Stop Tilling Your Vegetable Garden!

Stop Tilling Your Vegetable Garden!
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Permanent beds and paths in the author’s garden.

Guest Rant by Megan Cain

I get why you till. There’s something in all of us gardeners that leaps with joy when we see a freshly tilled bed. That rich, dark, blank canvas beckons us to come on over and work our vegetable magic. We imagine ourselves gently planting a seedling in the fluffy soil with no straining or digging necessary.

But, garden fantasies aside, tilling the garden every year is a terrible idea in practice. Let’s put aside the fact that you’re destroying the soil structure, creating a hard pan and bringing weed seeds up to the surface. Just as important – you are creating a lot more work for yourself. The act of tilling might bring some satisfaction, but it’s what comes afterwards that makes your gardening life a little more work and a little less fun.

Inevitably, the night you till there will be a torrential downpour that completely erodes and compacts your freshly tilled garden. It will look like a war zone of flattened, soil splattered plants with a depressing system of rivulets running everywhere.

Gardeners who till tend to favor a flat style of gardening. They don’t lay out their beds and paths. They just plant in random rows and walk all over the garden all season. This means the soil around the plants is being compacted. The result is less soil drainage and less room for the roots to grow.

Tilled gardens usually have a lot of exposed soil. Bare soil = weeds no matter which way you look at it. Without mulch you are going to be spending a lot of summer Saturday afternoons weeding the garden. And that’s a complete waste of time.

The solution to these problems is to stop tilling right now. This spring, establish permanent beds and paths in your garden. The beds can be reinforced like a traditional raised bed, or lined with logs and rocks, or even just mounded soil beds. Creating beds allows you to focus all your energy on the part of the garden that really matters – the area where you are growing food. Who cares about the aisles? All you need to do is keep them mulched so they don’t grow weeds. (I like woodchips.)

And then at this time of year every season, all you’ll need to do when you are ready to plant is go out and gently move some mulch aside and dig a hole for your seedling. No wrestling with machinery, no cursing a big rain storm, and a lot more beer drinking instead of weeding on Saturday afternoons.

Megan Cain helps people create gardens that feed their bodies and souls through her business The Creative Vegetable Gardener in Wisconsin.

Posted by

Megan Cain

on April 10, 2014 at 7:30 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Guest Rants, Real Gardens.


    • Cindy
    • 30th September 2016

    Your garden is lovely. I have never tilled. I’ve always had permenant beds. I don’t have to find a place to store a tiller, or spend time renting one and hauling it back and forth.

    • Megan Cain - The Creative Vegetable Gardener
    • 7th October 2016

    Cindy – I am glad to hear that established beds and paths work well for you. It is nice not to have to deal with machinery at all!

    • Brad
    • 26th October 2016

    I volunteer in a school garden that never tills and uses LOTS of mulch. (free from local tree trimmers). We’ve had great results with very few weeds and robust vegetables. I’m totally sold on this method. We get to enjoy the fun part of gardening without most of the toil.

    • Megan Cain - The Creative Vegetable Gardener
    • 14th November 2016

    Brad – I agree! Gardening is a lot of (joyful) work, so why do any extra?

    • gemma
    • 14th November 2016

    I’ve never tilled, either, and I don’t understand people who till good soil. I scaled back at one community garden one year, and the next year, I was appalled to see the person who had taken over part of my old garden space had hired someone to till it — awful noise, stench from fossil fuels, and all.

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