Create beautiful, sustainable vegetable garden beds with minimal effort by learning how to plant a no-till garden bed. No-till and no-dig gardening takes care of the soil, disturbing it as little as possible and uses a layering system keeps both large and small garden beds nearly weed free throughout the gardening season!
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No-till or no-dig gardening, is popular because of its many benefits, including less weeds, better water retention and improved soil structure. In this article, I explain why no-till gardening is preferred for backyard vegetable gardens, share my experience and provide steps on how you can create easy no-till garden beds in your own yard.
One of my goals here at An Oregon Cottage is to empower you to do the simple living things you've always wanted to do - the back-to-the-earth type activities that connect us to our bodies, the land and those around us.
But growing your own food - and then easily preparing it - is one of the things I wish I could just sit down with each and every one of you and just say, "you can do it!"
Because I believe you will LOVE it.
And it doesn't have to be hard.
You do NOT have to spend hours weeding in the heat of the summer or look at your vegetable patch in despair wondering where the seedlings are in all those weeds. I promise.
All you need to do is a bit of planning and then take the steps below to enjoy a summer of simple maintenance (watering, harvesting, pulling an occasional weed) and lots of fresh produce.
What is the secret to less weeds and easier vegetable gardening?
Do not use a tiller on your soil and dig as little as possible.
Planting a garden bed the no-till way is a cornerstone of my organic, low maintenance garden philosophy which I go into in this article about designing a garden for easy care, along with all the reasons no-till and no-dig is beneficial.
But for for this article, this is the main reason:
- Tilling brings up all the weed seeds, exposing them to light and air everywhere.
And then we water them. Is it any wonder they proliferate?
Not so fun fact: Did you know that some weeds seeds can lay dormant for decades (some say up to 1000 years!)? Not disturbing the soil keeps them right where they are where you don't have to deal with them.
So take the simple steps outlined below to drastically reduce your vegetable garden weeding tasks throughout the entire growing season - you will not be sorry.
How to Plant A No-Till Garden Bed
Step 1- Late Winter Prep
We had four 9x12 foot vegetable beds for corn, potatoes and beans in our previous garden. The beds would typically look like the photo above early March, full of winter grown annual weeds and debris from the previous year.
The traditional way of dealing with all these weeds that grow in the winter is to till with a machine and rake, but we're not tilling, so what do you do when faced with this?
Cover with Plastic
In January, February or March (or even in the fall after harvest if you're really on the ball), throw a piece of black plastic over the bed (you'll want a thicker plastic like this 6 ml roll).
Then let time, sun, and heat do their magic.
Step 2- Spring Garden Bed Prep
1. Remove Dead Debris
When it's time to plant, pull the plastic off your beds to reveal the brown, dead debris.
TIP: The bed shown above grew corn the year before 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, with a lot less soil loss from trying to remove the roots earlier (and leaving some roots in the soil also helps with feeding and aeration of the soil).
2. Haul away any large debris and start removing all the dead weed debris (pull off any soaker hoses first if you have them) with a garden rake.
There may be a few (very few) pernicious perennial weeds like dandelion and thistle you find - those should be dug by hand to remove the roots.
I never timed it but it didn't take very long to do this, maybe 15-20 minutes on these beds 9' x 20 foot beds. I think that may be less time than tilling with a machine.
3. Add About a 1 inch Layer of Garden Compost
Add a fresh layer of compost to the bed and rake it smooth.
On these established beds I aim for a 1 inch layer. In the first few years after creating the beds I added more - about 2 inches.
Do this every year to build the soil and just leave it on top, no digging in. When you make the furrows and holes for planting, it will get mixed in enough.
Doesn't that sound easier than tilling all the grass and weeds for a new garden bed?
Step 3- Plant, Water & Maintain
1. Plant seeds and starts
After the bed is fully covered with compost, it's time to plant.
2. Lay soaker hoses or drip system for watering
Watering at the roots puts the water where we want it- not in the space between plants or paths where weeds want to grow- so it's a major player in keeping weeding to a minimum. Overhead watering not only waters too much, it also isn't as good for plants, encouraging mildew and diseases.
I sowed seeds in bed pictured above with beans (green and dry), cucumbers and squash, so I set up the trellises first (using bamboo stakes) and then laid the soaker hoses before planting the seeds (the chicken-wire fencing you see is to try and deter any birds that love looking for newly planted seeds).
NOTE: The bed in the upper part of the picture has been prepared to grow corn for this year. The technique is the same, though you can read more details on how to grow a weed-free corn patch here.
3. Maintenance of no-till and no-dig beds
This is the part I want to encourage you with: when planting a garden bed this way I have very few weeds the entire remainder of the season.
Honest! You can see a couple of examples of these large vegetable beds in July in this article on how to organically keep weeds out of your garden.
If you follow these simple steps you will:
- Not need to cultivate/weed with a hoe.
- Never have any problem finding the seedlings because of weeds.
- Be able to leave for a week and not come back to a chaos of weeds.
What WILL you need to do to maintain the beds?
- Pull the occasional weed when you're out in the garden harvesting
- Turn on the soaker/drip system every 5 days or so to water.
That's it - then just enjoy your garden and your harvest!
UPDATE on watering: see our DIY automatic watering system for raised beds here - it's easy and inexpensive!
No-Till Frequently Asked Questions
First, I want to emphasize that I have never tilled these beds- they started as pasture with that awful "pasture grass" (quackgrass) we found so hard to deal with. This method works!
Here's how to establish no-till vegetable beds from scratch:
-In spring set heavy cardboard on top of the grass/area in the size you want.
-Edge the bed with wood (not treated) to keep materials in place (we started with used 4' x 4' boards that eventually rotted leaving simple mounded beds).
-Add 3-4 inches of a soil-manure mix and about 2 inches of compost on top of the cardboard.
-Wait a few weeks and then plant.
(NOTE: I planted beans, corn and potatoes (using the straw method and setting the tubers on top of the new soil) on the new beds 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, which actually surprised me since I thought the beds would need a year to really establish.)
There are pros and cons to both ways depending on the application. If you have acres of land to farm in a certain time frame, tilling may be the only way to do it. For home gardens, though, the benefits of less weeds brought to the surface, improved soil health through less erosion, and increased organic matter in the top where the roots are means that no-till is better. And while USDA scientists say a benefit of tilling is to bury carbon and increase its storage in the soil "overall, intensive tillage tends to burn up much of the soil organic matter, more so than no-till." (source)
Also tilling can do more harm than good by removing any plant matter covering the soil which leaves it bare. Bare soil, especially soil that is deficient in rich organic matter (which the tilling removed), is more likely to be eroded by wind and water, leaving it "dead soil" that needs lots of fertilizers to grow anything. (source)
It takes a good amount of compost and other organic matter layers in the beginning and then the layering of new compost every year on top, which is work loading, unloading, and spreading, not to mention the cost. However, the work saved throughout the season from weeding far makes up for this in my opinion.
When you're building a new bed, you can add manure, grass clippings, chopped up garden debris and the like, depending on how high you want the bed. Then you'll want to source some good garden top soil to layer on that about 3 inches, topping it all with 2-3 inches of quality compost. Finding good compost is key and will be your job every year after building your beds.
The vegetables I grew in these larger no-till beds always produced well.
I used organic principals and made sure to rotate the crops so that the heavy-feeder corn followed the legumes (which fix nitrogen and enriches the soil). Other than that, I did the spring work, planted and then just spent the season enjoying the harvest.
Please join my no-till, no-dig world- I promise you'll love it!
More Simple Vegetable Gardening Tips
- How to Build & Plant a Low Maintenance Raised Garden Bed
- 7 Inexpensive Raised Garden Bed Ideas (Pros and Cons)
- How To Keep Weeds Out Of Your Garden: Simple Organic Techniques
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Make This Year's Garden A Success!