No Till Gardening: 6 Easy Steps to Start

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(Guest Author: Heather @ Second Chance Farm – Edited: Sarah @ Our Blue Ridge House)

Once I started researching no till gardening, it made so much sense, and I wondered why I had not pursued it sooner for our own garden! Last year was our first year of managing a no-till garden and we really liked the outcomes. 

Below, you will see what no-till gardening is, the benefits of no-till garden soil, how to make a no till garden area, and how to care for your new home garden.

What is No-Till Gardening?

No-till gardening is best described as a method of gardening where you do not till the soil surface, no disruption or digging from machinery or by hand. 

This method allows the natural microorganisms like worms and others to grow and thrive which in turn supports healthy soil. 

By layering a no-till garden, you can repurpose materials around your space while using native materials. This process, often referred to as lasagna gardening, will help develop the rich soil that plants need to thrive.

Benefits of No-Till Garden Beds

No-till gardening means that the soil is not disrupted with tilling or digging. This allows microorganisms and other beneficial organisms, like worms, to continue to live and thrive. Below, I will explain why worms are an important part of your new garden bed.

 When the soil is tilled it can cause erosion, increase soil compaction and bring dormant weed seeds to the surface. However, with the no-till garden method, thick layers of mulch prevent water evaporation. This allows water to pass through and provide moisture for the roots.

Tilling the soil speeds up the decay of organic matter. By not disturbing the soil with the no-till method, there is a slower and more steady release of nutrients to plants.

Furthermore, a lot of time is saved by not tilling the soil. This method is much less labor intensive! Usually annual preparation just includes layering the soil from the top and managing any weeds.

More so, this method promotes use of naturally occurring materials that might otherwise be wasted, like leaf mulch.

10 Benefits of No Till Gardening

  • Prevents water evaporation
  • Slower and more steady release of nutrients to plants
  • Saves time requires less work
  • Reduces soil erosion
  • Promotes use of naturally occurring materials
  • Saves water
  • Builds earthworm population
  • Promotes natural drainage
  • Promotes natural aeration
  • Helps Soil Retain Carbon

Worms Play an Important Role in No Till Gardening

Get ready for more worms than you can imagine! We know it will take a few years to build up our soil to the quality we are wanting, but we have been shocked with the increase of worms in less than 1 year of a no-till garden in our garden current space.  

After the first year, we then moved the garden location to a more desirable spot. This last fall, we began building the no-till soil. By Spring, I began digging in the garden to plant, and was truly shocked at the amount of worms!

Not only do worms help to aerate the soil but their castings (their poop!) are a natural fertilizer that provides essential nutrients to plants.  Overall, worms are good for amending the soil naturally and increasing soil fertility.

  • The worms help aerate the soil
  • The worm castings are a natural fertilizer for the plants
  • “Earthworm activity can also relieve compaction and make nutrients available to plants” (University of New Hampshire)

Organic Materials

Organic materials are those living materials that ideally occur naturally in the space in which you live. For example, we have sticks, wood chips and leaves that we use to layer our no-till garden.

Last year we used old straw as top layer to hold in moisture and prevent weeds. This proved to not be effective, because it held in too much moisture. The excess moisture led to mold issues. That is common in areas with high rainfall counts. Where we live in TN, for example, gets up to 60 inches of rain per year.

This year we are using wood chips that we chipped from branches we have cleaned up around our farm. The wood chips are working great as a weed barrier and to hold in moisture between rains.  

By using a thick layer of mulch you are essentially feeding the soil and you should replenish your wood chip layer each year.

We don’t water our garden, we get enough rain that we don’t have to.

What organic materials are good for gardening?

Here are a few organic materials you can add to your garden before planting time.

  • sticks
  • wood chips
  • leaves
  • sawdust
  • tree bark
  • peat moss
  • pine needles
  • grass
  • your own compost
  • rotten manure
  • plant residue

Natural Materials Below Your Feet

Many of these materials are all around your.

Next time you go in the woods, stop and pay attention to the layers of leaves and debris below your feet. You will find all the goodness that mother nature has to offer.

Plant roots, natural soil structure, soil organisms, flowers, and leaves, just to name a few. All of these make up the rich soil and forest floor. 

If you have ever been in the woods in the south, like where we live, then you know just how abundant life is and the diversity of plants that thrive in this environment.

How to Start No Till Gardening

1) Break up the Soil

I believe it is best to till the soil before you build your no-till garden. I know, it seems contradictory! But, there are benefits to breaking up the soil before starting a no till garden.

Breaking up the soil before layering for the first time, helps:

  • promote good aeration
  • assure organic materials can assist in building high quality soil

If you have garden beds or raised beds already set up and are transitioning to no-till gardening, you can either till by hand, with a rototiller, or skip this step.

2) Gather Organic Materials

The next step is to notice what organic materials are around you. Do you have leaves that can be used? Manure or compost? Old straw or wood chips? Grass clippings?

3) Lay the Cardboard

We layer starting with cardboard. After cardboard, we use manure, leaves, soil and finally, wood chips.

Cardboard is a great way to kill off weeds and feed the worms. Make sure to select cardboard that is tape free and free of plastic wrapping or stickers. Amazon packages, or other similar packaging, that is mostly plain cardboard are ideal.

We start saving our cardboard in late summer. This way, we are prepared to cover the large garden in early fall. I have found that the cardboard layer makes weeds easier to pull as well.

4) Add Organic Materials

After the garden is covered with cardboard begin adding the organic materials, such as manure and leaves. 

Once there is a 1-2 inch layer covering the garden, move onto your next layer of soil.

5) Add soil

Now, it’s time to add soil to your plant or vegetable garden. Add 1-2 inches of bare soil.

Side note: We like that we have clay soil we can layer our garden with. Clay soil holds moisture well, and helps us since we don’t water our garden. 

6) Finish Layering

After 1-2 inches of soil, finish your layers with the wood chips. Old straw and wood chips are a great top cover for the soil. The straw and wood chips on top of the soil not only hold in moisture, but will also act as a weed barrier.

When planting with wood chips, you’ll want to move them out of the way to dig your holes for transplants. If you are direct sowing seeds, move wood chips out of the way until seeds sprout.

 Possible Layering Materials for Your Garden:

  • Mulch
  • Cardboard
  • Grass clippings
  • Leaf mulch
  • Manure
  • Compost
  • Newspaper
  • Yard waste
  • Hay
  • Straw
  • Seaweed
  • Pine needles

How to care for no till gardening

Last, but not least, let’s look at how you can care for your no till garden.

Caring for no-till gardening is low maintenance! Establishing your first no-till soil needs to happen in the Fall before your first planting season.  

Update Layers in the Fall

Each year, you will update layers as needed in the fall. By updating layers, you will give the organisms in the soil time to do their work before the next spring planting season. Especially mulch, as it decomposes and feeds the soil you will need to add more.

Reduce Watering

Plan to reduce your watering with no till gardening. By reducing your watering (if needed at all) you will see a result in fewer weeds.

Plant Cover Crops in Off Season

Some gardeners plant cover crops in the off season to prevent weeds from growing and to nourish the soil.

Examples of Cover Crops

  • clover
  • rye
  • Winter wheat
  • alfalfa
  • radish
  • cowpeas
  • Vetch
  • Sudan grass
  • mustard

Remove the cover crop prior to your planting season. There are a variety of ways you can do this, such as using plastic tarps or hand pulling.

Enjoy your No Till Gardening

We cannot recommend the no-till gardening method enough, we have found it to be the best way for us to garden here in East Tennessee. Even in our previous drought ridden state that we lived in, this method would have been ideal for conserving water and replenishing the soil nutrients.

There are many resources you can find online and some real experts that will suggest different ways to build a no-till garden. It is helpful to read about the different ideas so that you can find one that best suits your garden space and available resources.

Before you go, here are more posts you’ll enjoy:

Introduction to Homesteading

Starting Seeds Indoors

30 Cheap Landscaping Ideas on a Budget

21 Best Gardening Books for Beginners

Raising Guinea Fowl: All You Need to Know

The Best Homesteading Supplies

No Till Gardening