Why You Shouldn't Rototill Your Garden

PitchforkWhen I started gardening I always got stuck at the beginning of every gardening season waiting for my friend to get out his rototiller and let me borrow it. In my mind, you couldn't and shouldn't start planting stuff until the soil had a good mechanical thrashing.

I resolved this partially by adopting a no-till method of gardening with permanent semi-raised beds (no wood sides) with permanent pathways. The theory is that you never step on the garden beds and stay on the path. The path get's packed down and the soil beds don't. I learned this from the Vegetable Gardener's Bible where he also explains that regular rototilling of the soil creates a hard pan under the six inches of tilled soil from all the mechanical vibrations. Over time this hard pan get's harder and harder and the roots of your veggies can't penetrate it, no matter how smooth and soft the upper layer is.

I still had the problem of having to essentially dig up the soil in the beds every year with a shovel to prep them for the new planting, and mix in compost. Despite our best efforts we do walk on the beds a bit and gravity and water also pack the soil down over time.

Last year Bob & Bonnie Gregson, veteran organic gardeners, Spokane Valley residents and authors of the book, Rebirth of the Small Family Farm, helped complete my education on the art of no-till gardening. They recommend the technique of using a pitchfork.

Here's how it works; To prepare your garden beds for a new season you cover your them with compost, and then you poke the soil with the pitchfork with a straight up and down motion. The new compost falls into the holes, helping the compost get into the soil, it aerates the soil which is important, and it does all of this without destroying the delicate eco-system of worms and worm holes in the soil. The worms have been working all winter and it's a shame to ruin all their hard work.

The one time a rototiller is probably necessary is the first year you are breaking up hard pack soil and establishing your garden beds. After that the pitchfork should do the trick.

Another garden tip for this time of year is to pull the weeds now before they get big and nasty, especially the little tufts of grass that love to settle into the bare garden soil.