The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Converting a garden to no-till

No till garden in June

Garden peasMark's step-mom, Jayne, decided to convert her garden to no-till.  Previously, she had used her mulching mower to shred tree leaves and grass clippings from her lawn, then applied the organic matter to the vegetable garden as a generous coating of mulch.  However, she also tilled the soil every spring and fall.

Row cover

In fall 2010, Jayne stopped tilling, but kept adding mulch.  Come spring, she simply pulled the mulch back from directly over top of her seeds (or seedlings), then scooped the mulch back into place around the plants once they were up and running.  Despite using the same amount of mulch as in previous years, Jayne reported that this year's garden had far fewer weeds than earlier gardens had.

Winter salad greensIn addition to deleting weeds, Jayne's heavy mulching campaign seems to have created a warmer microclimate that has allowed her garden plants to thrive deep into the winter.  She lives in zone 5, at the edge of a huge cornfield which lets the Midwestern wind whip through her garden --- this is a much colder spot than my zone 6, windless garden.  And yet, Jayne had unprotected arugula and other salad greens thriving on December 8.  (In contrast, the salad greens I didn't place under quick hoops are already two thirds dead.)
Cabbage under row cover
Under her row cover fabric, Jayne's broccoli and cabbage were thriving.  We looked under the covers when outside temperatures were in the low 20s, and there did seem to be some frost on the stems of the broccoli, but the heads looked fine.  Could the heavy organic matter be helping these broccoli hang on?

Are you inspired to change over to no-till next year?  A good place to start is with my Weedless Gardening lunchtime series.

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to go out of town without worrying about the flock.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Yes, I intend to try changing out our garden from a traditional style to the no till as you've outlined in your e-book series. My garden was plowed under at the end of our growing season so it will need to be tilled one last time just so we can do something with it.
Comment by Heath Tue Dec 13 12:06:06 2011
I don't think you should need to till it again --- just lay down a kill mulch and plant into it....
Comment by anna Tue Dec 13 19:13:34 2011

It was plowed with a big plow and it would be difficult to even walk across. I don't think we could even get a walk behind tiller to go through it, we will be using a tiller attachment behind a tractor to level it out so we can walk across it.

Should I plant grass in my walk ways or just mow the weeds when they eventually come up?

Comment by Heath Tue Dec 13 19:22:19 2011

This reminds me of the documentary film "Back to Eden" which came out August 2011. The basic concept is similar -- heavy mulch and no till.

You can view the film online at

I'm trying it out with a thick mulch of wood chips on one garden this year.

Comment by Darryl A. Pifer Wed Dec 14 08:04:52 2011

Heath --- I'd just mow what comes up. I suspect that garden aisles are a lot like pastures --- no matter what you plant, the things that will actually survive are the ones that can handle your soil type and mowing regimen.

Darryl --- I'm not sure I'd recommend a thick mulch of wood chips. Unles they're so composted you can't see many individual hunks of wood, that's going to be too high in nitrogen for your garden. Autumn leaves or straw are a better fit for vegetable garden mulches.

Comment by anna Wed Dec 14 08:46:39 2011

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