In the Garden:
New England
April, 2011
Regional Report

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When you adopt no-till gardening techniques, you won't need to lug this piece of equipment out of the shed anymore!

No-Till Gardening

I hate to admit it, but the physical demands of gardening seem to take more and more of a toll as the years go by. So I'm one happy cultivator when I learn about a way of gardening that not only saves my back but is better for the garden itself. Whether you call it no-till, no-dig, lasagne or top-down gardening, this technique not only saves the gardener from the backbreaking labor of turning over the soil each spring, it also preserves soil organic matter and structure, protects the intricate web of organisms that form the soil food web, prevents erosion, decreases the number of weeds sprouting, and reduces the amount of climate-altering carbon dioxide escaping into the atmosphere from the soil.

Following Nature's Lead
In a nutshell, no-till gardening uses nature as its model for soil improvement. In natural ecosystems, organic matter accumulates on the top of the soil, acting as a mulch and improving the soil as it gradually decomposes and is incorporated, with the help of soil-dwelling organisms such as earthworms, into the soil below. While some soil disruption occurs with any gardening (we still need to dig holes in which to plant the plants), the no-dig technique dispenses with the need to turn over the soil when starting a new bed or to prepare the garden for planting each spring.

I started no-dig gardening in my ornamental garden beds about ten years ago. Rather than laboriously stripping the sod and mixing in soil amendments for a new bed, the fall before planting, I simply sprinkle lime, greensand, and some organic fertilizer over the area, then spread a five to six sheet thick layer of newspapers down, wetting them as I go. This is followed by a three to four inch layer of compost. I top it all off with a thick layer of straw or chopped leaves as mulch. The following spring, I pull the mulch aside to dig my planting holes into the now soft and crumbly earth, tucking the mulch back around the plants once they are set in place. Everything thrives, and the underground ecosystem remains mostly undisturbed.

To maintain the beds, in the spring and fall I rake back the top layer of undecomposed mulch, spread a inch or two of compost, refresh the mulch and I'm done. Depending on the plants, I may sprinkle a little organic fertilizer in early spring or in fall, when the tops of the woody plants have become dormant, at the same time I spread the compost.

I'll admit that I was a little skeptical when I first started with this method, having spent years digging to ready and improve the soil, equating sweat and toil with good gardening practices. While my back's rebellion was my impetus for stopping digging, as I've seen the results in my garden and learned more about the intricate layering of life in the soil, I am more convinced than ever that this is the best way to go for my plants as well as for me.

No-Till in the Vegetable Garden
Of course, no-till gardening is easier to implement in a garden of trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials. It took me longer figure out how to reap the benefits of this method in the vegetable garden, where new crops are continuously going in. For starters, tilling the vegetable plot and being enticed by the promise of that lovely blank slate of freshly turned and raked soil was such an established ritual of spring, it was hard to imagine forgoing it. I used to start the season with the rototiller back when I planted a traditional, rectangular, rowed garden. When I changed to permanent, three to four feet wide beds, I still turned over the soil by hand. Now in spring I just rake off and compost the old mulch, spread a new layer of compost, plant my seeds or transplants with as little soil disturbance as possible, then put down a new layer of mulch. If I need to add amendments such as lime periodically, I simply spread them on top of the soil in fall, covered by the second blanketing of compost and mulch with which I tuck the garden to bed for the winter.

What about dealing with soil problems, such as compaction, poor drainage or a pH that's not suitable for what you're planning to grow? In cases like these, initial digging or the soil disruption that comes when making a raised bed may be necessary. But once the garden is in place, your soil will stay healthier if you don't routinely turn it over each spring.

Cover Crops from the Top Down
One of the things I had the hardest time figuring out was how to use cover crops and green manures with the no-till system. For advice on this (and all aspects of no-till gardening) , I turned to my "no-dig field guide," Weedless Gardening, by Lee Reich (Workman Publishing, 2001), one of my favorite gardening authors. For folks like me who garden in areas of the country with cold winters, he advises using a winter cover crop like oats or annual rye that naturally succumbs to the cold. The killed tops provide cover and erosion protection for the soil over the winter, then in spring the tops are raked off and composted while the dead roots remain underground to decompose and enrich the soil. He says that hardier cover crops can be killed by repeated mowing with a weed whacker or sickle, though I haven't actually tried this in my own garden yet.

While I'm not putting my shovels up for sale on Craig's List just yet, I will continue to try to cultivate my gardens in ways that protect my soil and its intricate web of life as much as possible -- and give my aching back a rest as well!


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