Gardening & Living in Grand Style
To till or not to till…

Even in the midst of managing our local VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program, which started Jan. 30, I appreciate having the chance to switch gears and talk about other issues. Last week, I had an interesting discussion with one of our local citizens concerning some gardening questions she had. One involved her reading about the practice of not tilling gardens, often referred to as no-till, and she wondered about the pros and cons.

No-till is a practice farmers have used since the beginning of farming, but it has seen a resurgence in the last couple of decades. Due to soil loss caused by wind and water erosion of tilled soils, and the loss of soil structure caused by lack of organic matter and repeated plowing, it was critical to find a better process. With no-till, farmers leave plant debris on top of the soil and drill a hole or cut a thin channel in the soil to plant seeds or plants. The debris layer helps to keep the soil in place and slows surface water evaporation. The lack of tilling means any organic matter in the soil, such as roots, is slower to decompose, improving microorganism and earthworm numbers. It’s a slow process but the soils do improve over time with this approach. You might ask yourself — isn’t there a lot of plant debris on farms? There are two issues here. One is that it takes a lot of consistent organic matter incorporation to improve soil organic amounts when plowing regularly. Also, the plant debris from crops with large amounts of leftover plant debris such as corn, has value in itself and is often removed to use elsewhere. There is a downside with no-till, which is the potential for increased insect pests and weeds.

So is this practice of value in the home vegetable garden? The bulk of our soils locally have a sandy loam texture, being predominately sand but some silt and clay. While there might be other organic matter in the soil our hot weather and rainfall, even limited as it is, causes this organic fraction to quickly disappear. In addition, due to the basic sandy nature of the soil it’s pretty easy to over work our soils, destroying any structure they might have.

As a home gardener, you have the opportunity to add organic matter to your soil, using leftover plant debris such as leaves and grass clippings, or by growing cover crops when the garden isn’t otherwise producing. In January and February of 2010, I wrote a series of articles on sustainable landscaping. One of the main principles was to keep organic materials grown on your property on your property. Being able to incorporate organic matter into your soil improves the soil structure much more rapidly than not doing so. This organic matter increases the microorganism and earthworm numbers in your soil, all of which improves your plant growth.

As with farming, the downside to tilling in organic matter is how easy it is for you to overwork the soil trying for that “perfect” look. Also, even when tilling, many don’t regularly add significant amounts of organic matter. If you fall into one or both of these categories then perhaps no-till is something you should consider. Another reason to try no-till would be if your home is located where the soils are prone to being blown away by the wind or moved by our infrequent but sometimes heavy rainfall. Regardless, use that organic matter even if just as a mulch.

Now, no-till can slowly achieve improved soil over time and is a perfectly fine way to go, but if tilling, as long as you are consistently adding organic matter and are being careful with how you work your soils, that is also acceptable. Ultimately, as always, the choice is yours.

Thought for the day: “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.” —Mahatma Gandhi.

Previous articles are available at The Times-Independent website, www.moabtimes.com. Have an idea you’d like Mike to consider writing about? Want more information about these topics? Call the Utah State University Extension Grand County office at 435-259-7558 or email Mike Johnson at [email protected]

ByBy Michael Johnson

Utah State University Extension Agent, Grand County