Turning the soil “upside-down” exposes it to the sun and kills the microorganisms that keep it alive.
Turning the soil “upside-down” exposes it to the sun and kills the microorganisms that keep it alive.
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.
“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.
RELATED: Was Agriculture the Biggest Mistake Humans Ever Made?
70 responses to “No-Till Gardening: How to Grow More Food By Doing Less Work”
Thank you for sharing! This is such wisdom…common sense! Glad I read this!
The images that you show are of two different types of planting. The gardens that show green are from backyard gardeners, while those that are being plowed are of large farms. At least show apples to apples and compare a no till gardeners plot to a garden plot that was tilled.
I have done it both ways and have gotten the same produce results from each. The difference is the lack of weeds from the no till method.
Here is a Farmer in Ohio that is utilizing no-til on over 1,200 acres – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNwdmECsKuo
Thank you. Your comment was very valuable to me.
After 35 years of tilling our garden soil and fighting weeds and continually trying to condition our heavy soil and add nutrients we switched our acreage to permaculture/lasagna gardening. Not only are we almost entirely weed free but we don’t water,fertilize or pay to get our garden to produce. Our soil is no longer dense and heavy. It’s like plants on steroids but organically. We will never go back! It’s been an amazing eye opener!
I wonder if you have any wood ticks, because mulching here in our rural acreage harbours hundreds of ticks… they love dead leaves, straw etc..
it would be to do with the type of mulch you are using maybe that they make anaerobic conditions in your soil and hence pest problems. nutritional problems will attract pests so its a balance. Being from a cold climate I am researching this issue myself how to keep it covered but not get the slugs in the above two areas are what i am still researching to get my answers.
This is why permaculture principles also include animals in the plan. Chooks or ducks around the fruit trees can clean up a lot of pests.
I plow my garden every year… always a good yeild.. I do not plow the whole garden just the part I am going to plant that day.. then after planting I cover the part plowed with a 6 inch layer of fresh cut grass.. I do that till the whole garden is planted.. with the help of my neighbors they cut their grass and dump in on my garden so by the time it is planted it is also covered… none of the grass has any chemicals in it .. the grass is the only food I give my garden…and I water just the plants not the whole garden. takes a bit longer but why water the weeds… I keep my garden covered in grass all year long
and just think – you could save yourself the time and energy of any of that plowing, still mulch as you do, and further enrich your soil microbial life over the years.
temperate climates had good yields for many generations of plowing because they have deep topsoils – but it didn’t last forever, and in recent generations they have had to use artificial fertilisers, etc because they finally plowed into subsoils…
I am planning on doing that this year.. all the years I have planted by this time I have weeds and grass growing before I plant. so I till to kill the weeds… so far this year no weeds or grass growing still covered with the grass and leaves from my neighbor… so if I can get it covered before I plant i will not till just dig a hole for the plant
Seems like a lotta extra work.
I have covered mine with fresh cut grass before, but the problem is, the grass becomes moldy. I have mold allergies, but even aside from that, doesn’t moldy vegetative matter harm the plants? How does one resolve that? Thanks!
Hi Peter, thinner layers of grass clippings work best. Also let them dry out a bit before du ping them.
Hope it helps.
We are trying to set-up a organic Garden. We would like more knowledge about no tilling ways of Farming.
To preserve the soil and get more yield per acreage .less pesticide. More saving less overhead. More production and hence more money in Farmers pocket. And fresh healthy herbs and vegetables year round
Look at Charles Dowding for lots of very helpful info. He has a no till market garden. Youtube and blog.
Thank you for pulling the pieces together in this puzzle. I will definitely share this.
Something that should be told in school
Sharing. Great, succinct info. Thanks.
Great theory article on how to make changes to the garden plants and prevent another dust bowl. Thankyou.
Great article. Thank you!
How do I deal with slugs in my garden? On a bigger scale is a problem. I farm about 200 ac and had a problem with slugs in 120 ac of soybeans lost the crop. To take care of the problem I got out the disc. it helped with slugs and weeds with out using chemical. this coming spring is where the problem is don’t really want to do more discing don’t know what else to do.
You dont have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency.
beautifully put! Never met him, but Mr Mollison shall be missed.
that, and 120ac of any single crop, when discovered by any “pest” is likely to be overrun.
diversity is the key. pests likely have a lot more trouble finding food when they have to hunt through various crops.
research intercropping methods – preferably put in 15/20% of your land to contour forestry (ideally crops you can use, be it for material/food/fodder/etc) – you will not reduce your overall yield, you may even improve it.
I use lime around the plants that i have problems with worms like cauliflower or zucchini … a homemade aphid spray for the eggplants and really noting else .. only the grass and leaves from my neighbors yards
I have been lasagna gardening for over 25 years, I turned to it when I had a bad back, never dug a garden since. This is a great article. Thanks for sharing
I am going to try this
No-till gardening makes a lot of sense to me. The only thing is mulch is not free. It is getting more expensive to buy as the demand for it increases. The nutrients in the food removed from the garden and eaten is equivalent to what has to be replaced. Therefore even making your own mulch is eventually depleting your own yard of nutrients. Nothing comes free from thin air.
Try nitrogen fixing plants. Dont need much space, plant as hedges or fencing.
maybe the air is not as thin as you think 🙂
as mentioned by Jo, nitrogen fixing plants are a great addition to the garden, where in fact the little bacterial nodules on their roots do harvest nitrogen from the air.
comfrey is a great green manure addition to mulch worth growing.
wormfarm (or compost) your kitchen wastes and return this if possible.
you are correct that vegetation removed does take nutrient with it. ideally composting toilets for our own waste can be used to get the most of the nutrient back to our land rather than flushed away.
With the orrect organisms in the soil, associated with the roots of legumes, Nitrogen does come free from the air. With a healthy, undisturbed population of microorganisms, other nutrients will be released from the parent material of the soil. So it’s not as simple as saying that you have to replace what was removed in the crops you harvest. And then, if you have a composting toilet, that recycles nutrients so you’re closing the loop.
Mulch can be made out of any biodegradable material that is free of undesired chemicals. Newspaper, cardboard, other non-coated paper, non-synthetic carpeting, fallen leaves, grass clippings, used straw from cleaning out barns (with added fertiliser!), fresh straw from farm crops (if you can’t get or don’t want to deal with the dirty stuff), non-synthetic clothing, hair clippings, kitchen waste, garden waste, tree/shrub prunings, manure, etc.
Free or relatively cheap sources of these things include: neighbours who want to get rid of their leaves and grass clippings, Freecycle, recycling/rubbish disposal centres, livestock farms, grain farms, etc. I put a wee leaflet through my neighbours’ doors saying I’d pick up their bagged leaves and clippings for free, and got quite a few taking me up on it. Since grass is always growing and leaves fall every year, you can build up and maintain quite a good mulch from them.
If you’re shameless enough, you can get all sorts of things for free. My mother actually stopped a guy in a truck who pulled up to her at a light, because she saw a big rolled-up carpet in the back. She asked if he was taking it to the landfill, he said yes, she said she would take it, and went home with a big layer of sheet mulch for her garden. Saved him the landfill fee as well. 😉
if you have a yard use your grass clippings and if it is not enough try to get your neighbors grass clippings by offering them some free veggies from your garden
How do they get rid of the Bermuda grass without tilling?
Put a bunch of newspapers on top, then layered mulch on top thick. Dig hole all d way to soil past d grass layer, put in seedling. Voila! No till gardening. Keep d bermuda as d walkway in between rows.
Makes good sense
Industrial no-till is achieved through increases in pesticide use.
You are conflating commercial scale cropping with backyard gardening here
Unfortunately too often you are right although it’s herbicides that kill vegetation (weeds) followed by pesticides to kill any other potential issue from insects, also fungicides. It’s difficult to manage mulch for 2000 acres, to say the least. Then there is the slug and snail issue which is pernicious in wet temperate climates when mulch is used during the growing season. Keeping green manure crops on any otherwise bare soil in winter helps a good deal even though they do generally get tilled in, so perhaps it’s the insistence on totally weed free totally deconstructed soil that’s the problem, the soil life is unable to recover because of the degree of destruction. Perhaps there’s a middle ground between fields such as shown above with the tractor with absolutely no life allowed other than crop, and absolutely no till?
What about the principle of leaving land fallow every 7th year… A land “Sabbath”?
what that was if you had animals you left the animals on that field to eat the grasses and to fertilize the ground.. in modern times you do not have to worry about that since the invention of modern chems.. my dad did that because of the deer and rabbits and other animal that came to eat the grasses in the field.. but we are talking less then a acre field… so if you have a garden like mine 40 x 60 feet use your grass clippings … i use mine plus my two neighbors grass clippings keeps it cover cause it only lasts about a month so you have to keep putting it on
It does say 50% of a state’s farms is turning to no till. Commercial industrial farmers are doing it. No choice now. Good for all of us.
no-till on large scale is achievable.
of course any massive monoculture is unsustainable and tends to create more problems than it solves.
diversity of crop is one of the key elements in restoring our landscape.
weeds are not really weeds but indicators of soil conditions.
they will tend to highlight mineral deficiencies or that the soil is compacted, or too loose (for instance).
these weeds will not germinate unless these conditions exist.
so, sometimes it’s about doing what you can to lower costs on large scale (rather than ever-increasing profits), avoid pesticides/herbicides/fungicides in their entirety as they only kill helpful as well as “harmful” organisms, and pushing through the no-till until stable soil structure and and balance is achieved.
at this point what are considered “weeds” will generally remain innert in the soil, and the plants shall be stronger in themselves and better resist pests and fungus.
Agreed, Michael. A good resource for including helpful weeds in the agricultural landscape is
Weeds: Guardians of the Soil by Joseph Cocannouer — http://journeytoforever.org/farm_library/weeds/WeedsToC.html
Exactly. Much of the land around me is no-tilled, and it’s accomplished by using Roundup-Ready crops and spraying it all with Roundup or some equivalent after the crop gets started. That reduces the erosion and other damage from tillage mentioned in the article, but I don’t know how the earthworms and microbes feel about it.
I don’t think many gardeners would want to use that method, even if there were Roundup-Ready versions of all garden plants, which there aren’t (yet). So in a garden, you have to go with the heavy mulch method, which is a completely different thing. There are a few people doing the mulch method on a larger scale, but they’re rare, and they’re not what people mean when they talk about the no-till revolution in large-scale farming.
youtube (back to eden garden) you will be glad you did.
For more sensible insights, read the book “Growing a revolution” by David R Montgomery. A geologist plagued by pessimism after having seen how past civilisations have wrecked their lands and moved on where possible or else died by starvation and/or cannibalism. Turned optimist after seeing so many examples of how retiring the plow, keeping the ground covered at all times, growing varieties and also using cows to improve the land year on year work! Instead of just continue the same old way we are going, where the soil is washed out into our rivers with almost every heavy rainfall, giving the rivers that unnatural chocolate colour as soon as it rains, all driven by excess fertilizer that is about to kill everything except weeds unless the madness stops.
Sheet composting works on garden plots but all the large scale farming no-till is achieved through pesticide use. A one step forward, two steps back if Ive ever seen one.
doesn’t have to be.
maybe it wont be sheet mulching, but there are other methods to dealing with large areas of land.
largely it is to move to food/fuel/farm forestry – with areas of crop or meadow in between if truly necessary.
Think this has been around for awhile. Check out the book “The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming” by Masanobu Fukuoka, if you can find it. Great book.
Been doing no plow, no till, no weeding for over 15 years after reading Masanobu Fukuoka’s and Ruth Stout’s works. No toxic chemical sprays or fertilizers are used. Sometimes manure is used but not always. Garden and crops are always mud free. I get better yields with way less work. Great example of working smarter, not harder, or more expensively.
Pesticides and weed killer end up sterilizing the soil over time more than plowing ever will. Article seems paid for by the chemical industry.
I totally agree.
I have watched ALL of Charles Dowdings videos. I follow no till in my gardens and have tremendous production.
Unfortunately in Southern Pa. they are doing no till commercially but are using Round up on the fields to eliminate the weeds. Are the Buffett’s invested in Monsanto ?
Take a Permaculture course. lots of online stuff.
This makes so much sense to me. I have gardened for years. As you said, the first time the soil is turned it is a very good year But have to say, they began to decline each year ond years’ crop
Farmers went to no-till in America because it is to cost intensive to plow . They don’t have big profit on crops that’s why they reduce costs . In Europe most soil is still been plowed . Result is higher and better yields ! Because plowing airiates , mixes the soil and increases rotting , activates microbes and conserves water in the ground . So now everybody can make his own choice of doing .
Beside I almost forgot , no till packed the subsoil , which will lead to littler yields , swampy land in spring because the water in the ground can’t get through the packed area .
Look,no till is chemically dependent,and weeds are becoming resistant to weedkiller,so now we’re being exposed to more dangerous chemicals to kill the weeds,so this practice is dangerous to my Heath,well I like living and being healthy,oh but we got more than enough folks out there that will just say hit want -hort -chee ,B S we already know that you guys depend on the government each year to help you fund your farming endeavors,and didn’t hang on to enough money of your own to do it the safe way,so your dependent on the government and the officials in the government are dependent on campaign money coming from chemical companies and also health care is 1/8 of our economy and those folks are kept happy,you think we might get sick from the stuff? but who cares we’re just one big happy family,but main thing is that we keep progressive socialist in power and all we have to say is,I don’t know what your talking about,and that,that person must be nuts,go ahead wise guy,and I am only talking to the architecs of this way of farming and not to the people that post these comments ,but mark my words,their chickens will come home to roost.
I agree with you.. but .. if you have a small garden 40 x 60 or so just using your grass and leaves from your yard and may from neighbors yard that is all you need to do
There is more to “no till” than not plowing the land. A better descriptor is “minimal tillage” rather than no till.
Take for example the need to apply lime to farmland. This is not so much of an issue in the north and midwest, but in the south we need to add lime to the soil about every four years, and you can’t do that with no tillage. The same is true of incorporating cover crops into the soil. With a minimal tillage scheme only the top 2-3 inches of soil are disturbed on an annual basis with deep tillage needed only when lime has been applied.
Rodale’s has done a lot of research on the use of cover crops that are “roller crimped” and then planted through in the spring. This works well, but then even in the fall you need to incorporate the crop residue into the top few inches of soil.
All this aside, your article was good, with lots of accurate information.
I have been a huge fan of Pat Lanza and her Lasagna gardening for many years. I have turned rocky, clay soil into great planting areas for flowers and vegetables. I used newspapers, leaves, kitchen scraps and grass clippings that are piled high and managed to have terrific gardens.
No-till sounds great, but I live in warm weather. So, how does this work with Bermuda grass? Three weeks and it’s overgrown/through/around all barriers.
Next year, I’m thinking about containers.
Wow.Great discussion .This is my thing totally.All you need is Three books
Rodale..organic fruit and vegetable production.
Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution.
Schumacher.Small is beautiful
I’m developing a way of producing quite large amounts if food with the only input being long grasses and declared weeds which are manually collected from the area.
Maybe ,2000 sq metres can be cultivated by one old man,4 hrs per day max,no poison,sprays,fertilisers,machines,digging or silly permaculture composting nonsense.The worms ,if undisturbed will deposit 30 tons per acre per year right where you want it.
WHY WOULD YOU NEED FERTILISER?
The size if the garden is naturally self regulating if you keep machines away.
Growing is the easy part.Try selling it in a society where the market has been stolen.We have supermarkets that are helping to kill us all.
Dr Verdana Shiva talks about how environmental agriculture is the only thing that solves ALL the big problems
3 acres each with internet and market reform and we have trickle up economics
That is prosperity
The long rows of mulch are rolled periodically to adjacent row to smother weed growth.Weeds are a resource not a problem
Any advice to dealing with growing labyrinth of mole tunnels in my no till garden?
Also, we want to bark mulch our orchard rows. Is there a proven grass kill method to use be for laying the mulch?
Glad I found this article, everything said in it is so true! Well done!
Even mulching my garden I can’t stay ahead of the weeds. I do use an organic compost as well, that might be the culprit. And it seems every year there is a new weed I have never seen before. How do you all feel about covering the raised beds with ground cloth, card board or tarps thru the winter months, to discourage weeds?
Some of you seem to have a handle on this. What do you do to condition raw land for planting the first crop. There was a pine farm here before we purchased. Now it is overgrown with scrub oak, and various brambles, some beneficial, some just nuisance. How do I prep the already weak sandy soil for sustainable farming?