As crazy as it sounds, if you want a garden with less maintenance, less weeds and better yields – stop using a rototiller!

no rototiller gardening
Tilling, especially over-tilling can all but destroy important soil structure!

Our garden is now going on its 8th year without a rototiller. And I can tell you with 100 percent assurance that every single year our soil gets better, gardening becomes easier, and our harvest grows.

As for those pesky weeds, they have all but been eliminated through the simple process of using mulch and cover crops in place of tilling up the soil.

So, do rototillers have a place? I suppose they do if you are creating your very first garden from an overgrown area. Or perhaps, using it to loosen soil for planting grass in a yard.

But beyond that – they really are a detriment to the health of a garden. And here are 2 big reasons why:

2 Big Reasons Not To Use A Rototiller In The Garden

#1  The Amazing Weed-Planting Ability Of A Rototiller

If you are tired of weeding your garden year after year, and the problem only seems to get worse, then perhaps that rototiller might just be the problem.

Tilling causes more weed issues than it ever helps to eliminate. Every time the soil is tilled, thousands of weed seeds laying on the surface of the soil are replanted. And the vicious cycle of tilling and re-tilling to eliminate the next batch begins.

The Experiment

rototiller
Tilling a garden simply leads to more and more weeds in the long run

We did an experiment last year in order to take a few photos for our Raised Row Garden book. We planted two 6′ rows with three tomato plants in each.  Then we mulched one row heavily, and with the other, tilled around plants every few weeks with no mulch. We never touched them beyond that.

The difference was astounding! The tilled rows had more and more baby weeds every few week as the growing season progressed. In fact, it looked like a carpet of grass around the tomato plants by the end of the growing season.

The heavy mulch rows had some weeds, but they were but a fraction of the tilled rows. And, even after 12 weeks, we were able to finally pull the weeds in those rows in about 10 minutes. They came up easily through the mulched soil. In addition, the tilled rows dried out much faster, and required watering to keep alive during a dry spell. The un-tilled mulched rows required no additional watering. And the yields per plant were nearly 2 to 1 in favor of the mulched row.  See ; How To Eliminate Weeds From Your Garden

#2 Tilling Destroys Soil Structure

In addition to the weeding issues, tilling also plays a part in the demise of soil structure. Healthy plants need healthy soil. And believe it or not, tilling, especially over-tilling, all but destroys great soil. Many think that loose, tiny, fragmented soil left behind after 15 passes with a rototiller is a good thing. In reality, it is quite simply not!

As the tines of a rototiller plow through the soil, the natural state of the soil’s structure is compromised. Undisturbed soil is alive and filled with organic matter. It is loaded with bacteria, nutrients, and millions of microorganisms that are working hard to give life to the soil. In addition, worms and other ground dwellers have created channels as they chew through the soil. Those channels help to bring oxygen and water into the ground below, making it easy for plants to find the nutrients they need to thrive. Left alone, it is full of life.

But as soon as the tines are driven through the soil, that natural harmony is disrupted. Making matters worse, that loose soil left behind compacts easily. As that soil compresses, those channels and air pockets are blocked off. That in turn makes it hard for the roots of your vegetable plants to get the nutrients they need. The result, an under-performing garden.

So How Do I Plant and Maintain A No-Rototiller Garden?

Vegetable gardening really doesn’t have to be difficult. With our raised row garden, we only work the soil we plant in. It allows us to concentrate adding organic matter and cover crops to only that small portion. For the majority of the garden area we walk in, or as we obviously call it, the “walking rows”, we simply use a heavy mulch. It can be whatever is readily and inexpensively available. For us, that happens to be hardwood bark chips.

no rototiller
Our no -rototiller, Raised Row Garden at the height of summer last year.

For our growing rows, we grow a cover crop each fall of annual grass to rejuvenate and protect the soil from weed seeds blowing in. Then, in the spring, as it dies off, we plant right through it. We don’t til the soil or turn it over anymore, we just use a simple post hole digger to make a small hole, plant and mulch. That’s it!

In season, we keep weeds out of growing rows with a layer of organic material such as straw, compost, grass clippings or even shredded leaves. We mulch right over the decaying cover crop, and the weeds simply can’t get started. By fall, we scrape back the mulch, and seed a cover crop again.

This process not only keep the garden looking neat and healthy, but adds more organic material to build the soil every year. Now that is a not-so-vicious cycle that actually works!  You can find all of this and more in our new complete book on Raised Row Gardening. It is now available on line at Amazon, and in Barnes and Noble stores around the country.

Happy Gardening! Jim and Mary. To receive our 3 Home, Garden, Recipe and Simple Life articles each week, sign up for our free email list. You can also follow us on FacebookTwitter, Pinterest, or Instagram. This article may contain affiliate links

16 thoughts on “2 Reasons Why You Should Never Use A Rototiller In Your Garden

  • March 9, 2018 at 7:37 pm
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    Hi, We are moving and expanding our garden this year and are starting it in an area with grass. What is your recommendation on how to begin from “the ground up” so to speak? We do have a rototiller and were planning to use it to break ground and till in some compost but not after that. Is their a better way? Thank

  • March 6, 2018 at 10:08 pm
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    Love this post! I have had a small organic garden in a suburb of Atlanta for 25 years. I tilled it for a couple of years but quit simply because renting a tiller and then fighting it to till my garden was hard. It felt like the tiller was pulling me all over, lol, and I gave up. I was surprised by how well my garden did without it and just never went back.

    I do slightly raised beds, and mulch them, starting with a layer of newspaper on top of my soaker hose, and on top of that have used wheat straw (my favorite), pine straw, and dried leaves at different times. I do not have to weed, and even in Georgia, don’t water much unless it’s a drought year. I plant primarily tomatoes and also summer squash, cucumbers, and green beans.

    Reading today’s column was an eye-opener, as I’ve always felt a little like I was cheating since I quit tilling, weeding, and even watering. It’s good to have justification from you experts for what works for me. Thanks for this, and for all that I learn from you.

    • March 7, 2018 at 10:58 am
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      Thank you Leslie… that is why so many people stop gardening – the amount of physical labor involved. Switching to a no-till, raised row gardening method has proven that gardening doesn’t have to be hard or cumbersome. I hope that others see this post and try it out as well! Thank you so much for following our website! Jim and Mary

  • March 3, 2018 at 8:15 pm
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    I love your blog, have been reading for years now, but live in Utah- the second driest state in the USA. I have taken to heart many of your wonderful ideas, but the raised row makes the soil dry out too fast here. would it be better to have depressed rows, or just continue as I have with a flat garden? …or maybe you have a different idea I could try. We recently moved so I have started with a different garden plot.

    • March 5, 2018 at 10:57 am
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      Hi Colleen,
      Thank you for your question. We have discovered the best way to retain moisture in the raised row garden is to mulch the growing rows to help retain the moisture. We use straw in our rows. This helps the sun from drying out the soil and it also helps the moisture in the soil. The raised rows should be tapered slightly so that you don’t have run off when it rains or when you water. The raised row method (with the organic material layered with the soil, along with compost and mulch) is much more able to handle drier spells as compared to a compact traditional garden. Good luck with your new garden!!! Jim and Mary

  • March 3, 2018 at 5:43 am
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    My son has a wood shop and does lots of planning. Can I use those wood shavings as mulch in my garden.

    • March 5, 2018 at 11:02 am
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      Hi Roy
      We recommend wood shavings for walking rows only, not in the growing rows. Different types of wood can break down and change the PH level of the soil, causing havoc on your garden. We use wood bark chips for our walking rows and love it as we have very little weeds that pop through the ground. Of course, keep any black walnut shavings away from your garden, as it will kill off many of the plants. Hope that helps! Jim and Mary

      • March 6, 2018 at 8:11 am
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        Yes Jim, that helps, and thank you both.

  • March 2, 2018 at 10:15 am
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    My question is ; how does ones compost figure in to your technique?

    • March 5, 2018 at 11:03 am
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      We use compost in our growing holes, at the base of the plants and as a natural fertilizer after planting.

  • March 1, 2018 at 8:51 am
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    Could you please show the whole person running the rototiller , so we all can get a good l@@k at him !!!

    • March 5, 2018 at 11:03 am
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      Well Jack, What happens in a photo shoot, stays in a photo shoot 🙂

  • March 1, 2018 at 8:50 am
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    I have been planting cover crops in my raised rows ever since I started reading your blog. I have beautiful green annual rye grass in them right now. I have been turning them with a broad fork each year but now you say I don’t have to do that – which is wonderful. The grass is pretty tall. Can I weed eat it down so my seedlings don’t get lost or would it be better to leave it as is and just dig a bigger hole. I have a pretty large garden.

    • March 5, 2018 at 11:05 am
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      Hi Betty
      We always recommend cutting down the annual rye as much as possible before planting. You don’t want the rye to go to seed. Then you can plant your seedlings through the rye, trimming down any remaining growth of the rye as needed. Hope this helps!

  • March 1, 2018 at 7:41 am
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    I began no till gardening just a year and half ago. My garden is singing the praises for my change. My garden is nearly an acre so it was a big decision to make the change. Thistle had moved in and nearly took over a large corner. Heavy mulching helped me reclaim that area. But, i must say, my favorite reason! No more dragging that huge, ugly, heavy, and terribly hard to start rototillar out of the garage on a 90 degree day!
    P.s. I love all of the information you share!

    • March 5, 2018 at 11:05 am
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      Thank you Andrea, and we are so happy that you are reaping the benefits from no till gardening as much as we are!

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