No-Till Gardening: How to Grow More Food By Doing Less Work

January 27, 2018 at 2:35 am

Tilling soil exposes it to the sun and kills all the microorganisms that keep it alive.

In the no-till gardening method seedlings are planted into tiny holes drilled with as little disturbance to the soil as possible. Credit:

To “till” soil means to dig it up, stir it, or turn it over. Whether it’s done with a shovel, a hoe, a pick or a plow, the goal is to turn over the upper layer of the soil, bringing fresh nutrients to the surface, while burying weeds.

Tilling has been the hallmark of agriculture, since its inception, with the plow being the most intensive tool to this end.

But 10,000 years after we started doing it, humans are finally starting to question whether digging up the Earth is the smartest way to make her produce for us.

Americans first began to question the wisdom of the plow after the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s, in which a large chunk of our prairie lands were converted to barren wasteland after just 60 years of deep plowing.

Modern plow

“Wrong side up,” an old Native American man tried to warn European settlers in the region after seeing a plowed field for the first time in the 1870s.

The farmers laughed and mocked him, but little did they know, the joke was on them. When the native grasses and their deep roots were flipped upside-down, it decomposed the soil’s organic matter faster.

This created a flush of nutrients available to the first round of cultivated crops, but left the soil more and more depleted each year it was tilled.

The Green Revolution of the following decades (1940s – 1960s), allowed us to replenish the major nutrients we’d robbed from the soil with synthetic ones, putting a band-aid on the problem until now.

The trouble is fertile topsoil is far more complex than nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK), the three synthetic minerals we keep flooding the soil with. It needs all the microorganisms that help it retain nutrients and others. Otherwise the nutrients, and the soil itself, get washed into the sea, where they destroy rivers, lakes and oceans.

The No-Till Revolution


The idea of modern no-till farming was first popularized by Edward Faulkner’s book Plowman’s Folly in the 1940s.

Now that the Green Revolution is coming to an end, and farmers are facing many of the same problems as they did during the Great Depression, many of them are beginning to take Faulkner’s revolutionary idea — that there is no scientific justification for tilling — seriously.

The New York Times reports that for some crops, like soybeans, the acreage dedicated to no-tillage farming has nearly doubled in the last 15 years.

“There are farmers all over the country — good, conservative, business-like farmers — who don’t believe in digging at all,” writes Bill Finch, chief science adviser for Mobile Botanical Gardens in Alabama.

“They realized all that plowing and digging wasn’t improving the soil,” Finch says. “It was instead destroying the natural architecture of the soil, and actually making it harder for plants to grow.”

Farmers first began to embrace the no-dig philosophy in the late 1970s with development of a no-till corn planter, Brian Jones of the Virginia No-Tillage Alliance told the Christian Science Monitor.

After 400 years of tilling in the state, “they were becoming concerned over how much soil they were wasting,” Jones said. “Now, more than 50 percent of the state’s farmers have switched to no-till.”

Growers save a lot of time, money and fossil fuel by foregoing the old practice of “sod busting,” Jones says.

The drought and flooding that have plagued much of the country in recent years have drawn more farmers to no-till, philanthropist Howard Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett and proponent of soil-conservation, told the New York Times.

“When you get into a drought, that gets everybody’s attention,” Buffet said.  “Farmers don’t really change their behavior until they see that they have to, which is pretty much human nature.”

“When you get right down to it, there’s nothing all that natural or necessary about digging,” writes Finch.

“Home gardeners who are continuously digging and tilling their vegetable gardens are still living in the dark ages of agriculture. Many don’t realize that their plowing and tilling is as silly and dangerous as ‘bleeding’ a patient to in the hopes of curing a disease.”

The No-Till, No Dig Philosophy

Soil is its own complex ecosystem, teeming with life, writes Angelo Eliades on his blog Deep Green Permaculture.

There are about 50 billion microbes in 1 tablespoon of soil, including bacteria, fungi, yeast, protozoa, algae and nematodes, he says.

These microorganisms are responsible for making nutrients accessible to plants, structuring the soil for water and air movement, disease control, and plant growth, Eliades says.

Turning soil over exposes it to the air, which dries it out, and to the ultraviolet rays of the sun, which sterilize it, he explains.

It also releases a lot of its nutrients, such as carbon and nitrogen. Without as much organic matter, it doesn’t retain water well, leading to erosion.

When you first dig up the soil, plants grow better because the microorganisms die and release their nutrients into the soil. The catch is, it only works once, and then your soil dead, he says. Then the plants become more prone to diseases and require chemical fertilizers, which kill off any remaining soil microorganisms.

“In Nature, soil does not need to be manually cultivated for spectacular forests to grow.” Eliades writes. “What holds true in Nature also holds true in the garden.”

In no-till gardening, organic matter — such as manure, compost, straw or leaves — is layered on top of the soil surface. It’s called ‘sheet composting,’ where garden beds essentially become large composting areas. Weeds are killed and kept at bay by mulching.

“When there’s digging to be done, let the experts do the work,” Eliades says. Earthworms can turn over around 50 tonnes of soil per hectare each year, aerating the soil and improving water filtration.

Worm castings are also rich in nutrients, with phosphorus levels four times higher than surrounding soil and nitrogen that is readily available to plants, eliminating the need for the N and P in chemical NPK fertilizer.

For thorough video instructions on no-dig gardening, check out Charles Dowding’s awesome YouTube channel or the award winning book Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding.

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