Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
March, 2011
Regional Report

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With soil undisturbed by tilling, my garden is full of earthworms.

Keep a Healthy Soil

Every warm day moves us closer to gardening time. The first smell of soil is the elixir that makes my blood race. Soil is the heart of the garden, what makes or breaks it. If we care for it and build its health, we will have a wonderful garden. If we choose to regard it as a commodity and use it up, the results will be disappointing.

Don't Rototill
So many of us greet the garden season by revving up that gas-guzzling beast that beats us to death -- the rototiller. I'm going to give you permission and encourage you to NOT bring it out this year. There are certain times when the tiller is useful, as when breaking up sod or starting a new garden. But most of the time, in soil that has been gardened before, tilling is not necessary. It can even be detrimental to the soil and all the lovely microorganisms beneath that keep the soil healthy.

Protect the Soil Web
There is a complex symbiotic relationship between the soil surface and the microbes below. Tilling and digging the soil disturbs this relationship, often causing early death of these microbes. Using a "no-till" approach to gardening keeps these microbes and their web of life intact, making soil conditions more beneficial for plants. Allowing soil microorganisms to thrive undisturbed keeps their populations balanced and healthy. Research shows that no-till gardens are more productive than gardens that are tilled once or twice a year.

Organic Matter on Top of the Soil
Tilling does break down organic matter faster, but this is not necessary. If you spread organic matter on the surface of the soil, natural processes will take care of it without its having to be dug under. Organic mulch breaks down at the soil surface, making a wonderful spongy layer for plant roots to thrive in. If you are growing a green manure crop, you may want to lightly turn it under, but all other organics will complete their processes and give great health to the soil simply by being spread on top. You can plant directly into compost!

Tilled Soil has Poor Structure
Soil that is tilled regularly tends to have poor structure. Certainly, tilled soil can make a fine textured growing medium, but this is not the best for plant growth. Plants need soil with natural aggregates, or clumps, and differing pore sizes. Tilling reduces both of these, allowing the soil to compact and making it harder for plant roots to get through. Soil that is not tilled has better aeration and drainage than soil that is tilled because of these undisturbed aggregates.

Tilling Brings Weeds to Light
The other big problem with tilling is that weed seeds that have lain dormant underground for years come to the surface where they get the light they need for germination. Gardens that are tilled regularly actually have more weeds than gardens that simply have organic matter in the form of mulch added every year. And who needs that?

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