Tony O’Neill, gardener and author of the popular “Composting Masterclass” and “Your First Vegetable Garden,” combines lifelong passion and expert knowledge to simplify the art of gardening. His mission? Helping you cultivate a thriving garden. More on Tony O’Neill
Tilling used to be the go-to method of preparing the soil for planting crops. However, it has come to light that this practice has been causing more damage than we thought. We must better understand why tilling is harmful and what can be done instead.
Instead of providing a better-growing environment for plants, tilling disrupts the soil structure, causes soil erosion, breaks the natural microbial ecosystem, and even contributes to water pollution. They are also known to cause weed infestation when done without forethought.
So if tilling is bad for the soil, what should be done instead? Please continue to read on as we go into more depth and detail on the harm that tilling causes and possible solutions to stop the degradation of soil quality worldwide.
What Exactly Is Tilling?
As we think of it today, the modern form of tilling began to take form and catch on in the mid-1800s. Farmers and even gardeners were looking for ways to improve the soil quality to grow better and bigger crops.
Tilling is an agricultural practice that uses various hand tools and machinery to prepare the soil for planting.
The soil is churned up and stirred. Depending on the plot of land being prepared, the depth the soil is dug into can vary from four to over 10 inches.
Tools used for tilling
The tools used in tilling include shovels, picks, hoes, and rakes. These methods are generally used in small spaces such as home gardens and decorative flower beds. Rototillers are also available that can be operated in a smaller area.
For large fields, farmers use machinery to cover more ground quickly. Plows, rippers, spaders, and strip tills are all possibilities.
Why have we tilled our land?
Tilling is generally done in the fall or spring to prepare the soil for planting seeds. The tilling process was thought to loosen the soil so that oxygen and nutrients would be evenly distributed. Dense soil structures were broken up so water could penetrate and drain properly.
It was also believed that unwanted weeds and grasses would be killed and buried deeper to be slow to resurface and grow thick once again.
Many gardeners and farmers use tilling to spread clumps of dirt and level out the ground for easier planting and cultivation. Some like to add organic matter or even fertilizer to the earth before it is tilled so the additive is evenly distributed.
Why Is Tilling Bad?
As it turns out, all the advantages that tilling brings to the soil are quite minor compared to what we thought, especially when we consider that years of employing this practice will gradually destroy the soil and render it infertile and useless.
Read this article to find out why tilling is bad for your soil. It is in-depth and covers all the reasons why you should avoid it and when you shouldn’t
Tilling causes erosion
When it’s stirred up like this, the layer of topsoil necessary to support plant growth is disturbed and begins to erode.
Loosening the soil in this way makes it more susceptible to weather events like high winds blowing away the dirt and dust and water runoff from heavy rains washing out the topmost layer of the earth.
The runoff from the fertilizers can stream into water sources
When rainwaters wash away the soil, they carry any fertilizers and chemicals used.
Pollutants like phosphorus and nitrogen end up in streams and lakes and enter water supply sources.
The tilling process also releases much-trapped carbon into the air, contributing to global warming.
Tilling can spark weed growth.
As we previously discussed, tilling was thought to hinder weeds’ growth. Still, it can bring undesirable plants up to the surface where they can take root and become a huge problem to the plants that are being cultivated.
The natural ecosystem is being damaged by tilling.
The natural ecosystem is damaged or even destroyed when the soil is aggressively turned. Soil is home to all kinds of insects and microbes.
The delicate balance that they naturally form helps to support soil health and leads to the optimal growing environment. When that balance is thrown off, a chain reaction is felt through lower crop yield and unhealthy conditions that can’t sustain plant life.
The revival of soil after being damaged from tilling takes a long time
Once an area of land has been tilled consistently, it suffers much damage, as you can see. When that happens, it can take years to recover and become usable.
Taking the time and resources needed to revive the soil isn’t always an option if a farmer can’t afford to lose out on the crops they could grow on that plot of land.
It can also be expensive to actively treat the soil by adding nutrients and giving it the correct treatment to encourage it to become healthy again.
How to Tell If Soil Is Healthy?
It is a simple fact that healthy soil will yield healthy plants. If the soil quality is poor, it cannot support the growth of its crops.
There are ways to check up on the health of the soil by monitoring a few key markers such as density, presence of organic matter and microorganisms, and how well it drains water. Since healthy soil is the foundation of the agricultural industry, it is worth learning how to identify it.
How to check your soil
Several simple tests can be used for this. Dig up a sample of soil and check for earthworms. The sample should be about six inches deep.
If you see three or more earthworms, that is an indication that your soil is in good condition.
Earthworms are the natural equivalent of tilling as they slowly aerate the top layer of ground.
Check the insects in your soil.
Other insects are also beneficial. Observe the hole left behind from digging your sample and see if other species of bugs are present. If, after a few minutes, you don’t see many, then the soil quality is poor.
Check the soil color and compaction.
Healthy soil should be dark black and easily crumbled.
If it seems dense, check for soil compaction by inserting a wire into the ground. If it bends soon after insertion, the soil is hard and compacted.
Other tests can check for water absorption rate and the types and quantities of various nutrients, but these should get you started.
What Are Some Alternatives and Adaptations to Traditional Tilling?
Now that we know just how destructive tilling is to soil quality, more people are taking action and changing their methods to preserve the earth. Fortunately, several viable options are catching on as common practices.
Some advocates out there claim that no-till is the best way to go. While leaving the soil in its natural condition is a good idea, in theory, years of tilling and hard use mean it’s not exactly in the best condition.
When a farmer does decide to go with a method that disturbs the earth as little as possible, disk-seeders come to mind as a good choice. This equipment will make furrows in the dirt, plant seeds, and then cover them in one pass so the soil is not overworked.
Usage of roller crimpers
Roller crimpers are another interesting option. These can place down a mat that prevents weed growth and allows crops to be planted.
This is a good start to reclaiming the soil, but new methods require new machinery and tools that cost money.
Sometimes the best choice is to let the soil have time to recover, if possible.
Look into the CRP program.
Unfortunately, most people who make their living from the land can’t afford to let it go uncultivated for any time. The loss of crops means lost income. They may not be made up elsewhere.
A possible answer to this conundrum is the Conservation Reserve Program. The CRP is a cost-share program by the Department of Agriculture. It offers rental payments in exchange for farmers ceasing to plant damaging and depleting crops and replacing them with crops that naturally improve the land quality and even provide a home to wildlife. A contract with the CRP usually lasts for 10-15 years.
There are other ways to utilize the land without losing much-needed revenue. Large areas can be used as places to graze free-range livestock. The demand for free-range is growing, which can be a lucrative solution.
Crop rotation can be done.
If a farmer doesn’t want to stop using the land for growing crops, a good solution is to implement crop rotation. This involves planting different crops each year to prevent leaching all the nutrients from the earth. Various crops rely on other nutrients and have unique needs that they take from the earth.
Alternating crops is a great way to ensure that no nutrient is completely depleted.
Certain plants also attract different types of destructive insects and diseases. Sometimes these pests can remain in the soil over winter and reemerge to attack a new crop the following year. Rotating crops means that even if the issue is still in the soil, it won’t adversely affect the new crop planted in that lot for the following year.
How to enrich the soil without tilling
A simple way to preserve soil quality is by planting cover crops. These plants help to prevent erosion from leaving the earth uncultivated, but they contribute to restored health instead of further depletion of nutrients.
Some common cover crops are clover, mustard (as seen above), and buckwheat.
This one is best for small spaces such as home gardens but is still a useful alternative to tilling the soil. A simple multi-step process can cut down on weeds and pests to eliminate the need for pesticides and gradually build back up the nutrient content of the earth.
Steps to better soil quality without tilling
The first step is to lay down organic, biodegradable material like cardboard on the area that is to be planted.
Cover that with compost, leaves, or other organic material and add some soil treatments.
Next, water the area thoroughly. The layers will break down over the next few months and provide rich earth to support the next planting.
Conclusion on why tilling is not good for the soil
As we learn more about the dangers of continuing harmful practices like tilling, new developments in sustainable and achievable practices are being made, such as the no-till method, using machines, and even looking into reservation programs.
Through research and monitoring of how various methods impact the soil and the environment, we can continue to rebalance the earth and save the quality of the land. This is essential so that food crops can continue to be planted to sustain the world’s population.
If you liked this article, subscribe to the form below to be notified about future content and releases!