A few years ago I watched the documentary Back to Eden, which describes how master gardener Paul Gautschi uses a revolutionary but forgotten method to suppress weeds and rebuild soil fertility. If you do any gardening at all it’s a must-see (the whole video is free on the website).
This past season I finally got a chance to test out the method, which has come to be known as “no-till” gardening. Unlike traditional gardening where the soil is tilled under every season, with no-till gardening the soil is always covered and therefore never becomes hard and compact. Also, the weeds are virtually non-existent because of the thick mulch.
I sectioned off a portion of the garden and set about converting it to a no-till plot.
I’m pretty sure there’s no wrong way to create a no-till garden, as long as you put down enough organic matter. My no-till recipe goes like this:
- 1-inch compost
- Sugar (carbohydrates activate the microorganisms in the soil. can also use molasses)
- Biodegradable paper mulch (for weeds)
- Another inch of compost
- Organic fertilizer (a.k.a. chicken droppings from the last coop cleanout)
- 4-inches shredded woodchips
Wood chips arrive.
Bare soil is covered with 1-inch compost.
Paper mulch from the garden store acts as a weed block.
Pine shavings from the chicken coop.
A layer of leaves.
The shredded wood chips are put down last.
Final step is to soak everything thoroughly.
I came back two weeks later to plant the tomato seedlings and found the ground beneath the wood chips was still moist from this initial watering (it hadn’t rained since).
While the ground right next to it was hard and cracked.
The results speak for themselves:
There was a significant difference in both the growth of the plants and the size of the produce from the no-till plot.
However, there were a couple of drawbacks. There is a cost to getting the woodchips, and the general prep was a little more than just hoeing dirt into rows. But the time saved weeding more than makes up for it. The biggest problem I experienced was low germination rates. Many of the direct-sown seeds did not germinate. But of the ones that did, or of the transplants, they grew significantly better with far less input (I never watered the no-till plot after initial planting the whole summer). I have a couple of theories as to why the seeds didn’t sprout. Mainly, the wood chips have a tendency to fall back over the soil where the seed was placed, making it more difficult for the seedling to sprout. Also, since the black soil wasn’t exposed, the ground would have been cooler in that plot. Some vegetables like corn require very warm temps to germinate.
So as I said it was definitely a success but also had some challenges. I will continue to grow the no-till plot next year and, as always, keep learning.