Planting a garden bed without tilling is a cornerstone of our organic garden philosophy to take care of the soil, disturb it as little as possible, and use a layering system to keep our garden beds nearly weed-free throughout the gardening season – honest!
One of my goals in creating and continuing to write An Oregon Cottage is to empower you to do the things you’ve always wanted to do – the simple back-to-the-earth type activities that connect us to the land and those around us. Making your own salad dressings or ketchup is one of them, as is giving thoughtful handmade gifts. But growing your own food – and then simply preparing it – is one of the things I wish I could just sit down with each and every one of your and just say, “you can do it!” And 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 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 take these steps I share below to enjoy a summer of simple maintenance (watering, harvesting, pulling an occasional weed) and lots of fresh produce.
The secret? Do not ever use a tiller on your soil. And if you have, then stop asap.
There are a number of reasons not to till garden soil which I detailed in this article about designing a garden for easy care, but for our purposes here this is the main thing: tilling brings up all the weed seeds, exposing them to light and air everywhere. Some weeds seeds can lay dormant for years and years (some say up to 1000!) and not disturbing the soil keeps them right where they were where you don’t have to deal with them.
Planting a Garden Bed The No-Till Way
Take the steps outlined below drastically reduce your vegetable garden weeding tasks throughout the entire growing season. (Affiliate links are included below for your convenience.)
Step 1- Fall or Late Winter
Here is what one of our 4 larger vegetable beds typically looks like in February or early March – which is also typical for most yards and gardens.
The traditional way of dealing with all these weeds that grow in the winter is to till with a machine and rake, but like I mentioned, you don’t want to till the ground for a variety of reasons.
Cover with Plastic. Instead, in January, February or early 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- Prepping Bed in Spring
Remove Dead Debris. When it’s time to plant, pull back the plastic on your beds to reveal a bed of brown, dead debris. This 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.
Haul away any large debris (pull the soaker hose if you have them) and start raking all the dead weed debris. There may be a few (very few) pernicious weeds like dandelion and thistle that you should dig by hand.
I haven’t timed it, but it doesn’t take very long to take care of this, maybe 15-20 minutes on these beds which are about 9′ x 20.’ I think that may be less time than tilling with a machine!
Layer on 1/2 to 1 inch of Garden Compost. 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 years as I was establishing the beds I added more – about 1 full inch.
Do this every year to build the soil and just leave it on top. When you dig the furrows and holes for planting, it will get mixed in more.
Wait, what? What about in the beginning?
I want to emphasize that I have never tilled these beds– they started as pasture with that awful pasture grass we found so hard to deal with. Here’s how we established the beds from scratch:
- in spring we set heavy cardboard on top of the pasture grass in the size we wanted
- edged it with 4′ x 4′ wood (not treated)
- added 4 inches of soil and compost right on top of the cardboard
After a few weeks 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, which actually surprised me. I thought the beds would need a year to really establish.
The vegetables planted in the 10 years since have always done well. I use organic principals and make sure to rotate the crops so that the heavy-feeder 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?
Step 3- Plant, Water, Maintain
Plant seeds and starts. After the bed is fully covered with compost, it’s time to plant.
Lay soaker hoses or drip system for watering. Watering this way 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.
The bed pictured above is planted with beans (green and dry), cucumbers and squash, so I set up the trellises first, 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 just planted seeds).
The bed in the upper part of the picture has been prepared, too, 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.
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!
- 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
You’ll need to pull the occasional weed when you’re out in the garden harvesting and turn on the soaker/drip system every 5 days or so to water. That’s it – just enjoy your garden.
Please join my no-till world- I promise you’ll love it!
Note: This was originally published in the first year of the blog, 2009, and has been updated with larger photos.