To Till, or Not to Till

by Jim Winkle

It's Spring in Wisconsin (hurray!), and several people at Quann Community Garden have asked me if we'll have a rototiller available this year. (Last year our two rototillers were stolen. Little did they know both were broken... I wonder how much luck they had using/selling them. :)

We won't have a rototiller available, and as a way of explaining this, I'll ask a bigger question: Is it a good idea to till? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is generally no. Many of us have learned that we should till our garden plots every year (maybe mixing in compost), but new information has many people re-thinking that advice, and opting not to till their plots.

Let's think about why people want to till their plots:

  • To kill all of the weeds.

  • To loosen the soil, so baby roots can penetrate the soil easily.

Kill the Weeds

If you till your soil, you will kill some weeds... but not all. Some roots are very resiliant, notably things like quack grass, and will simply be mixed around in the soil, only to emerge as weeds again in a few weeks. Murphy's Law correctly predicts that they'll come up amongst your tender new seedlings, and it will be difficult to remove the weeds without harming your seedlings.

It's better to actually dig weeds out and make sure you get all of the roots. This is rewarding work, and you'll find it goes faster than you think (guaranteed by me, or double your weeds back!).

The best time to start weeding is actually in late Fall, so you get a jump on next season's weeds. OK, so you're too late for that this year, but the sooner you get to weeding in the Spring, the easier it will be.

Loosen the Soil

Yes, loose soil is a good thing. But ironically, when you use a rototiller, you kill nature's way of loosening soil: worms. Worms in the soil are your friends, and the sight of many worms as you work in your plot is an indicator that you have good soil. Worms also deposit their castings, which your plant roots LOVE. Worms will be destroyed en masse with those tiller blades rotating through their homes.

A great way to have loose soil is to use raised beds, and never, ever walk in those beds. And you don't necessarily need raised beds with boards on the sides... just build the soil up higher than the paths. Consider gardening in squares or rectangles, instead of in rows. Just make sure you can reach into the center of the area without walking in it.

Realize that most plant roots don't go very deep... loosening up the top few inches of the soil by hand is generally sufficient, though you may want to go deeper for deep/large-rooted things like carrots and parsnips. We're looking at purchasing a broadfork for Quann, though they're rather expensive.

Another Benefit

There are different microorganisms that live at different levels in the soil. Rototillers mix the soil up rather deeply, and so you lose the beneficial effects of these microorganisms. This is fairly new information in the world of soil science; I can't tell you anything more than this, but if you Google rototill soil microorganisms, you'll come up with a few hits about it (and you'll also come up with a few hits with websites selling rototillers). Can anyone reading this provide me with a link to some concise information?