What Home Gardeners Can Learn From No-Till Farming

gardener-garden bed

A big mistake I made way back as an early gardener was not paying attention to the soil. I didn’t know any better, mistakenly believing that soil was merely a placeholder for plant roots. I thought fertilizer could be added to soil like a vitamin pill. I cringe when I remember that I once poured liquid chemical fertilizer onto my soil thinking I was doing my plants a favour. My excuse it was a looong time ago. But sadly, this view is still widely held. You only have to see ads for certain instant fertilizers for lawns and gardens to see it in action. We think we ‘feed’ our plants like we are giving them food, but it doesn’t work this way. The relationship between plants and soil is more complicated.

Radish growing in healthy garden soil.

Radish growing in healthy garden soil.

Dousing soil with chemical fertilizer, with its harmful salts, can be more likely to hinder a plants ability to absorb soil nutrients. Through learning a little about soil science, I am beginning to see how important the relationship is between soil, soil inhabitants like microorganisms and the plants that grow in it.

This is a shift from our current N-P-K paradigm towards an organic way of gardening by feeding the microbes in the soil and letting them do the work for us. Our ancient ancestors gardened in this manner long before we knew what bacteria was. Fertilizer was in the form of manures, which was decomposed by the microbes and provided all the nutrients the plant needed.
Using present day technology, we are now able to add these organisms back to our soils and feed them through a variety of organic inputs. The three best things you can do for your soil is to topdress with compost, mulches, and compost tea.

In the old days, we were told to “double dig” our garden beds. This meant digging large trenches, adding soil amendments and mixing it in with a fork. Now, the best practice—and what many modern farmers are doing now—appears to be disturbing the soil surface as little as possible.  We can learn lessons from new, sustainable agricultural processes for our own gardens. The reasons we are better off not disturbing the soil are:

  • we don’t bring weed seeds to the surface, where they can germinate
  • soil structure is not disturbed

What is soil structure? This explanation from Backyard Ecosystem is a good one:

The delicate web of beneficial earthworms, fungi, insects and microbes existing beneath your feet no matter how abused the soil. Digging, tilling, cultivation and plowing all destroy this delicate natural web the way a tornado rips through a trailer park. Preserving this delicate structure and integrating with your new bed should be your number one goal.

Well, I can hear you thinking, “But what about all those weeds in my garden? I have to plant some stuff and the weeds are in the way.” So, instead of roughing up the soil before you plant, gently pry up weeds with a fork, and then pull them out. They’ll come out easily, once you’ve given them a gentle nudge with a garden fork. Try not to disturb the soil as much as possible. Lay newspapers down to smother any small weeds, which can be covered with either weeds you’ve pulled (with no seeds) or any organic mulch. Or a mix of both. You’ll disturb a lot fewer earthworms this way too. This style of soil layering is sometimes called lasagna gardening. 

Think of the garden bed like a forest floor, and try to create the conditions there. Organic matter sits on top, and gets digested and broken down by earthworms, funghi and bacteria. Earthworms actually pull leaves down into the ground. Beneficial nematodes attach to root hairs and allow nutrients to be taken up by the plant. That’s the ideal situation for a garden bed. It’s a lot less work too. Let nature do its thing, and you and your garden will both benefit.

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