy. Just be wary of making your job harder than it needs to be.

At the very least I’d suggest bringing in some good topsoil at the start of your project so it isn’t such a long slog to reach the goal of all this effort: Decent dirt to grow in.

Here’s what the science says.