Every spring, my husband and I debate whether we’re going to till this year or not. Some years, we’re thinking about tilling in some organic material into the clay mess that is our orchard. Other years, it’s tilling peat moss and compost into our garden or the raspberry bed. So what are the real pros and cons of tilling your garden?
In general, both till and no-till gardening techniques have value. Till works better for a quicker building up of any soil without an existing biome for gardening, while no-till makes use of the existing biome to make gardening easier. Both methods have pros and cons, which will be explored next.
Ready to talk all things tilling of gardens? Let’s talk pros, cons, and more. Let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of soil.
The Pros and Cons of Tilling Your Garden
I know that a lot of people swear that one method (or the other) is pretty much evil. I’m sure I’ll catch some flak for my thinking that they’re both useful in different situations. However, I think that they’re both tools – tools that are useful in some situations while being totally not needed in others.
Even so, I’ve sat down and created a list of the pros and cons of both methods. That way, you can see when and where each tool comes into play. And then we’ll do a deep dive into them so that no questions go unanswered.
- Less labor-intensive as you don’t need to spend time digging and turning the soil
- A more natural way of gardening allows the natural ecosystem of the soil to build
- Encourages the growth of healthy bacteria and fungi in the soil
- Maintains the nutrient and the mineral content of the soil because of lower rates of erosion
- Conserves water and reduces the need for watering
- Eventually, there will be fewer weeds once the soil is established
- Takes some time to establish the soil…maybe more than two years before you really see the results
- Requires a lot of mulch that can be expensive and time-consuming to acquire
- We May need to limit size because of the continual need for a mulch
- Perfect for breaking down heavily compacted soil or soil with a lot of clay content
- Good for starting a garden in less than ideal soil where there is no established network of life
- Requires less time to establish the soil… as long as amendments and compost are mixed in
- Can actually lead to more compacted soil over time due to higher rates of erosion by air and water
- Results in more weeds in the long-term because of the resurfacing of weeds’ dormant seeds
Ready for the deep dive? Let’s do this.
Pros of tilling
Tilling your garden can be a helpful process in specific circumstances, especially when starting your new garden in less-than-ideal soil. Tilling is useful when the soil needs to be broken down and can easily be mixed with compost and soil amendments
Garden soil that is composed of heavily compacted soil or mainly clay will most likely require tilling multiple times. The benefits of no-tilling soil would not apply in this circumstance, since the soil lacks the healthy life that no-tilling tries to preserve.
This method may also be more suitable for people that don’t plan to have recurring gardens such as students or short-term apartment dwellers. The soil can easily be prepared by mixing the compost and amendments…and voilà, your garden will be ready for use shortly. Unlike the no-till garden which will take a few years to see healthy soil come to fruition.
Tools used for tilling can be expensive. But you don’t necessarily have to rely on machines. Chickens are excellent natural tilling gardeners and can be used instead of machines.
Cons of tilling
Counterintuitively, tilling can cause the very problem it’s best designed to solve. The continuous churning of soil can actually cause compacted soil. The tilling of the soil results in higher rates of erosion by air and water. The soil forms a hard crust and dries out from constant exposure to air and water resulting in the need for more tilling creating an endless cycle.
Tilling, though believed to control the number of weeds in your garden may also have the reverse effect. Tilling can increase the number of weeds by allowing the seeds of dormant weeds to be brought to the top and thus germinate.
Tilling can be necessary to improve soil quality enough to garden successfully. But through prolonged tilling, your garden may be confronted with limitations.
Pros of no-till
The no-till method, as the name suggests, is gardening without the use of a tiller or double digging. The no-tilling system allows the soil to prosper by using a philosophy similar to mother Earth. The forest ground has naturally rich soil that doesn’t need to be tilled. Leaves and other organic matter fall and decompose creating rich soil.
The same idea carries over to your garden. When you constantly disrupt the soil you also create imbalances and harm the living matter in the soil. No-tilling allows the soil to maintain its natural ecosystem by not disturbing helpful organisms such as bacteria and fungi.
By maintaining the natural ecosystem, and not continuously stirring and moving the soil, you retain more moisture. The moisture is retained by reducing the impact of erosion that occurs with the stirring and turning of the soil. This will help conserve the overall quality of the soil; leaving the soil more abundant in minerals and nutrients.
The overall increased preservation of the quality and moisture of the soil has the added advantage of reducing water runoff. Decreasing water runoff also decreases the need for watering. This conserves water, saves money, and has an added bonus that reduces some of your gardening chores.
No-till gardening is a slow process but the results are well worth the patience. It’s a slow process because you’re letting Mother Nature do the work for you; meaningless strenuous work, digging and lifting for you. Skipping the labor-intense work of tilling makes this a more desirable method for all the lazy gardeners or those with backaches.
No-tilling requires a steady supply of cardboard, leaves, compost, or mulch to help build the quality of the soil. This top layer also stops the growth of weeds. Though the weeds can get unruly, and it may be difficult to watch, the overall amount of weeds will decrease with time.
The no-till system requires a steady stream of patience as it is a slow-moving process. It may take up to several years for the natural rich ecosystem within the soil to build. You should, however, notice a decrease in work from water and weeding within two years. This makes maintenance easier once established.
Cons of no-till
An obvious drawback to no-till is the continuous need for mulch. Mulch is the organic matter which keeps your soil healthy and prevents the growth of weeds. It is vital to the no-till system. There are, however, cheaper alternatives to mulch such as cardboard, straw, or brown leaves.
With the need for mulch comes another limitation…size. Unless you’re able to create your own mulch and compost, finding enough mulch for a large-scale operation is expensive and very time-consuming.
But by limiting the size of your garden, you can avoid this possible drawback. Once you know effective techniques for planting and maintaining a garden; you’d be surprised by how much space you actually need.
I also found this video on YouTube that does a pretty good job of explaining the differences, pros, and cons of each method. I appreciate that he doesn’t immediately condemn either option – even if he has his own preferences.
Because, hey. We all get to have our own preferences. And if you want to know my preferences? Keep reading – and I’ll share them with you in a bit. But if you just want more info? I’ve got you covered there, too.
Do Tilling Kill Weeds?
In general, tilling will help kill any visible weeds, provided they aren’t the kind of plant that can root from cuttings or is just insanely hard to kill. However, tilling will also uncover buried, dormant weed seeds – and that will trigger those seeds to grow.
So tilling does kill visible weeds, yes. But it can also open the door for you to have even more weeds.
Tilling can also hamper some soil-borne bugs, diseases, and pests that typically emerge during the spring. However, it can also open up your ground to infestations by new bugs who decide that the tilled-up ground is prime real estate.
Is Tilling a Garden Necessary?
Tilling isn’t always necessary. In some areas, the soil is already a rich biome for growing things. In this instance, you absolutely don’t need to till. You can use no-till gardening practices to maintain the soil, garden successfully, and enjoy your backyard.
Tilling is also unnecessary for any soil as long as you’re willing to do no-till gardening methods to enrich the soil’s biome. Just know that it’ll take longer to enrich the biome and soil than if you did a year or two of tilling in some organic material.
When Should You Start Tilling Your Garden?
In general, the best time of year to till is in the spring a couple of weeks before planting. In some grow zones, it may be early spring while in other grow zones it could be later spring.
Tilling is best done when the soil is not too wet, as it can really make the job crazy difficult. The soil should be rather dry and easy to dig. If you live in a rainy area, then you may want to till during a dry spell or a dry season when you don’t have anything planted.
You’ll also want to consider the kind of soil you’re tilling. Some soil tills are easier, while clay soil (or just solid clay) will be a lot harder to manage. In fact, some clay soils never dry out – so you’ll just have to wait for “as dry as possible” to make it doable. If it’s too wet, it can strip the gears on a motorized tiller. Don’t ask how I know that. 😉
What is the Purpose of Tilling Your Garden?
When we till, we’re trying to enrich the soil and jumpstart a better biome of bacteria, insects, and other helpful soil dwellers that will make our garden grow better foods. Sometimes, it’s the only way to add enough organic material to tough clay-like soil to even grow anything. This is achieved in basically three ways as mentioned below:
- Tilling turns up the soil, exposing the dirt under the surface.
- The loosened-up soil is opened up to air and ready for mixing in organic material (like compost, mulch, peat moss, or whatever else you’ve got planned).
- Tilling helps kill existing weeds to make way for planting things intentionally.
Weeds are aggressive and will usually crowd out your garden plants from getting sufficient water and nutrients. That’s why one of the ways tilling works is to get rid of them. It’s great at getting rid of any visible weeds. Just know that it can also dig up dormant weed seeds, so you’ll need to keep up on weeding throughout the gardening season.
Now, depending on which agricultural expert you listen to, the aeration of soil is either awesome or awful. On the one hand, it does help you bring oxygen to a previously oxygen-starved environment. But that new oxygen can mess with the biome, so you need to be careful. However, gardens do usually do better with some oxygenation at the roots. However, tilling isn’t the only way to get that aeration. Worms can get the same effect without needing any tilling.
Loosening up the soil also allows roots more room to expand. It can also help with heat dispersion in hot weather. Since the soil particles are spread further apart than in compact soil, heat is better dispersed rather than concentrated onto the plant roots. Again, you can accomplish these same things without tilling – this time by using mulch to keep water in the soil. That mulch will also be pulled down into the soil over time, loosening it up that way.
Now, tilling also helps by enriching the existing soil with organic material (compost, mulch, peat moss, etc.). This has the following benefit: fostering the proliferation of soil-enriching organisms like earthworms and soil microbes. They do so much work, from aerating the soil to fixing nutrients in the soil to killing pathogens, and getting rid of toxins. Worms really are the best. The amount of work they do is endlessly awesome!
How Do I Manually Till My Garden? (3 ways to do it!)
Before tilling, be sure that your garden bed is free of weeds and any of their seeds lurking in the soil. The tilling will get rid of many weeds, but too-large weeds can bind up your tiller.
Also, make sure that the soil is just fine for tilling. It should feel dry and grainy when you crush a lump of it in your hand rather than wet. Then, you might be better off tilling by hand instead of using a tilling machine unless you’re working with a large piece of land. There is the danger of the soil being too fine after an operation with the latter.
Now you’re ready to till.
- Dig a trench along the length of one side of the garden. It doesn’t have to be deep – the depth of the shovel head is sufficient. Keep the soil you extract from this trench. Next, spread a thin layer of compost on the bottom of the trench while gently sinking it into the bottom.
- Dig a second trench on the opposite side of the garden. With the soil from this second trench, fill up the first one. Then spread a thin layer of compost on the bottom of the second trench as well.
- Continue digging and filling trenches as described in steps 1 and 2 above until you’ve covered the field then fill the last trench with the dirt from the very first one.
Now, if that sounds like too much work, you can also manually till a garden with a motorized tiller. The machine should come with an operation manual. Follow its instructions.
I have one more method for manually tilling a garden that’s a lot less backbreaking – for you, anyway. Here it is.
- Cover your existing garden space with organic material (mulch, compost, etc.).
- Spread some scratch in your garden before it’s planting time.
- Let your chickens into the garden for a few hours over several days.
- Keep using scratch or chicken feed to keep the chickens doing your work for you.
- Enjoy a freshly-tilled and fertilized garden, courtesy of your chickens.
In case you’re wondering how we tilled the garden this year… we went with the last option. 🙂 It was a nice compromise between our preference for no-till gardening and a way to mix in the compost to enrich our existing clay garden bed. Seriously. It’s pure clay – we live at what was once the bottom of a prehistoric lake.
Can You Plant a Garden Without Tilling?
Tilling is absolutely optional. Many experts agree that no-till gardening is better for the soil in the long term. As such, it is totally possible to garden without tilling. You may need to use a hand shovel to plant any seedlings or even some kinds of seeds deeply enough.
Be sure to follow any instructions on seed packets when planting them, especially when planting herbs.
Can You Garden without Tilling?
Not only can you plant a garden without tilling, but it’s also totally possible to run a successful garden without tilling. In general, you will simply need to be smarter with your use of compost, mulch, and other forms of organic material to build your garden.
You will also want to make smart use of worms, chickens, and other natural fertilizers to enrich your soil. It may take you longer to build a healthy growing biome than if you used tilling, but it will be healthier in the long term.
Is it Bad to Till Your Garden? Why is Tillage Bad for Soil?
Depending on which agricultural expert you ask, tilling may or may not be bad for your garden. Many experts point out that tilling intends to loosen the soil, but it ends up having the opposite effect over time. Many tilled farms and gardens end up with overly compacted ground that becomes rock hard.
Mixing in organic material can help offset the compaction. If you use tilling sparingly (as a means to enrich the soil), then you may be able to only enrich the soil without compacting it.
Tilling can also bring up dormant weed seeds, pathogens, fungi, and other soil-dwelling organisms that can spread disease by accident.
But is tilling bad? It can be if it’s not used appropriately. But when used in moderation and appropriately? It can be a great way to jumpstart or enrich a biome that helps your garden soil become a better-growing environment.
Why Should You NOT Till Your Garden?
In general, you shouldn’t till your garden because of the long-term risks associated with it. These risks include soil compaction, soil erosion, disease, increased weeds, and a negative feedback loop that makes tilling the only way to keep the soil farmable.
Now, you can offset many of the negatives to tilling. You can do this if you minimize tilling to once a year or less, and you add organic material to the garden before tilling. Use tilling as a tool to get your garden to a no-till state, and you’ll be able to do it without sacrificing your soil biome.
Final Thoughts on Tilling VS No-Till Gardens
Tilling is an important tool in building a successful garden – when the soil needs to go from a less-awesome growing biome to a healthy one. It can be a great way to jump-start or speed up that transition.
But the best way to do it is with the end goal of building a no-till garden where you’ve got weeds naturally under control, plants grow easily, and you get to enjoy the fruits of your labors – without breaking your back.
That’s our goal, too. We use our chicken tilling system to get our existing clay (seriously – we’ve dug down and it’s maybe a half-inch of soil on top of 6+ feet of clay) into something that will better support agriculture. We aren’t tilling down far, but the chickens are a great way to naturally till the ground and speed up the total soil improvement process.
It isn’t fast, but it will be better for the environment (and our garden) in the long run. And that will help us towards our goal of building a better backyard (and front yard) lifestyle. So happy homesteading, friends, no matter which you choose: till or no-till gardening.
Can You Prune Fruit Trees in the Summer or Fall? While spring is generally seen as the best time to prune fruit trees, summer pruning can better help control overall size or help shape the fruit trees. Fall pruning isn’t ever recommended. To learn more about shaping or controlling fruit tree sizes, read my article on pruning fruit trees here.
How, When, and Why Should I Move My Raspberry Canes? If you need to move your raspberries to a sunnier location, move them while they are dormant. For more reasons on why you should move your canes and how to do it right, read my complete guide to moving raspberries right here.
When Should I Pick Mint from My Garden? Start picking mint as soon as your plant is at least 6-8 inches tall before the flowers blossom. Mint plants can be pruned back to an inch tall. For more information on when and how to pick mint, read my complete guide to picking and storing mint.
Learning from your own experience is important, but learning from others is also smart. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as homesteaders.
The first time I learned about soil compaction with tilling, was with a chat I had with a gal majoring in agriculture as a soil engineer. I was enthralled. I think we were supposed to be doing something else – a service project, maybe?
Instead, I just asked her question after question – it was the first time I’d heard that traditional farming and gardening methods weren’t actually all they were cracked up to be. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember her face and her kindness as she talked with me for hours about dirt. It was an amazing few hours. That knowledge became the initial basis for this whole article – and my new methodology for gardening.
- Seyfried, Juli. “Till Vs No Till: Which Is Best?” Dengarden, Dengarden, 25 Oct. 2019, dengarden.com/gardening/Till-vs-No-Till-Which-is-Best.
- Soil Cultivating and Tilling – Greenbloom. www.greenbloom.ca/resources/soil-cultivating-and-tilling/.
- “Soil Tilling 101: How To Manually Till Your Soil The Efficient Way.” TopTillers.com, 4 Apr. 2020, toptillers.com/soil-tilling-guide/.
- Tilling Advantages Vs No-Till Advantages. blog.gardeningknowhow.com/gardening-pros-cons/tilling-advantages-vs-no-till-advantages/.