Garden tilling, also called cultivating, is often done with a gas-powered rototiller that goes down perhaps 6 or so inches, but soil can be “tilled” with a tool such as a pitch fork, too.
As you know, tilling a garden is when you turn the soil over so that some of the lower soil comes up and some of the upper soil goes down. It’s kind of like a food processor for your soil, just not as fast.
You may think it is more necessary in organic gardening because we don’t use pesticides like the no-till farmers, but that isn’t the case.
Garden tilling is an often-recommended practice, but this article tells you why you should stop the practice right now.
Reasons For Garden Tilling
The main reasons organic gardeners may till the soil are to:
* Reduce weeds
* Relieve compaction
* Make the soil look fluffy and nice
* Allow more air and water into the soil
* Loosen and warm up the soil in spring for planting/seeding
* Cause organic matter to break down faster and give more nutrients
Does Tilling A Garden Accomplish The Above Goals?
In the short term the above organic gardening goals are often satisfied, but right from the start, garden tilling can cause more problems than benefits. If there are plants in or near the garden, their vital surface roots are damaged, giving easy access for root-feeding organisms and decreasing water and nutrient uptake.
But the main disadvantage is the effect on beneficial microorganisms and earthworms, both of which are absolutely essential to the health of your soil.
Garden Tilling Problems
Upon tilling a garden, the microbes that need oxygen are buried, killing many of them. The microbes that can’t live with too much oxygen are brought to the surface, killing many of them.
Garden tilling causes the miles and miles of beneficial fungi to be sliced into pieces. Those fungi provided important nutrients to the plants, so that is no longer happening. Earthworms are also killed and their tunnels destroyed.
All of these critters had taken a long time to find the perfect spot for them in the soil. They worked day and night to build themselves little homes and cities. It takes years for this to happen and garden tilling destroys that all very quickly.
Does Garden Tilling Help In The Long Term?
Tilling your organic garden when it is wet causes long term structural damage to the soil, but even when the soil is dry, there are several serious long term consequences.
While annual weeds will have been killed, many perennial weeds have been cut into pieces that all come back as new weeds. While your vegetable seeds now have perfect conditions in which to germinate, so do all of the weed seeds that were lying dormant lower down in the soil.
While the initial influx of air and water broke down the organic matter more quickly, and released nutrients to allow microbes and plants to flourish for a short time, that organic matter is oxidized (basically burned) faster than it is replenished. Annual garden tilling causes a gradual decrease in organic matter in the soil.
This loss of organic matter decreases soil fertility, nutrient-holding capacity, water-holding capacity and hurts soil structure. If the soil is left bare, it can crust over so that water runs off and causes erosion instead of infiltrating.
The damage of larger plant roots can result in permanent and severe damage of the canopy (especially in trees).