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Reducing tillage in your garden

Quick facts

  • Tillage contributes negatively to soil health over time.
  • Tillage breaks the soil into smaller pieces, making it more susceptible to compaction and erosion.
  • By reducing the intensity or frequency of tillage, we can foster soil environments that are more diverse and resilient.
  • There are good alternatives to tillage to prepare, plant and tend your garden.
Hand holding up a clump of soil with small roots protruding from it. In the background is bare soil.
Healthy soils form aggregates, or clumps of soil particles, air, water, root fragments, and glue-like substances that come from soil microorganisms. Tillage breaks up soil aggregates.

Tillage provides many useful services in the garden but contributes negatively to soil health over time. Intensive tillage disrupts microbial communities and breaks up the soil structure. Over time, this leads to compaction, reduced water-holding capacity, and erosion.

Why reduce tillage?

We often talk about tilling as a yes or no question: to till, or not to till? But tilling intensity can vary from no soil disturbance at all to intensive soil disturbance.

For many Minnesotans, especially people with large gardens, rototilling the garden every spring and fall is standard practice. While in the short term this provides many benefits, it has long-term consequences.

Tillage breaks the soil into smaller pieces, making it more susceptible to compaction and erosion. By reducing the intensity or frequency of tillage, we can foster soil environments that are more diverse and resilient. 

Tillage alternatives for various garden needs

A garden with wood chipped pathways. There are two rows: one has alliums growing in it, and the other is covered with a black tarp, held down with cinder blocks.
A tarp is placed over a bed to kill vegetation underneath it.

Tillage serves many purposes in a garden: removing existing vegetation to create new gardens, reducing compaction, weed management, creating a smooth seedbed, and working in amendments. Each of these processes can be achieved with other tools. 

Starting a new garden

The first step in starting a garden in a new space is removing existing vegetation. While a rototiller is an effective and quick way to do this, there are some excellent alternatives.

On a large scale, solarization and occultation can prepare large areas for new gardens. The basic principle involves laying a sheet of plastic over the soil to prevent moisture (and in the case of occultation, light) from reaching the soil; the plants underneath eventually die, leaving a nice open area for planting.

On a smaller scale, simply using a sod ripper or a sharp flat-edge shovel is an effective way to remove grass.

Reducing compaction

Compaction is often a problem in new gardens, especially in areas that have been mowed with heavy riding lawn mowers for years. It can also be a problem in existing gardens. 

In a new garden that’s extremely compact, tilling one time may be your best option. However, if the soil is relatively workable, or your goal is to reduce compaction in an existing garden, consider the following strategies: 

Broadforking, or using a garden fork

Man holding large metal broadfork in a bare garden bed with parking lot and shed behind. Garden is surrounded by a fence.
Using a broadfork to reduce compaction in a new garden bed. Photo: Tim Wilson

A broadfork is an excellent tool for reducing compaction without breaking up aggregates in your soil. It consists of 3-5 metal tines on a horizontal bar, with two handlebars. The user steps on the horizontal bar, using their body weight to push the tines into the soil, then leans back to pull the tines through the soil.

Broadforks are ergonomically designed to use your body weight rather than your brute force, and so they are easier on your body than a shovel or a regular garden fork. They aerate the soil without turning it over or breaking it into small pieces like a tiller would do. 

Create permanent beds

By creating permanent beds (either raised beds with wooden sides or simple mounded rows), you can limit your walking to between beds. This prevents compaction from your body weight on the beds. You can create beds by simply shoveling dirt into mounded rows, and raking it smooth. Often gardeners will use mulch or a low-growing cover crop such as clover between beds to help with water infiltration and to prevent mud build-up between rows. 

Large vegetable garden surrounded by a wooden fence. Rows alternate between mounded beds with soil and vegetables, and walking areas in between each bed filled with straw. A lawn surrounds the garden with trees in the background.
In a larger garden, soil can be mounded into rows with walking areas filled with straw, woodchips or a groundcover.
An urban back yard with five raised beds with wooden sides. Each raised bed contains vegetables. There is a lawn and a tree in the background, and flowers hanging from a fence.
In smaller spaces, raised beds with walking areas in between can serve as permanent beds.

Weed management

Tillage helps with weed management by breaking up perennial root systems and burying seeds. But it also brings up weed seeds that were previously buried. As a result, in reduced tillage systems, we tend to see more perennial weeds over time, whereas in high disturbance systems, we see more annual weeds. 

We can manage perennial weeds in a couple of ways. One is simply hand pulling weeds as soon as they emerge. This helps to deplete stored energy in the underground root system. Solarization and occlusion can also be used before planting or after harvest. This may not fully kill perennial weeds, but it can help to interrupt their lifecycles and keep them from re-sprouting for a period of time. 

Creating a smooth seedbed

Close-up photo of steel rake on bare soil
Simple garden tools like rakes can be used to create smooth seedbeds for planting small, direct-seeded crops.

A smooth, even seedbed is very helpful for planting small seeded crops like carrots and lettuce. In a small garden bed, you can easily do this by hand, simply smoothing out the planting area with a rake or with hand tools prior to planting.

On a larger scale, especially when planting with machinery, this can be trickier. Many market gardeners use a tool called a tilther for this purpose. A tilther is a lightweight tiller that only tills the top two inches or so of soil. It’s still a form of tilling, but it’s much shallower and less destructive to the deeper soil structure.

You can also use rakes to create even seed beds, starting with a heavier rake to create a flat bed, and switching to a lighter rake, or even the flat, back side of a steel rake to smooth the surface. 

Finally, consider whether you even need a smooth seedbed. If you’re transplanting most of your plants or using larger seeded plants like beans or pumpkins, you can get away with a less perfect seedbed. 

Working in amendments

It’s important to continually replenish nutrients and organic matter in your soil. This could include working commercial fertilizers, compost or manure into the soil, or planting and incorporating cover crops. For many gardeners, tillage has been the traditional way to achieve this, but there are plenty of alternatives.

Two of the most popular methods are using tilthers and broadforks. These tools allow you to mix nutrients into your soil without disrupting the full soil profile.

Be sure to add amendments based on soil testing to ensure that you’re adding enough nutrients, but not too much.

Authors: Natalie Hoidal and Claire LaCanne, Extension educators

Reviewed in 2022

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