No-Till Gardening At Home (or, How to Hack Nature's WiFi Network)
First things first: What is no-till gardening, and why should you use no-till methods in your garden?
No-till gardening is gardening without disturbing the soil. Traditionally, gardeners will 'till,' or turn over the top layer of soil to remove weeds and make it easier to plant and incorporate fertilizers. Sounds great, so what's the catch? Soil is home to bacteria, insects, worms, and fungi, and they all work together to make the soil healthier. Fungi help plants by bringing them nutrients in exchange for carbohydrates, like sugar, that the plants produce. Tilling breaks up this process and decreases soil health. Healthier soils are better at conserving water, meaning less watering for you. Tilling also brings weed seeds that have been buried up to the surface where they are able to germinate, meaning that rather than reducing weeds overall, tilling will probably mean more weeding later on.
Raised planting rows covered with mulch at the Keya Wakpala Garden.
But back to fungi, the real stars of the soil show. What even are they? They're not plants or animals - they actually belong to their own kingdom in the taxonomic classification of all living things. Fungi include microorganisms like yeast and molds. The most commonly known type of fungi are mushrooms - but mushrooms are actually the fruiting body of some types fungi! They release microscopic spores underneath their cap that help the fungi reproduce. While mushrooms may only fruit for a short time, fungi remains alive underneath the soil, oftentimes for many years.
Soil fungi grow in long strands (known as hyphae) comprised of microscopic plant-like cells. They form a mass called mycelium, which trades nutrients with plants via their root systems. Mycelium provide plants with nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous in exchange for carbohydrates (aka sugar) that the plant produces. This relationship is called mycorrhiza: a symbiotic (or mutually beneficial) association between plant roots and fungi. Soil fungi can expand the reach of plant root systems by 700% or more, and improve both soil and plant health. Mycelia (the singular form of mycelium) can connect to multiple plants in close proximity, allowing plants to share resources and information via the underground mycelium network. The mycelium network has been referred to as nature's internet, or compared (in function and appearance) to the neurological pathways of the human brain.
Underground mycorrhizal network (source).
Here's where it gets even better: Plants sequester carbon by creating sugars (carbohydrates), the food that allows them to grow. They share that food with the mycelium network. If soil is left undisturbed (remember, tilling disturbs the soil), the carbon captured by plants will stay sequestered in the ground via plant root systems and mycelia. Up to 20% of the carbon sequestered by plants is passed on to the mycelium network. Other studies have found that between 47% and 70% of all sequestered carbon is passed on to mycorrhizal fungi. Carbon is a greenhouse gas that helps trap heat from the sun, which is essential for life on earth. BUT, when atmospheric levels of carbon (and other greenhouse gases) get too high, too much heat is trapped in the atmosphere, leading to global warming. Sequestering carbon in soil has been identified as one of the top ways to not only combat, but reverse global warming and halt climate change.
So all that is to say: Nature is complicated, soil is too, and if we can let it and all the organisms that call the soil home do their jobs without disruption, not only will your garden flourish (while you do less work!), but you'll be actively helping fight climate change. And you thought you were just planting a garden!
So with the science lesson out of the way, here's what you really came here for: How exactly does one go about planting a garden without tilling?
PREPARING YOUR GARDEN BEDS
First, you'll want to prepare your garden beds. Pick a spot outside that gets at least six hours of sunlight each day. Look for a relatively flat area that is close to a water source with good air circulation and drainage. Then, you'll decide whether to plant in rows or beds, or both. Make your garden beds no more than 4 feet wide and raised planting rows no more than 18 inches wide so you never have to step on them. Walking on garden beds compacts the soil, preventing beneficial soil organisms from doing their work, so create walkways instead!
Preparing rows to plant at the Keya Wakpala Garden, 2019.
Clear the ground of large rocks and debris and cut the weeds or grass short. Lay some cardboard down first, then layer on organic matter like straw, compost, aged manure, and topsoil. You can do this in the spring or the fall - if it's spring, you'll want to add slightly more compost, manure, or topsoil, since the cardboard and straw will have less time to break down. If you don't have space for beds, try growing in containers! Make sure they're deep enough and wide enough for the plant to have space to grow - five gallon buckets work great for tomatoes.
READY TO PLANT
After preparing your garden beds, you'll want to make sure that you don't disturb the soil while you're planting. Different crop varieties can be planted outside at different times, and this will vary depending on the plant hardiness zone where you live (find yours here). For those of you on the Rosebud, our hardiness zone varies from 4a to 5b. You can either direct sow seeds outside, or transplant seedlings; follow the seed packet instructions for either starting seeds indoors or direct sowing outside so you know how deep and how far apart to plant them. When you're ready to plant, poke a hole into the soil. Poking a hole loosens the soil without overturning it, maintaining the soil's natural drainage abilities without bringing up weeds. Once you've planted, remember to mulch! Wood chips, straw, sawdust, grass clippings, hay, and compost are great options. Mulch prevents erosion and smothers weeds. It decomposes over time, returning nutrients to the soil.
Seedlings ready to be transplanted outside at the Keya Wakpala Garden, 2019.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR GARDEN
Tend to your garden at least once a week, making sure to chop down weeds to prevent them from going to seed and spreading. You can compost or drop the weeds where they grow, as they will decompose and return nutrients to the soil over time. Leave the roots of weeds in the soil; they will nourish the soil as they decompose. It may take a few years for weeds to stop coming back, so be patient with your garden! Many weeds are actually edible plants, like dandelions and wild mustard greens!
Produce harvested from the Keya Wakpala Garden, 2019.
Make sure you're watering your garden regularly. Check the soil each morning to see if it needs watering - you can test this by sticking your finger in the soil. If the soil is damp up to 6 inches below the surface, your plants have enough water. And finally, don't forget to take notes! Keep records of your garden to help you learn and improve next year. When did you plant? How did certain plants do? When were crops ready to harvest? How big was your harvest?
PREPARE FOR NEXT YEAR
Plant cover crops like barley, oats, or rye in the fall to cover your beds during the winter. Cover crops are a living mulch; they prevent soil erosion and provide the soil with nutrients. In the spring, mow the cover crops and leave the clippings where they fall. DO NOT remove the roots from the ground - leaving the roots helps prevent erosion. Add compost and other soil amendments, and plant again. Don't forget to rotate your crops so the soil doesn't run low on nutrients to feed your plants!
And that's about it! If you wanted to get technical about the types of soil amendments you add or monitor the composition of your compost, you can do that too - but if you want a relatively easy, no fuss garden, you can stick with the basics we talked about here. And check out our Spring Planting Guide & No-Till Gardening At Home Guide for more tips!
Questions about no-till methods, or do you have any tips to share that we missed? Feel free to let us know in the comments here or on Facebook! And if you have pictures of seedlings you've started or your garden beds, feel free to share those as well! We love hearing from members of our community and can't wait to see what you grow in your gardens this summer.