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

Planning a no-till garden

No-till garden
"I want your professional opinion, because I feel like you are, on how you planned your garden. I know you have no-till with grass in between the spaces. Would you ever put a barrier in so the dirt was raised? Do you like having grass in between, do you own a rototiller? (I like no-till but it seems like years before mulching will turn my clay into workable soil.) Maybe I need to go back through your archives for more help. Do you get rid of rocks?"

--- Kathleen

New raised bed
I don't really think I'm a professional, Kathleen, but I'll answer your question as best I can.  We do own a rototiller, although it hasn't been fired up in years.  Before I knew about no-till gardens, we started garden patches by tilling up the ground and shovelling the topsoil from the aisles onto the beds.  (Now we start new beds by simply laying down a kill mulch, which still raises the soil, but not by as much.)

If you use the tilling method of starting a new raised bed, I recommend against putting anything along the edge to hold the soil in place.  Yes, without sides, a raised bed will turn from a rectangle to a hump over time, but it's a Planting without tillingpain to try to rip out perennial weeds that have gotten their roots under logs or boards between your raised bed and the aisle.  We've gone both edged and edgeless, and I've ended up pulling out all of the edging (except in our sloped blueberry patch, where I figure the mini terraces that result are worth the effort of weeding around logs).

I've compared the pros and cons of grassy and mulched aisles previously.  Each method has a place, but in our situation, grass seems to be less work and money than mulch.  If you have a free source of mulch, though, and live beside a road, you might be better off with wood chips in the aisles.

Rocks are something I can't speak as knowledgeably about because we just don't have any.  I seem to remember that Mark found a rock last year, and he was so excited, he called me over to look.  But my educated guess is that rocks aren't really a problem in a no-till garden.  When tilling and digging, stones mess up your tools, but if you're not doing either, you'd think rocks would simply add micronutrients to the soil and increase drainage.

Basket of produce

The last unanswered part of your question is about whether you can go straight to no-till in problematic soil.  For experimental purposes, I'm glad that parts of our garden Mulched vegetable gardenhave terribly heavy, waterlogged clay soil while other parts have light, loamy soil (although, of course, as a gardener, I wouldn't mind if my garden were entirely the latter).  Since I've worked with both soil types, I can tell you definitively that tilling isn't going to help your clay and might actively harm it, while no-till methods will improve the ground slowly but surely.  What clay really needs is lots of organic matter to fluff it up, and the fastest way to get there is by growing cover crops whenever possible.  I highly recommend oilseed radishes as a fall cover crop (you can plant them right now in most parts of the U.S.) since they can handle awful soil and will show appreciable results in the first year.

I hope that helps get you off on the right foot!  In case you haven't read it, I'll plug Weekend Homesteader: May, which includes a section on garden planning as well as one on kill mulching.  Some of the tips there on bed and path layout might also be handy for you, even though you didn't specifically ask about them.  Good luck!

Our chicken waterer never spills in coops or tractors.

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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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I've learned so much from Anna and Mark about kill mulching and no-till gardens. I successfully turned a circle of my front yard into a lush, productive herb garden (along with a couple volunteer tomatoes and a section of rhubarb) using a kill mulch. I started it late last summer, used it as a compost pile for much of the winter and began digging this spring. Every shovelful of earth had at least half a dozen worms in it! I still lightly till parts of my vegetable garden, but eventually hope all of it will be no-till.
Comment by Debbi Wed Aug 8 07:21:11 2012
Debbi --- Thanks for saying that! I actually included a box about your garden in my book --- too bad I didn't have photos of the way it looks now. :-)
Comment by anna Wed Aug 8 09:08:20 2012
I can certainly identify with the problem of weeds creeping under the narrow boards for raised beds. The next time I build raised beds, I am planning on using cinder blocks as the frame, with a kill mulch like cardboard under the blocks. I will use the block holes for any framing / trellises (mainly the corners) and for herbs & pest-deterring companion flowers.
Comment by Robert Wed Aug 8 11:21:57 2012
Robert --- I laid down a kill mulch under the logs in our blueberry patch this past winter, and I have to admit it didn't do enough. Mark was still out there this summer rooting out perennial weeds underneath the edging. But if you're growing in an area that has been lawn for a while and has fewer ornery weeds, you might get by. I'll be curious to hear what happens!
Comment by anna Wed Aug 8 18:17:11 2012
I envy you two :) My land on the edge of the Crosstimber forest is littered with sandstone of all sizes up to small car boulders.. Luckily over the years my family has removed most from the "yard" although I will occasionally whack one with the riding mower. We also have a heavy clay soil. No till is the only option for me, and I am slowly gaining rich dark topsoil. I started mulching with hay but have switched to free, onsite pine straw due to rising costs and it seems to be doing great: soil temps are lower, retains moisture better and I have virtually no weeds. Reading your blog constantly inspires me to try great new things in my garden.. Some don't always work but when they do man o man it makes a difference!
Comment by Phil Wed Aug 8 19:01:46 2012
Phil --- Glad to hear you chime in! Maybe you can answer the rock question better than I can --- do you think they cause problems in your no-till beds?
Comment by anna Wed Aug 8 20:08:42 2012
Like for example before I spent close to 100 building borders around my beds with 2x6x10, because thats what the other website said for a "lasagna" garden. Although my hubby likes the way my garden looks with them in, and since they are in I'm just going to leave them but your so right when you say that it is harder to pull weeds with the borders.
Comment by Irma Wed Aug 8 21:03:30 2012
They don't give me much trouble. Occasionally I will toss larger ones when I run across them transplanting seedlings, but small ones I just let lay, I figure it is just part of natural soil. The most problematic are those on the surface, but my parents picked the yard clean before I was born. Most unimproved land in Osage Co, Oklahoma has TONS of sandstone laying around, traditional fence corner posts here are 6x4 cylinders fashioned from hog fence filled with rock.
Comment by Phil Wed Aug 8 21:19:14 2012

Irma --- At least you only spend $100. I've known folks who've spend that much on the borders for one fancy raised bed.... And if you live in town and need your vegetable garden to appeal to the neighbors, it might be necessary, weeds and all.

Phil --- Thanks for the followup! (And for the description of stone fence corners, which we won't be trying here, but which I enjoyed reading about. :-) )

Comment by anna Thu Aug 9 08:12:51 2012
I do live in town. But my neighbors yard looks like a hoarder so mine is beautiful no matter what by comparison. lol that is where the phrase "good fences make good neighbors" I can only see his junk from the upstairs window.
Comment by Irma Thu Aug 9 23:09:38 2012

I have been using your cardboard technique with great results on the lawn I killed off (my tomatoes and squash now), compared to the other half of the garden. I have great soil, but I was depleting it over the last few years without building it back up properly. Starting on perfectly built soil the results of this mulch plus the ease of no till are my new gardening method.

I have rabbits and two chickens that add all of the soil nutrients back. They eat my weeds, kitchen and yard waste and add to the compost. My rabbit mulch was inferior to the cardboard mulch. I now let the chickens break it down now for a better compost.

I found this video and am going to try it. I have a yard waste facility near my home and the prices are reasonable for freshly mulched wood chips.

Has anyone tried this? Are the results as great as they look? I'm in Utah so lack of water is the biggest factor in my garden planning. However, it looks like this would work for any climate.



Comment by Dustin Fri Aug 10 01:46:52 2012

Dustin --- I'm glad it's working so well for you!

I didn't watch the whole movie, just the trailer. (I'm not a video watcher --- it's hard enough to get me to watch two minutes when I could be reading five pages. :-) ) So I'm not sure exactly what you're commenting on. However, I'd be a bit leery of using wood chips on the vegetable garden (although they do great in aisles and around trees, especially if partially composted). Most vegetables do better with a lower C:N ratio mulch since that leads to more bacteria than fungi in the soil, and I've found that grass clippings (when the grass isn't going to seed) and straw are their very favorite mulches.

Comment by anna Fri Aug 10 08:30:48 2012

Has anyone tried doing a lasagna/sheet mulch garden and planting directly into it? I learned about this last year and helped my mother build a garden this way. We were both new to it and didn't know what to expect. We laid down newspaper and cardboard, then topped it with aged manure, hay, grass, chopped leaves, then more grass and chopped leaves-- 20-24 inches high (which seems huge but is important if you plan to plant directly into it). By spring it had sank down to about 8 inches and turned into a semi-decomposed mulch. We planted corn seeds, tomato transplants, brussel sprouts, and a bunch of squash/pumpkins and the results were AMAZING. Everything is healthy and happy, and their have been slim to no weeds. Also the weeds that make it through the mulch are much easier to pull than normal. I was surprised as I didn't expect planting directly into the "compost pile" above the kill mulch to work so well. I highly recommend this for starting a new bed- you just add a more mulch on top each fall (maybe about half as much). By the time the kill mulch is broken down fully (a couple years I'd bet) you have tons of organic matter and beautiful soil built up. I suppose that direct seeding wouldn't work for everything without a layer of compost on top, but it seems to work really well for your nutrient loving plants, and the mulch seems to deal with drought well.

Of course this method requires a lot of mulch materials at first, but it's worth it, particularly if you live near a city with a nice waste stream of leaves and grass.

Comment by Mike Fri Aug 10 19:14:30 2012
Mike --- That's how I start new garden areas now. Depending on how much compost you put on top, you don't really have to wait at all (or at most a month in our wet climate), although certain crops take to the system better than others. Our tomatoes this year really loved their new lasagna beds, started just a couple of months before planting.
Comment by anna Sat Aug 11 08:01:48 2012

Thanks for responding Anna-- Hypothetically, what if someone were starting a new garden and wanting to grow crops that wouldn't work very well planted into a sheet mulch? Would you dig in organic matter and have a standard dig garden for the first year? Or would you cover with cardboard and compost for a couple weeks until planting time and then remove it? I guess i'm confused as to when I should cover crop-- if it were fall, maybe i would lay down a kill mulch, plant some cover crops, then allow them to decompose and aid the soil over winter? It always seems like a garden spot opens up in the spring, and I'm trying to grow things in shoddy soil by digging in a little compost because I feel like I've started too late to go no-till.

I've been learning tons from your posts, so thanks a bunch.

Comment by Mike Sat Aug 11 09:27:54 2012

Mike --- Here in zone 6, now is actually a perfect time to plant cover crops. Oilseed radishes and oats are my favorites because they naturally die over the winter, although if you live further south, they might not.

If you've got ground that doesn't have any bad perennial weeds --- just grasses, clovers, and run of the mill vegetable garden weeds like chickweed, sourgrass, etc --- you can lay down a simple kill mulch (cardboard and straw), then rake that back and plant your cover crops directly onto the bare soil in one month. (It won't be too late to plant the cover crops I mentioned in one month, but only if you go out and do your kill mulch this weekend. If you wait longer, you'll want to plant a cover crop like barley or rye, but will then have to commit to cutting it back and adding another kill mulch on top to really kill the cover crop in early spring.)

You can do the same thing for planting vegetable seeds that aren't keen on going into a kill mulch, but I'd let the kill mulch sit for a bit longer than a month before growing vegetables. You could lay down a kill mulch now, then rake it back and plant onto the bare soil in the spring with no problem, unless you're trying to rehabilitate a problem area full of blackberries, Japanese honeysuckle, etc. Just be sure to add a topdressing of compost in the spring!

I hope that helps clarify a bit! I know what you mean about it being tough to wrapping your head around converting to no-till and cover crops.

Comment by anna Sat Aug 11 09:59:38 2012

As a no dig gardener myself I am a bit sniffy (english term) about raised beds but I do see a need for them on some sites, e.g. those that might have drainage problems. I do not really like grass paths, potentially their roots will compete for water in the beds. I sometimes think on certain english allotments the best soil is the grass path! (But thats the harm they do by digging the plot) My own philosophy is to have no permanent paths at all. One of the advantages of no dig is you can walk on the soil without harming it- so why not have the flexibility of temporary access

Comment by Roger Brook Thu Oct 25 11:22:17 2012

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