ECHO Gardening Hints Series No‐Till Gardening By Martin Price, Ph.D. Copyright by ECHO, Inc. 2009
ECHO’s First No-Till Garden. I first read of this simple no-till gardening methodin Organic Gardening magazine in 1981. The article was called "Tossing an InstantGarden." My reaction was that there must be something wrong with anything so easyor everyone would be using it.ECHO’s first intern, Elise Tripp, and I decided togive this method a try when we prepared one ofthe first ECHO gardens. We chose an area ofhealthy lawn. By the end of the day .it was avegetable garden. It was never plowed, culti-vated, spaded or hoed. It was a great success andwas in continuous production for several years,until ECHO needed that spot for another project. The basic concept is simple. Keep the entire gar- den covered year-found with a thick layer of mulch. Initial preparation of your garden will involve some special steps that will not be neces- sary in subsequent seasons, unless you fall behind and weeds take over. An avid gardener in New England, Ruth Stout, first popularized this No-Till method in her book No Work Gardening, published by Rodale Press.Every spring she had to delay her garden until her husband, a farmer, found time toleave the fields long enough to get the garden plowed. One year, early in the spring,while getting the garden ready for plowing, she moved a small stack of hay that hadbeen there for several months. Where the hay had been the ground was bare--therewas no need to plow. From that time on, her garden had at least a 6-inch layer ofmulch year-round. At the appropriate seasons she simply removed the mulch whereplants were to be located and planted. She no longer had to wait to have it plowed.As the mulch slowly decayed, it turned into compost. The garden became more fertile each year without the work of mak-ing a compost pile. And weeding took less effort.No-Till gardening is even more relevant to urban and suburban gardeners today.There is no need to buy or rent a rototiller or do a lot of digging to prepare theground. Some communities will no longer haul yard waste to the landfill, yet even amodest garden can accommodate all the grass clippings from your own yard andprobably your neighbors yard as well.The First Season. Initial preparation of a garden at a new site will involve somesteps that will not be necessary in subsequent seasons, unless you fall behind andweeds take over.
Begin by collecting a pile of newspapers well in advance of the day you will make the garden. If the area is in lawn or weeds, mow closely with a lawn mower. Cover the area with three to five sheets of newspapers placed so that there is considerable overlap at the edges. Then place the mulch on top of the layer of newspaper.Work in small areas at a time because younever know when a sudden gust of windcan disrupt the layer of newspapers. Besure to choose a day without much windso that the newspapers will stay in place.For mulch, we use either wood chips thatare given to us by the power company or alandscaping company, or grass clippings.You could experiment with other materials that may be available to you such ashay, straw, tall-cut grass, leaves, pine needles (we had expected problems frompine needle acidity, but they never materialized), and others. The grass and weeds below the news- papers will have difficulty pushing their way up through the layers of newspapers and the thick layer of mulch. How Thick Should The Mulch Be? You will observe that the farther a weed must grow through the mulch before it reaches light, the weaker it will be and hence easier to pull. If youmake the mulch too shallow you will have a lot more work to do hand-pulling theweeds.There is no hard-and-fast rule for howthick the mulch should be. Some materialswill need to be placed deeper than others.In general, light, fluffy materials like strawor new grass clippings must be piled higherthan dense materials like wood chips. As astarting point, use six inches of fluffy grassclippings or straw or old leaves or perhapsthree inches of (denser) wood chips. Asyou can imagine, if you have to purchasewood chips by the bag the garden couldbecome expensive. See what you can find that is either recycled or inexpensive.
The weeds or grass underneath the newspaper will still be very much alive fora few weeks. Then many, hopefully most, will die from the lack of sunlightand will eventually turn into compost. Other plants will likely manage to pushtheir way through the layers of newspapers. Some of those that do will notmanage to push through the mulch. You will need to hand-pull weeds that doemerge on top of the mulch. I have found that they are easier to pull than onemight expect because they are long and tender and you may be able to pullthem from the ground, If they break off near the ground they may not haveenough energy to make it through the mulch a second time. Pull the mulch away from the spots where you want your vegetables or flowers, exposing the newspa- per. Place a small mound of fertile soil or a com- mercial potting mix on top of the newspaper and place the seed or transplant in the mound. If you want to plant a row of closely-spaced vegetables, make a narrow row of soil or potting mix at least 1 inch thick on top of the newspaper. Now move some of the mulch back against the mound or ridge. Also, put a very thin layer of mulch on top of the planting soil so that it will prevent drying. There is a big difference between the ability of the above-ground part of a plant to grow up through the layers of newspapers and the ability of the roots topenetrate down trough them. The plants roots will soon grow out of theplanting dirt and grow through the wet (you will of course need to water thegarden if it does not rain) newspaper. Larger transplants do surprisingly wellwhen simply planted into the sod through a hole cut in the paper. Pull themulch back up around the stem as much as possible.Subsequent Seasons The newspaper procedure is for the first season only.Before the first season is over, you will find that the newspaper and the sodhave decayed and turned into compost. Additional compost is slowly formedseason by season as the mulch itself decays and is replaced.If you keep a layer of mulchabout six inches thick over theestablished garden, the soilbeneath will be ready to plantwhenever you wish. To plant arow of beans, for example, justpush the mulch aside to exposethe ground where you want toplant the seeds. Underneathyou will find beautiful organic
matter waiting for your seeds.We use the word No-Till because it is analogous to the commercial system offarming where herbicides are used just before planting, then seeds are planteddirectly into unplowed sod. However, this No-Till gardening is a more organicmethod, using no herbicides.Advantages and some disadvantages of the No-Till System(l) Gardens can be started anywhere that there is suitable soil, without theneed to plow or spade. You can plant in areas that would be difficult to plow,such as around dead trees or in rocky soil. Grasses and other weeds are bettercontrolled than if the ground had been cultivated like traditional gardens.(2) There is much, much less work involved controlling weeds. But a No-Tillgarden is NOT a no-work garden! Weeds will occasionally come up throughthe mulch and can then quickly become established. Remember that plants,including weeds that germinate in the mulch, can easily send roots down intothe ground. If you allow that weed to go to seed, you will soon have many,many more weeds just like it to deal with. If you do not spend some timeweeding, you may soon have a patch of weeds that thrive on the nutrients theirroots are finding. It is harder to pull weeds than to hoe them. So this is only awork saver if you are determined to pull the occasional weed as soon as yousee it. Sometimes I have had to start from scratch with newspaper and newmulch because I did not keep up with the weeding.(3) You spend a lot of time gathering and placing the mulch periodicallyaround the plants. As the mulch decomposes you will need to keep replacingit. This method could accurately be called a “no-till, permanent mulch” gar-den.(3) Less water is needed for irrigation and rainwater will not evaporate asquickly. The soil will remain moist much longer because the mulch protects itfrom the drying effects of both sun and wind.(4) The soil is kept cooler. This can be a disadvantage, however, for colderareas or early spring gardens in temperate areas. Plan ahead, especially earlyin the season when low soil temperatures are most likely to be a problem.Rake back the mulch in the area selected for early plantings to allow the sun tostrike the soil directly. The soil under the mulch, in an established No-Tillgarden, should be dark in color and warm up in several days.(5) Soil moisture and temperature are more uniform, an advantage for mostplants.(6) Nematodes, a serious problem in southern Florida, will be kept under some
degree of control, but probably not be eliminated. The soil conditions foundunder the mulch layer are much less suited to nematode growth than, forexample, the hot, dry sand found in our area. Furthermore, some fungi foundin the decaying organic matter will kill nematodes. Using normal gardeningtechniques, it is almost impossible to grow nematode-susceptible vegetablesin the same plot for more than one season in South Florida without either alot of mulch and actively decaying organic matter or the heavy use of chemi-cals to control them.(7) Most weeds can be left in the sun to dry and then buried in small piles inthe mulch. You might still need for a small compost pile to dispose of thick-stemmed or diseased plants or weeds. If you would like to use a somewhatmore traditional compost pile but plant in it the day you make the pile, seeECHO’s Gardening Hint booklet, "Hill Culture".(8) When the mulch decays, it is automatically compost and is already inplace! This is sometimes called “sheet composting. Earthworms will soonhelp carry organic matter down into the soil.(9) Yard waste can immediately be put to use in the garden. Grass clippingsand leaves make great mulch. For some of you, the local landfill will notaccept yard waste.(10) Soil erosion on sloping land should be less of a problem.(11) Although it is hard to imagine this being a problem in normal gardeninguse, it should be mentioned that a very thick, dense layer of mulch can pre-vent air from entering the soil. We asked a company that mowed for condo-miniums to dump their grass clippings at ECHO. The site we selected wasnear the base of three pine trees. Soon grass piles were 4 feet high and sev-eral feet wide. Within a few months the trees were dead.Some Additional ConsiderationsIf you wish to use completely organic methods, remember that you have amulched garden but not a composted one until at least one season has passedand the mulch has had time to decay. We periodically add a fertilizer withcomplete micronutrients to our garden. Either fertilizer or manure is neces-sary in our sandy soil and high rainfall, at least the first year or so until asignificant organic layer is in place under the mulch.At ECHO we have not had problems with acidity in spite of all the woodchips or even pine needles that we use. If this becomes a problem, youwould need to use lime.We have had no unusual problems with insects or other pests. There is al-ways the possibility that in your area there will be some pest that will find
the mulch an ideal home and may give you problems.People often ask if inks on the newspaper will add toxic heavy metals. Wehave researched this. From what we have read, it seems that U.S. printersno longer use inks which contain these metals. Since such a small amountof newspapers are used per square foot, and that only once, we considernewspaper ink to be perfectly harmless.Will nitrogen deficiency be a problem? At first thought you might think sobecause of all the un-decomposed organic matter you are adding. As youmay know, incorporating into the soil fresh organic matter with a lot ofcarbon and little nitrogen can actually harm plant growth the first season.The reason is that microorganisms use up all available nitrogen in the proc-ess of decaying the fresh material. This nitrogen will become availableagain later when the microorganisms die, but it presents a short-term prob-lem. The No-Till garden does not have this problem because the mulch isnot incorporated into the soil. All of the decay is taking place above-ground. Microorganisms growing in the mulch are unlikely to be able toremove nitrogen from the soil below, where the roots of the plants aregrowing. Once the mulch is decomposed it is incorporated slowly into thesoil by leaching or by mechanical mixing during the planting process andby earthworms and contributes to the soil fertility.Conclusion I believe that the No-Till, permanent mulch gardening methodmay give you better gardens with less work. Some ECHO visitors whocould no longer garden because their health prevents the heavy work ofsoil preparation are now gardening with the No-Till method. But as withnearly everything that we suggest, it is presented as an idea with which youcan experiment under your conditions. Only you can evaluate its potentialfor your area.We are always interested to learn of your successes or problems with ideasyou get from ECHO. So let us hear from you. We probably will not havetime to send a personal response, but you can be sure we will eagerly readyour comments and add your experience to our own body of knowledge.Maybe you can even send us a picture of your No-Till garden.