Saturday, April 30, 2011

Time to Till?

This soil has been broken up and loosened
by winter freezing. All it needs is a good
weeding and it will be ready to plant.

So spring is come and your first thought of gardening is to get out there and till. After all, what is more fundamental than breaking up the soil for a good seed bed?

Or is it? The list of why we till includes: loosening the soil for planting and bed shaping, mixing in amendments, and annual weed removal. Lets take a closer look and see what we really need to till for:

Loosening Soil 
As long as the soil is not compacted, roots move through it with relative ease. Yes they will grow quicker with fluffy soil, but they will also burn through nutrients quicker and the tops of the plants will grow faster. You might say this is not a problem until you see your corn or prized flowers tip over after a wind or rain storm.

The real issue is if the soil is loose enough for you to plant your seeds and transplants. If you are adding a good organic mulch every year, the soil will be nice and soft without having to beat it up.

Bed shaping also does not require tilling if the soil has been taken care of. I find that I have fewer problems with garden beds slumping and shifting if I skip the tilling and keep up on the mulch.

Mixing Amendments
Most amendments will trickle into the soil or get stirred in by small critters. A layer of mulch on top will help this by giving the critters reason to move around to different layers in the soil. 

If you have to add a large amount of lime or gypsum, you may have to till to keep the them from hardening into a layer of concrete. Also, treating a sodic soil is a special situation that requires many unusual practices to correct.

Weed Removal
There is nothing like getting out there and ripping weeds apart with a power tool. This is very effective with annual weeds. But for those weeds that hang on for more that a year it is only a delaying tactic. All those perennial weeds that get cut up will root back down and send up shoots leaving you with more weeds than you started with. To really kill the perennials, you will need to remove all the plant bits or till every two weeks for the next three years.

Tilling will also bring buried seeds to the surface where they can easily sprout on a soil that has been prepared especially for their liking.

A much more effective and long term remedy for weeds is to remove as much of the individual weed as you can, then use a fully biodegradable weed barrier (read cardboard, newspaper, or craft paper) covered by a thick layer of mulch.

Reality is that tilling is a fine tool for extreme situations. But for average soils on the standard home garden it simply isn't needed. Good soil maintenance with liberal applications of clean, good quality mulch will get you much more now and for years to come.

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