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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

To till or not to till your garden

May 03, 2022 12:27PM ● By Bryan Reed

As every serious gardener knows, healthy soils are essential for resilient gardens and bountiful plant growth. Along with sufficient sunlight and moisture, fertile, well-drained soil can make all the difference between thriving and hardy plants and those afflicted with disease and pests. 

Compacted soils limit root growth and cause water to pool up or run off—neither of which allows it to reach the plant roots where it’s needed. Tilling the garden loosens up heavy clay soils, allowing for aeration and porosity for water to infiltrate.

However, tilling the soil also destroys beneficial bacteria by exposing them to UV rays, harms fungal colonies because it breaks up their mycelium webs that transfer nutrients to plant roots, and causes organic matter to degrade quicker, which means plants lose out on valuable nutrients.

Rototilling is especially damaging because it pulverizes fungal colonies and earthworms, and destroys soil texture. Plus, clay particles are actually platelets, so rototilling creates clay flour that ends up settling more densely into more compacted soil than what we started with.

Whether or not you should till your garden is a highly debated topic, especially as we learn about integrating regenerative agriculture practices into our gardens. 

In a first- or second-year garden, I’m a huge fan of double digging. This technique involves using a shovel to remove the top soil, exposing the subsoil beneath, breaking it up, adding organic matter then replacing the top soil. Double digging creates pore space and provides the opportunity for nutrients to sink down to plants’ root zone while dislodging weeds and their root systems.

Double digging

I prefer using shovels for gardening because they’re much less disruptive to soil colonies and texture than tilling. While double digging a bed requires some muscle, it’s the fastest way to good soil and something you’ll only have to do once. 

Start at one edge of the garden and dig up one shovelful of soil and set it on the outer edge of the garden. Then dig up a second shovelful in the same spot and pile that soil up as well. 

Move one shovel width to the right and do the next double dig until you’ve formed a trench along the edge of the garden. Come back with a pitchfork or stabbing rod and break up the subsoil inside the trench, then add nutrient-rich compost and fertilizers where the plant roots will eventually be. 

Once nutrients are in the trench, work backwards by moving back one shovelhead width and start digging the next trench. This step is much easier as each double-shovel dig involves moving soil from the new trench into the previous one.

Repeat the process until you’ve dug your last trench and reached the other end of your garden bed. Walk over to the soil on the edge of your first trench and use it to fill in the last trench. In the end, you will have a porous soil structure with nutrients at the plant root zone, which will potentially provide you with years of successful gardening ahead.

No-till soil aeration

Observing earthworms, pill bugs and earwigs in the soil is a good measure of soil health. They feed on microbes and other smaller critters to keep their populations in check, while their manure and decomposing bodies bring nutrients to plants as well.  Switching to a no-till method in successive seasons will increase the health of the soil and plants. 

In a no-till approach, the first step is to lay down compost or aged manure and natural fertilizers over the garden’s surface. Use a broadfork, pitchfork or a probing rod to puncture the soil to a depth of 12 to 18 inches. Rock back to open up the soil, allowing for crop nutrients to trickle down to the subsoil. This action loosens our clay soils and provides aeration for water channels without tearing up fungal webs or earthworms, and protecting the beneficial bacteria from harmful UV rays. 

More like this: Biodynamic gardening

For more advice on gauging soil health and no-till gardening, watch Bryan’s video demonstration below.

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