How to Start a No-Till Garden: A Complete Step-By-Step Guide


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No-till gardening is the new gold standard for urban backyard gardening. The quality of the soil in the no-till method is purported to be the best there is. But for those of us who may be used to tilling the garden, learning how to prepare a garden with this new method may seem challenging.  

So, how do you start a no-till garden? A no-till garden is a method of gardening that does away with the traditional use of tilling to prepare the soil. In no-till gardens, the soil is not dug up and turned to prepare for planting. Instead, organic components like compost and animal fertilizers are layered over the soil to create a rich, nutrient-heavy base in which to plant seeds and starters.

No-till gardening isn’t more difficult than other gardening methods. In fact, it may even involve less hard labor than traditional tilling. This step-by-step guide will help explain why and how tilling may just be a thing of the past.

What is a No-Till Garden?

Quite a variety of methods are out there to achieve the perfect no-till garden, but all of them involve soil preparation through layering rather than tilling. Some popular types of no-till gardens include:

  • Lasagna gardening
  • Container gardening
  • Straw bale gardening
  • Sheet compost gardening

All of these methods work to prevent soil erosion and nutrient depletion of the soil. Over the space of a few seasons, the fertility of your soil will improve dramatically, and it will actually become easier to prepare your garden for planting.

One very important thing to remember is that no-till gardening takes time to develop good soil, but the persistence will definitely pay off in the long run! Nature is God’s perfect design for gardening. Does anyone apply fertilizer in nature? Is the ground being tilled? Of course not!

Why Should You Avoid Tilling?

Before we look at how to create a no-till garden, let’s take a look at why tilling is no longer recommended as a means of garden preparation, both in home gardens and large-scale agricultural operations.

Time and effort

All gardening requires time and effort, especially during the initial phase of preparing a garden. Traditionally, the preparation of a garden involved the use of heavy-duty tilling equipment. The equipment ripped up and churned the earth to remove weeds and grass, in order to create a pristine environment for seeds and seedlings to thrive.

Tilling is time-consuming and very labor-intensive, requiring weeks of work. Tilling the garden requires gardeners to till down at least 6 to 8 inches, working a 2 by 2-foot area of land at a time. Apart from the sheer effort this takes, the equipment is also expensive. Power tillers generally cost somewhere between $150 to $300, with some models costing $500 or more.

Soil Erosion

Tilling soil might seem like a great way to eradicate weeds, but it also leads to soil erosion. When a garden is tilled, the soil is broken up, which damages its structure.

Tilling significantly affects the topsoil layer, making it more susceptible to wind erosion and run-off. This means that more topsoil will need to be added to the soil, as well as soil amendments between growing seasons.

Soil Quality

Tilling reduces the moisture content of the soil, a process that is accelerated by erosion. It also harms earthworms and microorganisms that enrich the soil by adding nitrogen and turning the earth.

Tilling also destroys the root structure of the previous year’s crops, which can actually enhance the nutrient base of soil if they are left to decompose naturally.

Creating a No-Till Garden: A Step By Step Guide

Compost Mulch

Putting together a no-till garden is really very easy to do and requires far less time and effort than that of tilling. It takes a bit of time to prepare a garden for planting, but the end result will be a healthy soil base and a bountiful harvest.

Step One: Choose a Planting Space

Before beginning, decide where to plant a vegetable garden and the garden size. It is imperative to pick a sunny spot, preferably south-facing, to take maximum advantage of the sunlight shed on the garden.

It is not necessary to have a large plot because plants can be rotated and gardeners can facilitate several plantings each season. For gardeners who are short on space, consider starting a raised bed or a container garden.

Either style of garden requires very little room, and the concepts of no-till, compost layering gardening can be applied to both. When using raised beds, make sure that they are no bigger than 4 feet wide by 8 feet long. This will provide more room to work without trampling the soil.

Step Two: Test the Soil

Soil Savvy Soil Test
Soil Savvy Soil Test

No-till gardening works on the principle that the basis for healthy plants is healthy soil. One of the most prevalent gardening myths around is that certain plants like root vegetables die out and suffer root burn if they are fertilized.

However, as Charles Dowding says in his YouTube video, this couldn’t be further from the truth. All plants benefit from organic fertilization as long as it isn’t overdone.

In order to figure out what type of fertilization is necessary, a good first step is to test it to determine the nutrient composition of the soil and its pH level. Michigan State University has a great diagnostic cheat sheet and soil testing kit. Once the results arrive, gardeners can easily figure out how much and what type of nutrient is needed.

This is an important step because soil can be damaged with too much phosphorus or nitrogen. Studies have shown that too much of either of these components can cause root burn and soil structure damage. They can also leach into the groundwater and cause contamination which can lead to long-term soil damage and can, over time, reduce soil fertility.

Step Three: Gather Materials

Another key advantage to no-till gardening is that the materials needed are generally inexpensive and can usually be found lying around the house. It’s a good idea to start gathering these materials a few weeks before planning to start preparing a garden.

  • Old newspapers
  • Cardboard
  • Compost
  • Animal-based fertilizers – chicken fertilizer is a popular choice
  • Other organic materials – grass clippings, garden trimmings, mulch, bark chips

All of these materials are not required. The choice of what to use depends to some degree on preference and budget.

Many of these materials can be gathered for free. For gardeners who also keep chickens, it is a good idea to collect their droppings to use as fertilizer. We recommend passing it through a screen of some sort to sift out any large chunks.

Also, check with neighbors and local grocery stores for broken-down boxes and newspapers – many grocery stores will give cardboard boxes for free.

Step Four: Plan Out Garden Beds

When the materials needed are ready, start thinking about what to plant and the spacing of garden beds. The key to successful no-till gardening is not to disturb the soil structure.

It’s important to layout beds with walkways between them so that no one is stepping on and tamping down the soil.

Raised bed and container gardens make it easier to work without disturbing the soil surrounding the plants. Whichever method is chosen, even if it’s traditional in-ground beds, just make sure plenty of space is accessible between the beds to move around. We also recommend restricting the size of each bed to a maximum of 4 feet wide by 8 feet long so all plants can be easily reached.

For gardeners using raised beds, Charles Dowding, the no-till master, has a great video on YouTube that shows how to make the right sized raised beds for compost or no-till gardening.

For more in-depth information about raised beds vs in-ground beds, please read our great article Are Raised Garden Beds Better than In-Ground Garden Beds?

Step Five: Kill Off Grass and Weeds by Sheeting The Ground

Sheet mulching

Once the size and general layout of the garden has been mapped out, then it is time to get to work preparing the soil.

The first thing to do is to smother the grass and weeds in the garden space. Simply cover the ground in layers of newspapers or cardboard.

When using cardboard or newspapers, several layers will be necessary. The sheeting layer will kill any grass or weeds below it. This process can take a long time to yield results, so it’s best to prepare the garden in the fall. That way, the garden will be ready to be planted in the spring.

Step Six: Prepare the Soil

No Till Garden Prep

Add compost! This is perhaps the most expensive part of no-till gardening, especially when trying to create a very large garden. Create compost from kitchen and garden scraps, buy it by the bag, or purchase it in bulk from a nursery supply store. If preparing the garden in the fall, you can also add manure with or in place of the compost.

The cardboard and newspaper will pretty much decompose into the soil – if some of this type of sheeting is still intact, leave it in place and simply layer compost over it.

Spread a thick, even layer of compost over the soil in the garden beds, at least 2 inches thick. Do not turn the soil beforehand or dig in the compost. Add in chicken fertilizer and other organic materials like grass clippings at this point. Also, add a layer of mulch (wood chips, straw, hay, grass clippings, shredded leaves, etc) over the compost to discourage weed growth and to encourage moisture retention.

Step Six: Put in Seeds or Starters

Digging Hole For Tomatoes

Once a compost layer has been put in, then immediately start to plant the garden. Plant either from seed or used starter seedlings from a nursery. Gently hollow away the mulch and compost layer to make room for starters by using hands. Seeds can just be pressed into the soil with fingers and covered in a light layer of enriched compost soil.

It is not necessary to dig into the soil to plant seedlings. That would disturb and break up the soil below, leaving an unhealthy substrate.

Step Seven: Maintenance

Maintaining a no-till garden is really not that different from maintaining a traditional garden. It is necessary to weed around plants once every few days. Whether tilling or using a sheeting method, there will always be a few stubborn weeds and grasses that will persistently try to come up. It’s one of the unavoidable realities of gardening, whichever method is used.

Gardeners usually find that it is not necessary to water the garden as heavily because the mulch and compost layers over the soil act to trap in moisture. Less fertilizing is also required because the thick compost layer will contain most of the fertilizer that plants need. This also mitigates the possibility of root damage from over-fertilizing and using chemical fertilizers.

Step Eight: Harvesting and Bedding Down

One of the many advantages of no-till gardening is that the soil retains its nutrients because there is no soil erosion from wind action or water run-off and leaching. Because of this, gardens can typically have numerous plantings in the same beds throughout the growing season and just harvest as needed.

Once the final harvest of the season comes around, we recommend gardeners start bedding down the garden in preparation for winter and the next spring. Cut back any remaining plants to just above the soil level.

The residual stumps and root systems will act as additional organic matter to enrich the soil. Spread a thick layer of mulch over the soil – the mulch will break down over the winter. Use whatever kind of organic material that can be found for free!

For more information, check out our article Best Way to Prepare Your Garden for Winter for a Great Spring.

The following spring, all gardeners will need to do is add another layer of compost and mulch. This will allow the soil to keep building up its nutrient base, making it fertile and allowing it to retain moisture. Although planting from seed is possible, it’s easier for seedlings to thrive in a no-till garden because they are not competing with older root structures for space and nutrients.

Types of No-Till Gardens

A number of variations on the no-till garden exist, all of which involve the same base principles of no digging and compost layering. Some of the most commonly used variations are:

Lasagna Gardening

Lasagna Gardening

Lasagna gardening is a type of no-till gardening technique that uses a very specific method to create a garden bed. The idea is that as the materials used break down over time, they will enrich the soil and enhance its nutrient load.

Called a lasagna garden after the layering technique used to build it, this is a great option for small garden spaces.

A bit of variation and debate are out there concerning the best formula for a lasagna garden. However, the general rule of thumb for building a lasagna garden goes like this:

  1. A layer of cardboard or newspaper sheeting – do not use plastic sheeting.
  2. A layer of organic materials that will absorb and retain moisture such as wood chips, straw or grass clippings. Use any one or intersperse all three in a layer that’s between 2 and 4 inches thick.
  3. A layer of organic materials that will add nutrients to the soil, including compost and organic animal-based fertilizers. It is suggested to mix in grass clippings at this stage. This layer needs to be very thick, between 4 to 8 inches. It’s best to get it closer to 8 inches thick, if possible.
  4. Water the compost and fertilizer layer lightly. This assists in the breakdown of the organic matter in a lasagna garden, allowing the release of nutrients into the soil.
  5. Plant a layer of a light, low maintenance cover crops like clover or cowpea. The cover crop will keep the soil from eroding away over winter and will give the soil in a lasagna garden time to develop. The next spring, a light, nutrient-rich soil that needs no digging or tilling to prepare will be developed. Simply pull out the cover crop and start planting.

Straw Bale Gardening

Ruth Stout Garden Bed

A great alternative to soil-based gardening, straw bale gardening simply involves planting seeds or seedlings directly into bales of straw. Straw bale gardening is becoming more popular because it takes up relatively little space and works well in gardens with very poor soil quality. Straw also retains heat and creates heat as it breaks down, providing a longer growing season.

The only drawback to straw bale gardening is that nitrogen needs to be added to the bales in order to provide any growing plants with nutrients. This nitrogen is added directly to the bale before planting in order to create a nutrient-rich environment. A layer of peat-based potting soil will also need to be added to the top of the bales to create a solid planting medium.

Practically any crop can be grown in a straw bale, but the one thing to watch out for is height. Straw bales cannot support plants that grow too high, so using dwarf varieties is highly suggested for straw bale gardens. Straw bales also need to be reinforced with wire mesh supports in order to grow root vegetables that will dig into the bale.

Container Gardening

Container Gardening

Container gardening, as the name suggests, is simply the practice of growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs in containers. It is considered a version of no-till gardening because digging into the ground to create these gardens is not necessary. All that is needed to create a container garden are pots and planters, potting soil and organic compost or fertilizer.

Many advantages to container gardening exist, including

  • Container gardens save space and work well on decks and balconies.
  • The amount of fertilizer and nutrition that plants get can be controlled and monitored much more closely.
  • Different plants can be kept separate from each other, reducing the risk of cross-pollination between plants.
  • Growing in containers allows gardeners to easily and cheaply replace the growing medium each season, mitigating the need for crop rotation.

Container gardening is a great option for people who don’t have a traditional garden space. It is far less labor-intensive than most other forms of gardening, including standard no-till gardening.

Check out our article for great container ideas – 9 Best Containers for Growing Vegetables

Bag Planting

Soil Bag Planting

Bag planting is a popular form of no-till gardening, especially in areas where soil quality is very poor. Bag planting is essentially the same as traditional no-till planting, except that plants are grown directly into bags of fertilizer enriched organic soil. It’s a great option for gardeners who want to no-till garden in spring, but neglected to prepare a garden the previous fall.

The principles of bag planting are the same as those of no-till gardening – the goal is to create a nutrient-rich soil base for the garden without tilling and damaging the soil available. Bag planting gives gardeners a head start on their spring garden, but after the first season, compost will be necessary to enrich your soil.

In order to bag garden, the necessary tools are cardboard, newspaper, and bags of organic, fertilizer enriched potting soil that are at least 2 cubic feet in volume. To create a bag garden,

  1. Layer the desired garden area with cardboard sheets or newspapers. If using newspaper, use several sheets for each layer. Puncture the sheeting material with holes spaced about 4 inches apart to allow for air and moisture circulation. If this step is skipped, gardeners could end up with a sodden, moldy mess.
  2. Place unopened bags of potting soil over the sheeting material. Space them as necessary, depending on the type of plant that will be growing. Push them up against each other or keep some space between them to provide pathways to walk through the garden.
  3. Cut the plastic off the top of each bag, leaving the soil exposed – this is the garden bed. Stab a screwdriver through the soil to puncture holes at the bottom of each bag, about 10 holes per bag. Make sure to pierce the sheeting material beneath the bags as well.
  4. Plant seeds or starters and water and fertilize them as usual. It is also suggested to add a layer of mulch to the top of each bag to encourage moisture retention and discourage weed growth.
  5. After the final harvest of the season, it is necessary to remove the plastic bags from the garden. Simply cut down the sides of each bag and pull it out from under the soil gently. Then spread a layer of mulch over the soil to bed it down for the winter. The next spring, the cardboard sheeting beneath the bags should fully disintegrate.
  6. Start no-till planting in the traditional method. Because bag planting is used in areas of very poor soil, it is necessary to add heavy layers of fertilizer and nutrient-rich compost before planting. After a few seasons though, a light, fluffy, nutrient-dense soil that is ideal for growing all manner of plants should be produced.

Long-Term Benefits of No-Till Gardening

No-till gardening might seem labor-intensive at the start, but it actually needs far less effort than traditional gardening systems that require tilling or deep digging to prepare the ground.

Once the garden is prepared for the first season, the subsequent growing seasons will require less and less preparation. All that will be necessary to do is add a couple of inches of compost to garden beds each year.

No-till gardening also has many long-term benefits, as well.

Purely Organic

No-till gardening requires the use of organic animal-based fertilizers and materials like grass clippings, bark chips, and mulch. The end result is that the food produced and fed to your family is chemical-free and completely safe.

Water-Saving

No-till gardening systems use a layer of mulch or wood chips to trap moisture. The fact that the topsoil layer is not disturbed or damaged also means that the chances of water depletion through soil erosion are much lower. So, gardeners can water less and still have thriving plants, which is better for the environment and saves money on the water bill!

Less Work

When all is said and done, the main advantage of no-till gardening is that it is far less work than traditional gardening. Once a no-till garden is created, all gardeners have to do each year is add fresh compost and a new layer of mulch. You don’t need to break your back digging and turning the soil each year. And each year the soil becomes healthier and more enriched.

More Fun

Many people choose to start a home garden because they want to share the joy of growing fresh fruits and vegetables with their children. It’s a fantastic educational tool and a wonderful family experience. However, if the work is too hard, kids can’t participate and soon lose interest. No-till gardening is a great way to get kids engaged in gardening, and it’s easy and fun to do!

But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.

Job 12:7-10

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