Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Returning to Tilling

Till......definition : to prepare land for crops by plowing, harrowing, cultivating. When gardeners/farmers talk about tilling nowadays, they mean that the soil gets turned in some fashion, either by a plow, harrow, rototillering , or hand shoveling. Using a no-till planter (which cuts the soil), broadfork, garden fork, or o-o bar is usually not termed tilling in that the soil is simply lightly broken but not turned.

During the current fad of no till gardening, why am I returning to tilling my gardens? Yes, I have experimented with total no till, light tilling, shallow tilling, and just loosening the soil with a garden fork.  The bottom line is that I'm seeing less productive gardens. The various reduced soil disturbance experiments resulted in...
...less harvestable food
...less robust plants
...more insect pests
...soil that is significantly less friable
...more water logging problems
...less earthworms

I'm no soil scientist, so perhaps my soil type and tropical conditions are to blame. In garden beds where I've severely cutback on the tilling, I'm seeing soil fertility taking a real big hit. The plants are telling me that I have a significant problem with nutrients being leeched out or not available. The disappearance of earthworms is another symptom. The soil is much more compact with drainage issues, runoff tracks, and water pooling.

The only plants that seem to really thrive in my no till beds are the grasses and a few imported forage forbs. 

Insect pest populations have exploded in the no till and minimal tilled beds. I have no frost and freezing temperatures here to help check the insect population, thus they have been thriving in the gardens, destroying crop after crop. 

I had been planning on conducting my no till and minimal tilling experiment for an entire year before reporting about it, but here I am 7 months into the experiment and calling it quits. The patient is dying!!!! The garden production has dropped off astoundingly. 

I'm not saying that the no till fad is wrong. I'm just saying that in my tropical situation, it isn't the preferred method for my homestead at this point in its development. Thus I am returning to a method that has proven to be successful in producing food for myself. I am returning to deep rototillering the garden beds between each crop. I am returning to tilling in compost and manure as opposed to just laying it on the surface as a mulch. 

I have read many claims about the benefits of no till gardening.......enhanced natural soil drainage and tilth. More earthworms. Less weed problems. Less irrigation needed. But I suspect these benefits can all be attributed to the thick mulching that accompanies no till. While I am a supporter of mulching, I'm learning that my volcanic soil tends to naturally compact and clump even if not walked upon, thus drainage issues crop up. And by just top mulching, my soil isn't maintaining its fertility. The plants are showing the effects and the earthworm populations have plummeted. As for weeds, tropical grasses (specifically Bermuda grass) are my main weed problem and neither mulching nor no till deters them. 

While Ruth Stout's no till method works for my NJ friends, it isn't proving to be the perfect solution on my situation. Thus I'm returning to methods that work for my soil type and climate. I've tired various no till and low till experiments before, but only one garden bed at a time. This year I tried the entire three main garden areas. Since each main garden is in a slightly different environment, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see which fared better. But alas, they all preformed not so well. 

I'm often a tad hardheaded. So don't be surprised if I try no till again sometime in the future. But for now, I'm going to go rescue my gardens are till in aged rabbit manure and compost in order to get production back on par. 

By the way, the very, very, very, very best potato crop came from a bed that had been deeply prepared with compost and aged chicken pen litter. An adjacent bed that was just loosed with a fork and had compost/manure used as mulch produced just so-so. Same variety in each bed. So the potatoes themselves are telling me that they thrive better with deep tilling. Perhaps I shouldn't be so hardheaded and start listening to my plants! 


  1. I think you probably get a lot more of organic materials deeper with thorough tilling, rather than the slower percolation of surface organics which break down rapidly under the effects of solar energy and desiccation, while invasive stolons build mats of roots that rob the crop roots of nutrients, and unwanted pests can damage crop roots uninterrupted. As you already know, the mulch cover really helps to conserve soil and water loss. I'd guess it's compost if it's blended in, and mulch if it's spread on top. Loosened deeper soil lets earthworms get away more easily from the hottest areas at the surface, making more effective channels for water as well. Tilling in cover, well, self-evident.

  2. I don't have volcanic soil or tropical conditions (San Joaquin Valley, CA) but my soil is low in organic matter being an ancient sea bed. It's high in sand (50%) with the rest clay and silt. It gets powdery and then if not constantly tilled it settles and become like adobe. So I am tilling in lots of rotted manure and calcium supplements. What a person does is all dependent on what conditions you have. There's no one way approach. Just variations.

  3. I'm sure lots of temperate-climate techniques need to be modified for any tropical use, and even more for special cases. Ruth Stout's no-dig/no-till gardening methods uses many of the same ideas that later developed into large-scale no-till agriculture, and her methods works nicely across a wide swath of temperate climates, but with any solution, knowing where the sweet spot ends and where it runs out of steam is useful.

    Here in Oregon, building up high levels of organic matter in the soil is easy due to low soil temperatures, but getting anything to sail through the summer drought is trickier. The pioneers used dust mulching, which is the opposite of Ruth Stout's methods: hours a day of plying the hoe, and no mulch at all. Yikes! But it worked.

    1. What is dust mulching? You must be talking about eastern OR. Doesn't the coast get rain in the summer? We sure a H do not get it here in CA.

    2. Dust mulching means you keep the top layer of soil loose and powdered through endless application of the hoe. It's discussed in Edmund Morris' 1864 "Ten Acres Enough" and, more recently, in Steve Saloman's "Gardening West of the Cascades."

      Saloman, like me, is in Oregon's Coast Range. Western Oregon is wet all winter and dry all summer, and wells tend to produce little water. Saloman embarked on a project to grow all his own food with very little watering (since he had very little water), and dust mulching and extremely wide spacing between plants was what worked for him. Very much the opposite of Ruth Stout's "Gardening Without Work."

    3. Thanks for your answer. I think I may have experienced dust mulching first hand the other day when I wandered out into a grape field here in the San Joaquin Valley. I sank in up to my ankles in this extremely fine powdery soil. They're always out there doing something in those fields. They also irrigate. I didn't know western OR was dry like us in the summer. I figured being north that the Japanese Current would bring you guys more moisture all year long.