Wednesday, November 17, 2010

~ To Til or Not to Til ~

This post was written for Fertile Imagination @ where I have monthly column. Feel free to visit me over there, too!

We are coming to the end of the harvesting season and there is always the big question, do we till the soil and get ready for next years planting or just leave the dirt alone. Why, you ask, would you just leave it alone? In most peoples mind, when they think of a garden, they think of the lush, black rows of dirt, freshly tilled, ready to be planted with seeds.
What if I told you that tilling wasn't good for the soil. When first heard this I was a curious, so the kids and I set off to explore the reasons not to deep till (to finely chop up the soil 6" deep) every year.

 The number one reason: Ecosystems. The dirt is a huge ecosystem and is destroyed when we run a tiller through it. Healthy soil should be teaming with plant roots, insects, fungi, bacteria, and animals. Soil is made up of 50% minerals and 50% organic compounds such as water, air, and microorganisms.
Earthworm turn the soil, aerating and fertilizing. When we fire up the rotary tiller and prep the soil for next year, guess who gets chopped up? That's right, our worms. Our hard working, friendly, free organic fertilizers are gone and it will take quite awhile for new worms to migrate in. By the time they do, it will most likely be time to till again.
Tilling destroys all the air gaps that our worms and other microorganisms work so hard to make. Good fungal hyphae gives our soil structure. Another fungi, mycorrhizal fungi form a symbiotic relationship (win-win) with the plant's root system. They produce fertilizer for the plant while eating the plants roots and both the plant and fungi thrive. Those lush black fluffy rows will become hard packed after a few rains because all of the structural support is gone. It has been torn it all to bits. And, all of the weed seeds have been brought to the top of the soil to germinate. The earth does not like to be bare. Weeds grow quickly because the earth/soil is trying to repair itself with a shallow root system to reduce erosion, conserve water, and reduce nutrient loss. We have found that the best way to control weeds is to green mulch our fruits and veggies and brown mulch our perenials, shrubs, and trees. Now, I should say that if you are starting a brand new garden or the garden you have is nutrient deficient, deep tilling is not a bad thing. If you are starting a garden where there was sod before, it is best to cut the sod and remove it first and then amend your soil. If you simple turn the sod over you will be weeding out grass chunks for the remainder of the gardening season and most likely the next season too. Please, do not spray your new garden area with a herbicide to kill the grass. For some, this seems like a no brainer but I have heard it suggested as the easy way to get rid of the grass and its root system.

Using a garden fork or hoe to turn over the soil and add compost is a good thing. You are not destroying the complex system and you are giving your soil the nutrient boost it needs to grow plants for you again next year. Ideas for composting on the cheap can be found here and here.

The second reason I think the roto tiller is not such a good thing, we miss out on a huge oppurtunity to connect to the land. We are displaced by a piece of loud, gas guzzling machinery instead of being down in the dirt getting fresh air, exercise, and well, dirty. In my past experience, using the rototiller just wears me out and give me a headache from all of the noise and fumes. If you are new to gardening or have limited space, I would highly recommend learning about square foot gardening. It is an awesome way to grow an amazing amount of veggies in a very limited amount of space. The Square Foot Gardening Foundation is a great place to start.
My last Purple Cone Flower

"Managing your soils to keep this living system thriving can make the difference between gardening success and failure," according to Rodale's Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening.

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