To Till, or Not to Till? That is the Question Every Gardener Asks

Should you use a rototiller, or follow the no-till method in your garden? The answer isn’t as clear-cut as you might think.

Many gardeners swear by tilling. Others say your garden is healthier without it.

Is tilling the one garden chore you can skip? We look at both sides of the issue to help you decide which one is best for your garden.

Is Tilling Bad for the Soil?

Tilling can offer many benefits for new gardens and farms. Along with aerating the soil, tillage can be used for seedbed preparation, incorporating compost or fertilizer, weed suppression, leveling the soil, burying crop residue and even turning over cover crops.

rows of lettuce growing in a nicely tilled garden bed
Tilling is especially helpful when planting large areas of new crops.

But over the long-term, over-tilling can actually damage the soil.

Tilling can:

  • Disrupt and fracture the soil structure
  • Contribute to soil erosion and runoff
  • Reduce crop residue, which helps protect plants from heavy rainfall

Crop residue plays an important role in plant health. Without it, soil particles can become dislodged and pushed away. These displaced particles can actually clog soil pores, which disrupts water infiltration.

The primary problem with tillage is that gardeners tend to overdo it. Frequent and unnecessary tillage is what creates these problems.

Tilling can be good for the soil, but only when done properly and appropriately.

The Benefits of Tilling

man tilling the soil with a manual tiller and his horse

It’s common practice for farmers and gardeners to till their soil before planting. Tillage:

  • Aerates the soil
  • Incorporates compost, fertilizer, and vital nutrients into the soil
  • Helps control weed growth
  • Balances the soil

Whether you’re tilling the soil by hand or using a rototiller, this gardening practice can help keep your soil healthy all season long.

Gardeners generally till their soil for two main reasons: aerating and balancing.

Take a moment to think about all of the work you do in your garden. You use a wheelbarrow to transport soil, fertilizer, or compost. You kneel down to dig or plant. You stomp around on the very soil you’re going to plant in.

wheelbarrel filled with dirt.

All of this activity leads to compaction, which can suffocate the soil and hinder plant growth. Tilling helps reincorporate some of that lost air. Well-aerated soil makes it easier for oxygen, water, and nutrients to reach your plant roots.

Tillage also helps incorporate fertilizer, compost, and organic matter deep into the ground for healthier, balanced soil.

The Drawbacks of Tilling

While tilling offers many benefits, there are some drawbacks that need to be considered. We touched on these issues earlier, but let’s dive a little deeper into the long-term negative effects of tilling.

Let’s say that you decide to till your garden twice a year. Everything may seem great at first, but without a break from tilling, a few things may start happening.

  • There may be a complete breakdown in soil structure.
  • Microbial activity may slow or come to a complete stop.
  • Soil pores may be clogged, preventing water infiltration and increasing runoff.

If tillage continues over many years – without a break – these effects become even more severe, according to Iowa State University. Along with a complete breakdown of the soil structure, it’s also possible for a hardpan to develop.

A hardpan is a dense layer of soil – typically found underneath the uppermost topsoil layer – which is largely impervious to water. Hardpan is especially detrimental to crops with deep roots because water and microbial life are unable to properly flow through the soil.

The Benefits of No-Till Gardening

No-till gardening completely eliminates the practice of tilling – the home gardener’s most strenuous task.

Once the bed is established, the soil remains undisturbed. Soil amendments are simply “sprinkled” onto the top of the bed and are incorporated into the soil naturally through watering and soil organism activity. Mulch largely eliminates the need for weeding.

No-till gardening offers many benefits:

  • Allows for natural drainage and aeration
  • Saves time and effort
  • Saves water
  • Helps the soil retain carbon
  • Reduces soil erosion
  • Strengthens the earthworm population
A very thorough video from Neversink Farm on the benefits and drawbacks of no-till gardening. In short, he recommends a hybrid approach and to follow what works best for your own farm or garden.

The Drawbacks of No-Till Gardening

No-till gardening does have its benefits, but just like any other gardening method, it also has drawbacks.

One of the biggest drawbacks is the learning curve. It takes time, patience and practice to master the techniques of no-till farming.

Other disadvantages include:

  • Greater Herbicide Use: While mulching can help deter weed growth, herbicides are still needed (in most cases) to keep weed growth under control. In commercial farming, herbicides replace the plow, which exacerbates the environmental and health concerns surrounding herbicide use.
  • Formation of Gullies: No-till seeding can eventually lead to the development of gullies, and these gullies can get deeper each year because the field isn’t being smoothed with tillage.

To Till, or Not to Till?

Should you till your garden, or try the no-till method? The answer really depends on your gardening goals and needs.

Thriving vegetable garden with signs for leeks, beets, carrots, cabbage, squash, parsnips and more.
In the end, you need to do what is best for your own garden.

When done properly and appropriately, tilling does offer many benefits for the home gardener. However, no-till gardening can help prevent soil erosion and the complete breakdown of the soil structure.

A combination of these two methods can be used to enjoy the benefits of both (e.g. till one season, no-till for the two seasons, rinse, and repeat).

What I do In My Gardens

Personally, I couldn’t imagine starting a new garden bed without some type of tilling. It gives me a fresh start to begin planting a new garden crop. But in the second year, I will often only give that same area a light turnover.

When the ground hasn’t been used as a garden for many years, manually digging up all the weeds is a time-consuming process.

I use the heavier power tillers when starting a new garden bed or when the weeds have gotten really out of control and I need to dig up large areas. For me this is practical.

During the in-between years, I approach the soil with a lighter touch only turning over the soil I need to in order to complete the planting.

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