Planting A Garden Bed The No-Till Way = Less Weeds

Note: This was originally published in the first year of the blog, 2009, and has been updated with larger photos. It is a cornerstone of our organic garden philosophy where we take care of the soil, disturbing it as little as possible and use a layering system to keep our garden beds nearly weed-free throughout the gardening season – honest!

How to Plant a No-Till Vegetable Bed for Ease and Less Weeds

Today I want to share with you the reason why I hardly have to weed our vegetable garden at all through the growing season, but before I show you how I manage this, here is a little glimpse of what one of our 4 larger vegetable beds looks like in March as I discussed designing a garden for easy care:

No-Till Vegetable Bed after winter, before plastic

The traditional way of dealing with all these weeds that grow in the winter is to till and rake, but like I mentioned, I don’t till the ground for a variety of reasons. Instead, in February or March (somebody who’s on the ball could even do it in the fall after harvest…), I throw a piece of black plastic over the bed.

No-Till Vegetable Bed covered in plastic

Then time, sun and heat do their magic, and by the time I am able to plant, I pull back the plastic and it looks like this:

No-Till Vegetable Bed after plastic.

This was the previous year’s corn patch and you can see I just threw the plastic over the dead corn stalks – I find them much easier to remove after a few months under the plastic. And no, it’s not the EXACT bed in the before picture above, which didn’t grow corn, but honestly the beds are all pretty much the same, and I needed to plant this bed first. You can see in the upper part of the picture, the exact same bed is still covered with plastic- but by the end of the post, it is planted, too.

Anyway, when you pull back the plastic, it does look like this- all dead and ready to be cleaned up. I haul away the old corn stalks, pull the soaker off to the side path, and start raking all the dead weed debris. There may be a few (very few) pernicious weeds (dandelion, thistle) that I also dig by hand.

No-Till Vegetable Bed- cleaning up weed-free bed

I rake it all into a pile and haul it away. I haven’t timed it, but it doesn’t take very long, maybe 15-20 minutes on these beds which are about 9′ x 20.’

No-Till Vegetable Bed- spreding compost
Then I add a fresh layer of compost to the bed and rake it smooth. It ends up being about 1/2″ layer, though in the first couple years I was establishing the beds I added more – about 1 full inch. I do this every year to build the soil and I just leave it on top. When I dig the furrows and holes, it gets mixed in some.

I want to emphasize that I have never tilled these beds- they were pasture with that awful pasture grass when we moved here. We set heavy cardboard on top of the pasture grass, edged it with 4′ x 4′ wood and added 4 inches of soil and compost. I planted beans, corn and potatoes (using the straw method and setting the tubers on top of the new soil) and by the time the roots needed more depth, the cardboard had softened and the roots grew as they needed – we had a great crop that first year! The plants since have always done well and I rotate the crops so that the corn usually follows the legumes (which fix nitrogen and enriches the soil).

Doesn’t that sound easier than tilling all the grass for a new garden?

No-Till Vegetable Bed-planted and almost weed-free for the whole season!

After the bed is fully covered with compost, I plant. Since the bed pictured will be planted with beans (green and dry), cukes and squash, I set up my trellises first, then lay a soaker hose, and in this case I’ve put a piece of fencing over some of the beans to try and deter any birds that might want to find what I’ve just planted. Watering with the soaker hoses puts the water where I want it- not in the space between plants where weeds want to grow- so it’s a major player in keeping weeding to a minimum.

You can see the beds in the upper part of the picture have been prepared too, and will grow the corn for this year. The technique is the same. (You can read how to grow a weed-free corn patch here.)

This is the part I want to encourage you with: I have very few weeds the entire remainder of the season. Honest!

  • I don’t need to cultivate
  • I never have any problem finding the seedlings because of weeds
  • And I can leave for a week and not come back to chaos

I pull the occasional weed when I’m out in the garden, and then I just water and harvest. Please join my no-till world- I promise you’ll love it! :)

 

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    Hi, I jsut found your blog through Ann’s “make the best of things” blog. I’m glad I found you! I have begun changing over to a no till method of gardening as well. Have your heard of Lasanga Gardening? It is working well for me since you build up and we live on a pile of rocks! lol I have been blogging about my garden lately as it seems to be where I am spending alot of time! ;-) Please stop by if you have a minute. As for the deer, a slice or two of Irish Spring soap tied to a stake in a knee hi stocking has repelled them from my garden and we live in the woods! What is in the paths of your garden?
    Sharon

  2. says

    Sharon- Thank you! I wish you had left your blog name so I could take a look at your garden or respond. Maybe you’ll link up to the Tuesday Garden Parties so we’ll get to see your garden and hear your ideas? Yes, what I do is similar to lasange gardening, I just don’t do as many layers, but that book and “Weedless Gardening” were some inspirations for me. I have gravel in my paths. (Glad the soap worked for you!)

  3. Gina says

    I love this idea! I’m all about less work when it comes to the garden! Not that I don’t enjoy gardening! I can’t think of a better way to spend time – but I can think of something better to do in the garden then weeding!

    Last year, for an experiment we tried leaving one of our garden plots untilled. We were only partly pleased with the result. I’m going to read some more of your posts and see if I can learn more!

    Thanks!
    Gina

  4. says

    Team- we buy it on a roll (there are different lengths) and it’s around the construction materials. There are different thickness and the price is more as the thickness goes up. We usually cheap out and get the thinnest, but maybe they’d last longer? Kind of have to decided on your own there. :-)

  5. Team Barber-Hallquist says

    Is there a certain kind/gauge of black plastic? Do you buy it on roll? In the paint section of the hardware store?
    Thanks,
    Valerie

  6. Anonymous says

    Thank you for your advise!! I’m 7 months pregnant and about to, finally, START this years crops. Note… it’s June! Going to be difficult anyhow, but I’m up for the challenge!

  7. {northern cottage} says

    what a wonderful SHARE! I’m in love with the idea of having less weeds! I so wish I could pin to pinterest for my future reference! Ever thought of turning that on?

  8. Anonymous says

    You have a very nice garden. I thought I read something in your post about a trellis for squash – do your squash grow up? Our squash plants are taking over the back yard – not very happy with that.

  9. Sharon H says

    Hi, Jamie…what sizes are your beds, and how many do you have? We are moving back to our 10 acres soon, and the garden will need a lot of work. I’m actually in the process of planting berries around the perimeter….Gooseberries, Blackberries, Blueberries, and maybe some Logan berries and black raspberries. My garden spot is about a half acre square. Want to leave the middle open for beds, hence the berries on the perimeter. Wanting to find a permanent place for rhubarb and asparagus…going to be running out room for my veggies! Oh, and I’m seriously thinking about the newspapers and compost for the berries…love all the information you share!

    • says

      I have 6 4×20 raised beds and 4 9×20 moderately raised beds (just beds with permanent paths and edges), Sharon. These are all for veggies with beds on the sides for berries, currants, rhubarb, asparagus, etc. Your new gardens sound fabulous!!

  10. says

    What a great and inspiring explanation of this technique! Thanks for sharing. I’ve got a huge planter that I hand tilled with a shovel and pitch fork last year. It had a previous owner who had not weeded in years! I’m definitely going to use the plastic technique this year instead!

  11. marybeth says

    How do you make this work in the perennial beds, like asparagus and rhubarb? I just cleaned 2 beds after school and then came in to find this post! I maybe be re-thinking my next few afternoons!

    • says

      I use newspaper under the mulch in the rhubarb beds, similar to our flower beds, and when the asparagus patch was young, I did that too. But now there’s not as much room between the clumps as they grow, so I just pull what weeds are there and layer the compost. Mine are growing in a raised bed, though, so I only fill a bucket of weeds a couple times during the season. If you don’t have a permanent edge, I’d definitely use cardboard and mulch along the edges. Hope this helps lessen your workload!

  12. Kenna says

    Would feed bags work in the place of cardboard when you first begin the bed? We have chickens and a horse so end up with a good supply of feed bags. Thanks so much for your time to share your tips and techniques!

    • says

      Are the feed bags a natural material that will break down, like burlap, Kenna? If they are the plasticky type, no, but the burlap may work, although grass may make their way up through the tiny holes and burlap takes longer to break down. I’d try an area first and see how it works before doing a large bed – just in case. :)

  13. Kenna says

    I hope I’m not asking a question that you’ve already answered, but I can’t seem to find this information. What kind of wood do you use for your beds? I noticed some of your beds are concrete blocks and some are wood. I have some blocks which I’ll use, but figured I’d use wood for other beds. I’m thinking we don’t want treated lumber due to chemicals leaching into soil. But does untreated rot quickly? Just wondering what you use. Thanks again!

    • says

      You’re right, Kenna, you don’t want to use treated wood. Cedar is the longest-lasting, though it is the priciest. Whatever wood you use, you will have to replace it in 10 years or so, so build your beds with that in mind (i.e., make the corners solid that then will be easy to remove/replace the sides). We’re facing this now, and we didn’t really build them with that in mind, so we almost need to start again. There are pros and cons to both wood and cement blocks, we’ve got some of both.

  14. Kenna says

    Hi, Jami! Me again. :-) What size gravel do you have between your beds? And how do you manage kneeling on it? I typically am on my knees a lot. Of course, most of that time is weeding and if I do this right, I shouldn’t have to spend so much time on that, right? :-) Do you kneel when you plant? Do you use knee pads or some kind of pad? We are working on building the garden beds today…not getting the gravel yet, but I’m curious. Thanks so much!

    • says

      Our beds are about a foot high, so I mostly sit on them. :) If I do need to keel, I use a garden kneeling pad. We laid plastic and then added 3/4 crushed gravel with no-fines (that’s key – you don’t want all the dirt-like tiny pieces that love to play host to weeds). I’m not sure I would do gravel around raised vegetable beds again, though, unless it was connected to paths and such in a larger garden scheme. It’s beautiful, but hard to keep the dirt out of and if you have moles, they wreck it totally. :(

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