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The Shocking Effects of Tilling Your Garden: What You Need to Know

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Once limited to the realm of experts and specialty hobbyists, gardening has been gaining ever more popularity amongst laymen and budding green thumber. They are becoming more widespread, as the internet’s resources and informational wealth are just a couple of clicks away. In this post, we will seek to answer one of gardening’s most important questions: Is it bad to till your garden?

Tilling is often done to aerate or introduce air into the soil. Its short-term benefits are immediate increases in soil fertility; however, long-term tilling comes with the risk of erosion. Tilling lifts and loosens the soil, which could lead to the gradual diminishment of the garden.

The risk of erosion is further boosted by external factors and activity, such as the weather, water, and even animal activity, which can destroy soil health and garden well-being.

What is tillage

Tillage is a widely known and used process by many for growing plants by overturning, digging, and stirring soil to boost its aeration further.

Person tilling the ground with a multi-tilling machine.

Tilling can be conducted through manual means by using tools like hoes, shovels, and rakes or through mechanical means by using machines that can go through large plots of land and till the soil for future planting.

As widely known as it is, it turns out that this gardening method for soil aeration has several disadvantages.

The disadvantages of tillage

Tillage is known to bring about many problems further, especially when done constantly in years.

Tillage can cause soil erosion.

Cracked clay soil with huge divots

A statement by the Iowa State University of Integrated Crop Management supports it, as shown below.

Since tillage fractures the soil, it disrupts soil structure, accelerating surface runoff and soil erosion. Tillage also reduces crop residue, which help [sic] cushion the force of pounding raindrops.

Iowa State University of Integrated Crop Management, 2004

Of course, there are many factors to consider regarding erosion risk on an individual or personal scale; however, tilled earth is ultimately at a higher risk of erosion than relatively untouched soil overall. To conclude, the short-term benefits may not be worth the long-term risks.

Erosion is not the only prospect to be wary of when thinking about whether or not to till your garden. Read on to learn more about the other risks and considerations of this once garden-tending staple.

Can till encourage the growth of weeds?

Traditionally, tilling was thought of as a solution to weeds! This continues to be a common belief to this day.

Tilling is believed to have the property of eliminating weeds since, in aerating the soil, existing weeds can be dispatched by chopping up their roots.

While this isn’t incorrect, per se, this process only removes the visible weeds. Soil tilling typically exposes dormant seeds to better conditions to sprout and thus further propagate the garden.

So while tilling may make for a short-term resolution, it can lead to long-term concerns once again. Just as flowering plants and vegetables benefit from the increased soil fertility provided by tilling, in essence, so do weeds and less favorable plant species.

Proper timing of tillage can help with managing weeds germination

Person planting beans in claggy soil.

When done during springtime, Tillage may be good, especially when done before cash crop planting. However, the GROW (Getting Rid Of Weeds), which is an Integrated Weed Management (IWM) Resource Center, greatly warns against doing tillage to rid weeds (source).

The soil disturbance from said tillage stimulates the germination of some weed seeds, which may cause weed infestation if it runs unchecked.

In other words, there is a degree of nuance to tilling to control weeds. It is possible to achieve this suppression through specific and strategic means, albeit such practices may best serve larger farming practices rather than personal home gardens.

Is tilling only really beneficial short term?

To best understand this, we need to explore the basic science of the tilling process.

The main cause: is decomposition. Just as tilling can chop up the roots of weeds and other unfavorable plants, it destroys many of the necessary and life-supporting organisms that live in the soil and support the garden’s overall health.

The decomposition of the tilled organisms turns out to be the source of the soil’s increased fertility.

While spaced out, tilling could be beneficial; regular tilling can prematurely end the life of a garden, leaving the soil barren and stripped, as the soil life is not given enough time to recover between tills and thus diminishes.

Something I get asked a lot is can you plant right after tilling? So I wrote this article that goes into detail about the subject. It shows you when it is ok to and not to plant after tilling.

Constant tilling can have devastating effects on the soil

A hardpan, the layer found below the upper topsoil, can form due to frequent tilling. This happens when constant tillage happens over years, which further causes the breaking down of the soil structure.

Hardpan happens due to constant tilling

The hardpan will cut root growth, eventually leading to a lack of crop yield and development. The soil during this point will have higher erosion rates and greatly degrade the topsoil state.

What hardpan does to soil due to constant tillage

This will cut off plants’ phosphorus and potassium intake, as most of that is found in the topsoil. This top layer is integral to plants’ growth, health, and quality.

Plants can rarely thrive adequately without healthy topsoil that has become unhealthy through excessive aeration.

Again, while this article largely focuses on larger-scale farming practices rather than small-scale gardening, the science remains the same.

Are there any alternatives to tilling?

Yes, there is an alternative to the tilling gardening method, the no-till method. The no-till methods are gaining popularity these days as they mimic what nature does.

No-till is better for the microbes in the soil, and it keeps the waterways functional. I wrote about which is best, Till or No-till, so make sure to check it out after this article. It will give you the pros and cons of each.

No-till method – the lowdown and alternative to tilling

Gardeners can opt to do no-till gardening, which means that instead of having to till the land through manual or mechanical ways and risk ruining the soil’s health, you can do this and let nature enrich the soil for you.

Doing the no-till method makes nature the one to enrich the soil for you, with boosts from you for nutrients and such if you wish.

This process entails enriching and planting in different ways.

Benefits of doing the no-till method

The no-till method produces a soil type that turns spongy in texture best for root and plant growth. This texture takes place over some time through nature.

The true benefits and full potential of no-till soil won’t be realized until a couple of years into the process. But anything worth having is worth waiting for, and that is certainly the case for the type of soil that only gets better over time in a no-till soil environment.

Joe Lamp’l, Gardening Expert and Host of Growing a Greener World®

One can look into raised bed gardening to further practice the no-till method, as this is also a faster way of boosting the soil’s health through the no-till method instead of leaving the whole process to nature.

A rundown on the process of raised bed gardening

A garden raised bed full of vegetable plants.

Add layers of organic material, such as compost and aged manure, and further enrich the soil within the bed. I have written an article comparing the tilling and the no-till gardening method to aid you in this process. It covers the benefits of both, their comparison, and considerations you can consider before doing them in your garden.

Look into adding organic nitrogen to your soil.

Even with the no-till method and raised bed gardening, you can add organic nitrogen to boost the soil’s health further.

Nitrogen is considered to be one of the primary macronutrients that is vital for plant growth. However, while this is one of the most abundant elements on the earth, it cannot be easily obtainable by nature’s plants.

More about the capabilities of nitrogen as a nutrient is covered in this recent article of mine on critical nutrients plants need to grow. It also enlists the other nutrients critical for plant growth that you may not know of that you can also look into to boost your soil’s health better.

How to give organic nitrogen to plants

Organic nitrogen sources come in many forms, both directly from a source and indirectly, or within pre-made fertilizer.

Plant-based direct options for organic nitrogen include but are not limited to alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, and soybean meal. In contrast, its animal-based natural options counterpart include but are not limited to blood meal, feather meal, and fish meal.

These options are waste products of their respective agricultural operations and are typically available at modest prices.

Tips on adding organic nitrogen to plants

Person putting compost beside a plant in a dried out soil.

When applying organic nitrogen, also consider spraying down the soil with water.

The consistent presence of moisture helps to further decomposition, which is the key to increasing soil fertility.

Keep an eye on the weather patterns during this period, namely wind and rain, to maintain an ideal moisture level. If the soil is too dry, decomposition will slow. If the soil is too wet, it may become overly loose in the plot and thus become prone to erosion and other related issues.

Brands and places you can look into when buying organic nitrogen

Organic nitrogen can also be purchased in a ready-made form from various brands, such as nitrogen fertilizers produced by the brands Milorganite, PetraTools, and Burpee.

They are also available in-store (local plant supply stores, chains such as Home Depot, etc.) and online retailers (directly from their brand websites or sites such as Amazon).

Conclusion to is it bad to till your garden?

And that’s it! After these steps have been completed, wait for the soil and nature to do their thing—no tilling needed, topsoil layer preserved, and soil life enriched and ready to support a healthy, long-living garden.

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