To Till or Not To Till?

As Spring is quickly approaching, many gardeners may be thinking about how they will begin prepping, including the arduous task of tilling their soil once it warms up. Although this has been such a regular practice for many (including my family growing up), I would love to propose an idea that may be quite challenging: 

Tilling is most often an unnecessary practice that is actually damaging to your garden!

Yes – you heard that right, and here is why:

In the healthy and sustainable landscapes we see in nature, there is no tilling that happens in any way, yet rich vegetation thrives. This is because good soil structure happens not by mixing, but by adding. Leaves, twigs, various plant matter and manure fall to the ground, added slowly in layers. From the top down, microorganisms and earthworms break these materials down into beautiful soil. 

The top layer of this natural mulch also protects the delicate balance of microbes, and the soil itself, from the harsh elements of the sun and moving air. 

The combination of gravity, trickling water (from precipitation), microbial action, and of course, time, creates a soil structure that is unmatched, no matter how hard one works to till and mix in their amendments.

Like a tall apartment building full of happy residents, diverse microbes thrive in different layers of soil. Imagine a devastating event that shakes up the building so powerfully that the residents find themselves on different levels and apartments that are not their own. This is akin to what happens when we till. We disrupt the natural process of microbial life and developing soil structure. This is why, after tilling, the soil will seem soft and fluffy at first, but often it is only a short time later in which it is found dry and compact again. 

Now, there are exceptions on when tilling might actually make good sense, such as quickly clearing an area to soften and transform it into a garden for a good start. But otherwise (and thereafter) you can ditch the tiller and never have to again. I stopped tilling and began practicing deep mulching techniques 10 years ago, and I can confidently say that I will never till again. The results? My garden is so much healthier from the soil up! Over 50% less watering, less weeding, and incredibly larger, more lush and vibrant plants. 

It would be difficult to underestimate the importance of mulching, and perhaps we will discuss the topic here shortly, but for now, remember that in today’s agriculture we’ve been trained to work hard to fail! Let’s begin shifting our paradigm to the regenerative permaculture way: work less, and succeed!

Evan Doukas is a Wheat Ridge resident, pastor and certified permaculture designer. You can find more of his passion for gardening, farm-to-table culture, and holistic healing of people and the land on his YouTube channel, Evermore: Eden Restored.

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