Tilling vs. Non-tilling which is truly organic?


In Old Salem, NC, they practice organic and natural gardening. I’ve never questioned all their practices but since it’s a 1700’s garden it’s assumed they use what was available in that day. I spent a good many days in this community cause my beloved great aunt lived there and she helped rear me ( you raise crops and animals—you rear children). This is where my love of gardening began.

This article will address the controversy over tilling vs. non tilling for large farms or gardens. Tilling promotes erosion, kills beneficial bacteria, and promotes the use of chemicals. Why so–read on. Do you know why farmers till their soil? Do you know the purpose of tilling? Could the farmer choose not to till?

This is part of my discussion on—Are all organic practices the best? It is thought in most circles that tilling is an appropriate way to rid the garden of pesky weeds and non desired plants in an organic way. Seems like disturbing the soil is an accepted organic method to reduce the use of chemical sprays to remove unwanted green growth.

It is true that if you keep tilling the land—plants will not grow—you will turn those unwanted plants in to organic matter and mix with soil so it decomposes–but what damage are you doing along the way?

I say lots of damage—wait just a minute.

I’ve always been taught that doing less to the soil is better than doing more. Don’t disturb the soil is what I was taught. You can add amendments and work organic matter around the plant and in the soil but is tilling it in a good idea?

So what is the difference in tilling, turning it over, and working it in?

Tilling is the method of mixing the soil up by disturbing it to several inches. This is usually done with a tractor and pull behind mechanism that digs in and makes the deep layered soil exposed and loose.

The purpose of tilling is to break up hard soil and encourage dormant seeds to grow. After the seeds sprout–you can remove them by picking them out of the soil—or spraying them with a herbicide. You do this to ensure that your soil if free of weeds or non desired plants—so then you can plant your crops or desired plants.

Turning the soil is not as invasive as tilling. Turning the soil means you move along in furrows and turn one layer on to the next. This does not mix the soil but it still disturbs a large area. The purpose of doing this is to smother the exposed plants or undesired growth.

Working in composted matter is the least damaging to the soil. Working in is not usually done on a large scale all at once–because you the gardener are doing it by hand. Taking a pitchfork, work the organic matter in the soil. Most large farms do not practice this at all. They are left to enrich the soil by planting winter crops and adding chemicals.

From Wikipedia:

Less tillage of the soil reduces labour, fuel, irrigation  and machinery costs. No-till can increase yield because of higher water content and much lower erosion rates. Another benefit of no-till is that because of the higher water content, instead of leaving a field fallow it can make economic sense to plant another crop instead. This potentially earns more money, because even though each individual crop earns less the total amount earned can be larger since more crops are produced in the same amount of time.

No-till improves soil quality (soil function), carbon, organic matter, aggregates, protecting the soil from, evaporation of water, and structural breakdown. A reduction in tillage passes helps prevent the compaction of soil.

Crop residues left intact help both natural precipitation and irrigation water infiltrate the soil where it can be used. The crop residue left on the soil surface also limits evaporation, conserving water for plant growth. Since there is less soil compaction and no tillage-pan, soil absorbs more water and plants are able to grow their roots deeper into the soil and suck up more water.

Tilling a field reduces the amount of water, via evaporation, around 1/3 to 3/4 inches (0.85 to 1.9 cm ) per pass. By no-tilling, this water stays in the soil, available to the plants.

When you till the soil, —again from Wikipedia–


Carbon (air and soil)

No-till has carbon sequestration potential through storage of soil organic matter in the soil of crop fields . Tilled by machinery, the soil layers invert, air mixes in, and soil microbial activity dramatically increases over baseline levels. The result is that soil organic matter is broken down much more rapidly, and carbon is lost from the soil into the atmosphere. This, in addition to the emissions from the farm equipment itself, increases carbon dioxidelevels in the atmosphere.

Cropland soils are ideal for use as a carbon sink, since it has been depleted of carbon in most areas. It is estimated that 78 billion metric tones of carbon that was trapped in the soil has been released because of tillage. Conventional farming practices that rely on tillage have removed carbon from the soil ecosystem by removing crop residues such as left over corn stalks, and through the addition of chemical fertilizers which have the above mentioned effects on soil microbes.

By eliminating tillage, crop residues decompose where they lie, and growing winter cover crops field carbon loss can be slowed and eventually reversed.

The only negative I see to non tilling would be crop production. You will not produce as much which means feeding less people. But, how many people do you save by creating less muddy run off which pollutes our waters. Muddy waters reduce the aquatic living organisms. NC recently cleaned up its waters and everything benefited.

NC reduced the area of farms that can be located next to natural waters. We also have a storm water management which enacted lots of steps like storm water holding ponds to allow silt to settle out before entering our ponds and streams.

Folks–you should really think before you accept any organic practice. Tilling has been promoted by environmental groups as a safe method of gardening for farming. Is it? Did you think nothing of disturbing your soil before reading this article?

You may think small scale farming or gardening won’t impact city waters—not so–the run off created from one garden can kill an entire ecosystem in the stream beds running through a neighborhood. Salts are salts no matter organic fertilizer or not—think before you disturb the soil and cause water run off.

Consider all the consequences of organic gardening before trusting what you hear.

The links above will also discuss accepted methods to non tilling if you are curious about what to do instead of disturbing the soil. I choose to work organic matter in the soil by using leaf mulch and mushroom compost and working it in by pitchfork. I also use Hot Pepper Wax products to control insects and animal foraging.

I grow strong roots in my garden by making my roots super athletes—my Bloom Mix by Flowergardengirl is made using nanotechnology. The ingredients in my Bloom Mix are able to be absorbed by the roots more easily than conventional fertilizers. It is made using USFDA ingredients. That is my secret to getting more out of my plants. I grow huge plants.

Article 1 of this series is here.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. I’m always amazed at the things I learn on your blog. You’ve opened a whole new world to me which is one reason why I keep coming back. I never even considered that “non-tilling” was an option. Less work, too, I think! I appreciate the education.


  2. Very informative post! I was just thinking about this very subject last week when my hubby was tilling the compost pile and raised beds. I’ve only started gardening the past few years and we started with really awful soil… I do think the tilling helped because what we started with not much could grow in but weeds. However now we’ve got some fairly good soil and I’m really questioning our need for tilling – there are so many reasons not to and your post gave me so much more to think about. Thanks for sharing!


    1. I’m glad you got something out of this article. First year we did our beds–I literally had to break the soil apart with a pick axe. The we mixed that soil with lots of leaf mulch and mushroom compost.

      Our land had been smashed by construction debris and big trucks. So there is a time when the soil has to be disturbed–and I bet that is your case too.

      Also–we have a ton of heavy clay soil and it was not workable. But now that it is amended well—it just needs top dressing with compost–oh and I add Espoma products if I see that micronutrients are needed.

      I pay close attention to my soil and address issues as they come up. I don’t give it more than what is needed. So you are on the commons sense path to gardening–less is more sometimes.

      I don’t use harmful chemicals except—–Poison Oak is the exception. I am severely allergic and have to use a commercial herbicide to get rid of it. It is very aggressive in my area–harmfully so. When I do have to use it–I am extremely careful to cover just the leaves of that tiny sprout. I am watching for that plant all the time—and nip it in the bud when it is small and therefore–not much chemical is needed.

      Responsible is the key.


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