No-till gardening has grown in popularity in recent years as more gardeners look for ways to grow their own food without the need for expensive equipment. What many of them don’t realize is their desire for convenience is actually better for the soil and the ecosystem it supports.

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Traditional gardening methods can leave you and your garden burnt out. The soil is stripped of nutrients each growing season. Over time, the organic matter in the soil depletes until the dirt becomes a barren wasteland that only supports pests and weeds.

The Frustration

Poor soil comes in many forms. It may be sandy soil that drains easily, but doesn’t hold any nutrients. It may be hard clay that stays too wet and is too hard for roots to easily break through.

Plants have a difficult time thriving and producing in poor soil. Plants that lack nutrients will struggle to overcome pests and disease. They commonly have discolored leaves and a stunted appearance.

Plants that stay moist often become victims to rot and fungal issues. The roots never extend deep into the soil because the moisture is always present. This results in a shallow root system and a plant that can never properly support itself.

The Breakthrough

I was introduced to Geoff Lawton a few years ago, which set me on the path to learn more about permaculture. Permaculture is the idea that we allow nature to balance itself so it becomes sustainable and self-sufficient.

What I’ve learned is that tilling and many other aspects of traditional gardening destroy the beneficial organisms in the soil that add nutrients and discourage pests.

By creating an environment that encourages and supports beneficial organisms in the soil, we can experience fewer pests and a more productive plants.

Downside of Tilling Soil

Tilling has been a popular method of preparing garden beds for decades. It is an easy way to break up sod and weeds, so they are easy to pick from the dirt. It breaks up roots on even stubborn weeds, making weed control much easier than hand pulling.

What we don’t realize is what is happening below the surface when we till. Tilling is an artificial aerating of the soil. Air is introduced and the soil is loosened, but the soil dries out and soil microbes die off.

We also see an increase in soil erosion and water evaporation with tilling. Tilling increases the surface area of the soil, which means the water evaporates and the soil dries out more quickly. The dry, loose soil easily washes away during rain or heavy watering, depleting the topsoil available in our gardens. Over time, this has a detrimental effect on garden production.

Soil is a living ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, insects, and worms. The action of tilling the soil creates a massive die-off of these beneficial organisms that can take months or years to restore. Continual deep tilling year after year can eventually create a sterile environment where pests take over and plants are unable to thrive.

Learn More: Tilling is One Chore You Might Be Able to Skip

Learn More: Expert Warns Against Tilling Soil

Read: Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web

Lasagna Gardening

Lasagna gardening has a basic premise: introduce layers of organic material that will break down and improve the soil.

Visit a nearby forest. Is its soil hard and dry? More than likely, it is dark, loose, and cool. It’s everything we want the soil in our garden to be.

Every year, leaves fall from the trees and layer the forest floor. They break down over time. Earthworms and insects pull them into the ground, aerating the soil and feeding the trees simultaneously.

It is a completely sustainable system and humans don’t have to do a thing to maintain it.

Lasagna gardening allows us to replicate this natural food web in our own gardens. By adding compost and mulch to the surface of our soil, the organic matter breaks down over time and is pulled into the ground by the earthworms and insects it encourages. The soil and our garden production improves as the soil is built up year after year.

The layers are designed to block out the light and choke the weeds below. You can begin layering above existing grass and weeds, but you may have better success by solarizing the soil first.

Choose your garden location, then cover it with clear plastic weighed down with cinder blocks. Leave the plastic in place for 4 to 6 weeks before you plant your garden. After solarization, you can begin to layer your garden as usual.

Lasagna Gardening Layers:

Weed Barrier

A weed barrier blocks sunlight, which prevents weed seeds from germinating. You will want to use something fully compostable like cardboard or brown paper. I’ll use cardboard as an example.

Lay a layer of cardboard on the ground, making sure it overlaps at the edges. The cardboard will shift a little as you work, but you want to make sure no light can get through to the surface of the soil.

Manure or Compost

Compost and manure are the main components that will add organic matter and nutrients to your soil. It will also add bacteria to the soil, while encouraging earthworms and beneficial insects.

Add your compost on top of the cardboard in a thick layer of at least 3 to 4 inches. You will be planting into this compost, so you want there to be enough depth for your plant roots starting out. The plants will also reach down past the cardboard as they grow, so 3 to 4 inches is enough to start with.

Read: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting

Read: 5 Little Known Ways to Find Cheap Compost

Mulch

The mulch can also be any material readily available. You could use leaves and grass clippings if you have enough of them. If you see a tree company trimming branches on the sides of the road, stop and ask if they need somewhere to dump their wood chips. You can usually get a truck load (or more!) for free.

I have also used hay and straw as mulch for my garden. It is nice because it breaks down quickly, adding phosphorus to the soil. It is also soft to walk on.

You want to avoid any hay that has seed heads in it, as well as any sprayed with herbicides. Get to know your farmer and ask them if they spray their fields.

You’ll want to use a thick layer of mulch across your garden beds. I generally use 2 to 3 inches. The mulch will help keep weeds down and retain moisture. A thick layer of mulch will also keep water and soil from splashing onto the lower leaves of your plants, which will prevent a lot of fungal and disease issues.

Plant

Once your mulch is down, you can start putting in your plants. Make a space in your mulch and plant into the compost underneath.

Make sure the mulch is pulled well away from the seedlings while they get established. Just like the weeds left underneath to rot and die, your mulch could snuff out your seedlings if they encroach too much and block the light.

You can also pull back a line of mulch if you are direct sowing seeds into your garden. The mulch will eventually settle into place as the seeds grow and become established.

Water

Any time you plant new seedlings, you should immediately give them a good drenching. It will help settle the soil around the roots and prevent a lot of transplant shock to your young plants. You can hand water or turn on your irrigation for an hour. You want to give them a good, deep watering to encourage the roots to push deep into the soil.

I encourage you to set up drip irrigation in your vegetable garden, and place it on a timer. Drip irrigation allows us to water plants directly at the base of the plant, preventing most fungal issues that develop when the leaves get wet. It also prevents most water loss and evaporation.

Watch: How to Build a PVC Drip Irrigation System

Building the Soil

The key to lasagna gardening is it isn’t a one-time deal. After every harvest, you layer on more compost and mulch. You can even add more cardboard if you’re still battling weeds.

As you build up the layers every year, you are building rich, healthy soil. As the soil and its ecosystem grow, your garden will become more productive.

Raised Bed Gardening

Some gardeners are concerned that lasagna gardening is only for in-ground gardens, but it can easily be adapted to raised bed gardens as well. I have adopted a bit of a hügelkultur method with my own raised bed gardens.

I still use cardboard and brown paper on my raised beds, but it goes in the bottom of the bed before I fill it. I also use it on paths and walkways with deep mulch to keep weeds down.

Filling a raised bed garden can be expensive. To save money, I first fill the bed with sticks and branches. I leave about 6 inches of space from the top of the bed for compost and mulch.

My compost is piled on top of the branches. Some of it will fall within the branches and fill in any gaps. I leave about 2 inches of space from the top for mulch.

I fill the rest of the bed with mulch until it is flush with the top. This allows my irrigation to sit level with my plants.

The sticks will break down and feed the soil over time while also helping the soil to retain moisture.

The compost will break down over time and the fill in the beds will lose volume. I top them off with compost and mulch after each growing season.

Green cabbage growing in garden

The Results

After years of struggling with poor soil, I have a garden full of happy plants. I have seen better productivity, fewer weeds, and less nutrient deficiency.

One unintended consequence we discovered from this method is it attracted armadillos looking for grubs and insects in the cool, loose soil. This is one reason why we’ve modified the method for use in raised beds.

It does take time to build up the soil, so it may take you a couple of years to see the full benefit. One option is to grow in containers and raised beds while you build up a larger garden area.

Containers and raised beds offer more control over the growing conditions and soil quality of your plants.

Read: How to Select Containers for Your Vegetable Garden

Cover crops can planted while you build up your garden soil. Some cover crops like legumes will add nitrogen into the soil. The crops can then be turned back into the soil to add more plant matter into the ground.


Cabbage and lettuce growing in garden - Low-Maintenance No-Till Gardening

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