May 8, 2022 by Hope Gardens
Regenerative garden practices are the backbone of my garden philosophy. Soil health is too important to have mis-information and confusion and I’m hoping to clarify the benefits and limits of no-till garden practices.
No-till in agriculture means limiting the use of large machines that break up soil and leave it that open, broken soil unplanted. This practice over acres and acres of land allows massive amounts of carbon to escape the earth.
This carbon becomes carbon dioxide in our air and is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Important to know and important to limit this practice.
This practice also leaves topsoil susceptible to erosion, evaporation and destroys macro- and micro-organisms present in the top inches of soil. These organisms create soil health which in turn creates more nutritious and successful crops.
Things are much different in the home garden. Some of this translates, but not all.
There’s a lot to care about in organic, regenerative gardening so let’s focus on what’s true and important.
For home gardeners with raised beds and container gardens, there’s no worry about carbon loss. There is little to no carbon stored in your raised bed and tilling it does not contribute to global warming. The issue is the micro- and macro-life in your garden.
This life is most prevalent in the top 6” of soil and tilling can break up that precious SOM or soil organic matter. Bacteria recovers fairly quickly but fungi can take some time. So to preserve this soil organic matter, less tilling is encouraged.
HOWEVER, in your home garden containers and raised beds you do need to turn over your soil. Soil compaction & permeability, insect overpopulation, disease, mold and invasive roots are all issues in container soil that is not regularly tilled. Containers have different issues than native soil. Even in large raised beds, soil is trapped in there and it needs turned to ensure plant health. I turn mine over twice a year with the seasonal planting.
The practice of adding cardboard or decaying leaves or compost or even more soil right on top of raised beds full of old plants attracts too many pill bugs and earwigs and other insects that eat decaying material. Also what’s the end game? You cannot keep adding layer upon layer year after year onto a raised bed and still have the garden *inside* the raised bed.
What CAN you do to protect soil health while tilling? After removing unwanted plants and tilling your soil, add compost and vermicompost to improve your soil biology. I also add my own fertilizer mix with humic and fulvic acid and mycorrhizae.
And use cover crops when your garden is not in use. Planting alyssum or mustard to a fallow bed or container will help keep that soil healthy until the next time you’re ready to use it. Remember to keep watering your containers although not as often as if you were growing main crops.
As always, avoid pesticides and synthetic fertilizers too.
I hope this is a conversation not a lecture. There are as many ways to garden as there are gardeners. Please let me know what has worked for you in the comments.
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