To till or not to till

When it comes time to prep your soil for planting, put away the rototiller. Tilling your soil can cause damage to the nutrients and microbes you need for a healthy garden. Tilling can also worsen erosion and drainage. 

I have often fantasized about driving around Fairbanks armed with a bullhorn, making the world a better place by shouting out instructions.

“Hey! What do you think a turn signal is for?” or “How lazy are you? That shopping cart corral is three feet away and you are just going to leave your shopping cart in the middle of the parking lot?” In the spring, I’d use my bullhorn in the service of gardening: “Put down that rototiller, right now!”

Through the years, I have written more than a dozen columns about the damage done by rototilling your soil every spring (and for some people, every spring and fall), yet the carnage continues. I understand why because I, too, was raised during the era when the practice was to annually till the bejeebers out of home gardens and commercial farms. It took a lot of reading and several years of half-hatted commitment, but eventually I became a believer. Now, like many a convert, I am on a mission to bring others into the fold.

Why is it better to disturb the soil as little as possible? In the past I quoted Jeff Lowenfels, the Anchorage gardening columnist and author of three books on soil, and do so again now simply because Alaskans tend to believe other Alaskans. While tilling may seem to give you some immediate benefits, he says that with repeated assaults the soil’s “microbiology diminishes ... You end up working harder, weeding more, fertilizing more, with more insect and fungal and bacterial diseases that require ‘icides’ to fix ... (With tilling) worms are cut up and their tunnels destroyed. Worms contain bacteria in their guts that glue soil together and the tunnels provide air and water passage ... (With tilling) the soil loses structure and doesn’t hold water or air well.”

Lowenfels is not the only one trumpeting no-till methods. A book published this year, “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution” by Andrew Mefferd, was written for small scale farmers but the summary of what he has learned through his own work and that of other farmers he profiles is this: “Soil has three properties: the physical, the biological and the chemical. Tillage is bad for all three. On the physical side, tilling crushes the soil structure, making soil more likely to erode and less likely to absorb water efficiently. On the biological side, the act of tilling kills many of the organisms that live in the soil. Tillage breaks apart soil fungi and the aggregates they make that help soil resist erosion and promote water infiltration ... And on the chemical side, accelerating the oxidization of organic matter promotes a short-term release of fertility, at the expense of the long-term resources in the soil.”

It becomes a vicious cycle. Again I quote Mefferd, who also is the editor of the magazine Growing for Market. “Tillage implements crush the soil into plantable submission, chemicals kill anything that might compete with the crop, and chemical fertilizers replace the fertility that was either lost form the soil or was no longer being cycled efficiently by biology.”

So how do you do no-till gardening? It is simpler and a whole lot less fatiguing than trying to control a bucking rototiller, and cheaper than hiring someone from Craigslist to do it for you. For seeds, you drill holes into the soil, using your finger or a dowel. If you are broadcasting over a large area, which is usually how I seed my lettuce, drag a plank across the soil to make it level, and then sow away. Transplants have root systems, so use your hands, a small spade, or even a bulb transplanter to make a hole just large enough to comfortably house the roots. I have a handy friend who opened both ends of a tin of beans and welded a piece of tin salvaged from another can across the top to make a handle, thus making herself a free bulb transplanter.

As the season progresses, starting in mid-June at the earliest so our soil has had sufficient time to warm up, use mulches such as cardboard, compost, straw, aged manure or the like to smother weeds. As these materials disintegrate, they will add nutrients and improve the texture of the soil.

Certain organic mulches, like shredded paper and cardboard or grass clippings, can form clumps that repel water (it is called becoming hydrophobic), so apply lightly and consider mixing them in with something like compost to reduce the possibility that they will create an impenetrable barrier. Mixing shredded paper and cardboard with a different mulch also reduces their tendency to blow away.

The best way to suppress the weeds is to apply small amounts of mulch several times during the season as the more persistent weeds sprout through, so put down an inch or two every few weeks.

At the end of the gardening season, I do yank out all the roots. There are no-till adherents who simply cut off the stems at ground level, leaving the underground portions of the plants to rot in place. However, I think our summers must be too short for really large root systems to disappear, because I have had the unpleasant experience of having to saw through the tomato vines I left behind the preceding fall. I pull roots except in the areas that I am going to leave fallow for a year as part of my regular crop rotation.

Under the idea that one or two experts might not be enough to convince you to try the no-till method, let me close with the words of yet another quote. This one was written in 2016, by Dan Gillespie, who is connected to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nebraska in Conservation. “The loss of organic matter in soil, which is the lightest soil component and the first to wash away, is the healthiest portion of our topsoil. It is the house where the biological systems in our soils live and includes everything from the tiniest organisms like bacteria, algae, fungi and protozoa to the more complex nematodes, micro-arthropods (think tiny spiders), and the more visible earthworms, insects, small vertebrates and plants ... Tillage destroys soil structure, and is catastrophic to the populations of these beneficial and diverse organisms. Soil microbes help cycle nutrients that support plant and root growth, which in turn support soil microbes that support plant growth — it’s the underground circle of life.”

Now I need to get back to my bullhorn fantasy. “Hey, you! There is no poop fairy, so pick up what your dog just dropped!”

Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at dorking@acsalaska.net