No-till gardening feeds the soil
In no-till plots, the soil is not plowed, which reduces water runoff and evaporation losses.
At bottom, gardening is all about dirt — its care and feeding, its microbes and fungi, bacteria and earthworms.Skip to next paragraph
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Science has gradually recognized that the soil's vibrant but delicate food web must be treated carefully to produce the best yields. Turning the soil before planting is generally conceded to be more disruptive than building it up year after year with rich natural substances.
"We lose organic matter whenever we till the soil," says Mark Alley, an agronomist and professor of soil fertility and management at Virginia Tech. "That practice adds up a lot when you think about certain areas of Virginia having been tilled for more than 400 years."
No-till growing means adding layers of plant and animal matter to the topsoil rather than plowing, shaping, and otherwise disturbing it.
"It reduces runoff and evaporation losses, increases organic matter in surface soils, which increases the rooting environment for seeds," Dr. Alley says. "All this makes things more productive."
"It was prompted by technical innovations along with increased farmer awareness about conservation," says Mr. Jones, who doubles as coordinator of the Virginia No-Tillage Alliance. "They were becoming concerned over how much soil they were wasting each year. Now, more than 50 percent of the state's farmers have switched to no-till."
Growers save a lot of time and fuel previously used on sod busting. "At least 30 percent of their machinery inventory had been tied up in tillage equipment," Jones says. "They sold it off because no-till requires only planters and harvesters to bring in a crop."
The same planting principles apply to backyard gardens. They vary from farm fields only in scale and in varieties grown.
The first year is the hardest for no-till practitioners. The ground must be cleared of debris, weeds and other obstructions before nutrient-rich compost and protective mulch can be used.
"Initially, some digging of perennial roots may be required," says Charles Dowding, a commercial gardener and author of "Organic Gardening the Natural No-Dig Way" (Green Books). "If the soil is full of durable perennial weeds, a long-term (smothering) mulch for a year is worthwhile. It becomes much easier thereafter."