Yes – it is true – in spite of popular belief – you can have a great garden without ever using or owning a rototiller!  In fact – your garden in the long run will most likely be better off without one.

Our no-till raised row garden
Our no-till raised row garden

It is sort of a running joke among my family and friends about my lack of love for the rototiller (although, as you will see later in the article – they do have their place).  In fact, ever since I wrote my first article on the subject last year: Why Not To Use A Rototiller In Your Garden – the subject always seems to come up!  But the simple truth is that we do not use a rototiller to create or put our garden in – and have always been able to have bountiful harvests while creating great soil naturally.  See: How To Garden With Raised Row – No-Till Beds.  So I thought for today’s article – I would discuss why you can have a successful garden without ever dropping the first tine of a rototiller into your garden.

Planting the Garden:

Why till the entire garden area when you only plant about 20% of it? Concentrate on you planting rows!
Why till the entire garden area when you only plant about 20% of it? Concentrate on you planting rows!

Whenever I see a large bare-soil plot of tilled garden space – all I can think of is how much work went into tilling that entire area – and how weedy that area will most likely become in the coming weeks.  To this day – I have never understood the practice of tilling everything up.  Why not use your time wisely and at least only till the area you will be planting in?

I’ll use our garden as an example of the time savings.  Our actual garden plot size is 60 x 40’.  Which for most would be a mid to larger size garden – however – our plants and root zone spaces take up less that 20% of that space – with the rest being for walking rows between plants and a wide harvest row down the middle and sides.  If we were to till our entire garden a few times to get smooth soil, even with a large tiller – it would take all day – and then we still have to carve our rows and spacing, etc.  It would be a long, exhausting all-day event – if not two-day event.  With our current garden – we can flip the 18″ planting rows and have it planted in a fraction of that time.

Another benefit of using only your growing space - you can concentrate your efforts easily. Here - we only grow our cover crop of annual rye in the growing rows - saving us time and resources.
Another benefit of using only your growing space – you can concentrate your efforts easily. Here – we only grow our cover crop of annual rye in the growing rows – saving us time and resources.

So why in the world would I want to spend all of my time and resources tilling up the entire space? Instead we concentrate all of our efforts on just our planting rows. It is a huge savings in time and resources – and fertility!

In addition – when it comes to growing cover crops or applying compost – we can apply and grow those life-giving crops and compost to just the planting area where it is needed most!

Working Between the Rows:

Once the garden is planted – most of a gardeners work is spent keeping weeds out of the space between their plants.   For a conventionally tilled garden – this means running the tiller once every week or two (even more for some) between all of the rows to keep weeds at bay.

It would take hours upon hours to till our entire garden
It would take hours upon hours to till our entire garden – so we concentrate our efforts in just the planting rows and mulch the rest.

Not only is this time-consuming (it would take hours to till between the rows of our garden) – it also can be expensive (gas) – and also create more weeds than you had before. How?  Easy – all of those weed seeds that have blown into your garden and are laying on the surface now are tilled under and allowed the chance to germinate – starting the vicious cycle of tilling all over again – leading to more weeds.

A few other points – it also leads to compacting the soil as you walk behind your tiller smashing down the ground you just tilled – and over–tilling can allow your soil to lose all of its structure over time – structure that is important in helping to give nutrients to your plants.

Raised Row Beds that have not been walked on help roots to grow big and strong. Here are the roots of one of our Cajun Belle plants pulled up before the first frost.
Raised Row Beds that have not been walked on help roots to grow big and strong. Here are the roots of one of our Cajun Belle plants pulled up before the first frost.

So instead of tilling our walking rows – we simply mulch them with a heavy application of leaves, straw or even woodchips – and keep weeds out. (See: Mulching In The Garden)  It also keeps our feet and heavy soles off of the planting zone areas of our plants – allowing them to expand and grow.

If our walking rows start to get a few weeds – it takes about 5 minutes to walk the rows with a weed eater – chop them down, and apply a little more mulch.  The garden stays beautiful in no time at all – and weeds are kept to a minimum by not disturbing the soil.

Soil Structure:

One last point on tillers – when used too much – the soil can begin to become too fine and lose all of its structure – leading to the need for more watering –and a loss of topsoil through wind and rain erosion.

Rototillers Have Their Place

Rototillers are very good at turning compost piles and mixing and chopping the ingredients.
Rototillers are very good at turning compost piles and mixing and chopping the ingredients.

So on to a little bit of good news for fans of the rototiller – there are some great uses.

They are great for smoothing out soil for yards, and can be good to run through compost piles to incorporate and chop the materials.  And yes, when creating your garden for the first time from a large grassy area – they can do a fine job of creating an initial space for your plants – although if I had to create one this way – I would still only till my working rows – and mulch down the walking rows to cut down on the work.

The Experiment:

So this past spring – we actually took a few of our rows as an experiment and tilled them instead of flipping them over by hand.  I only tilled just the 18” of the planting row, or about the swath of the tiller (with a borrowed rototiller of course 🙂  ).

We actually did it for two reasons:  1) we wanted to see the difference in the soil structure to our hand flipped rows – and (2)  We wanted to see if it would work for when we got a little older and maybe could not turn all of the rows by hand

I will tell you this – the soil structure in our hand flipped rows compared to the tilled rows remains better and has less weeds to this point – hands down!

Now – there may come a point in our life where we cannot flip the soil by hand – and maybe we will need the use of the rototiller in just our rows – but I can tell you I will flip as long as I can to avoid it!

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Happy Gardening!

Jim and Mary

Old World Garden Farms

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