The ‘No-Dig’ Revolution: Eco-Myth or the Way of the Future?

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums PLANTS & HORTICULTURE The ‘No-Dig’ Revolution: Eco-Myth or the Way of the Future?

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    Thomas Rainer
    One recent garden trend that is spreading with inexorable speed is the “no-dig” or “no-till” method of planting.  The basic idea is that plants are installed directly into the ground without tilling or turning over the soil.  While this method is centuries old, it challenges conventional gardening practices of tilling and breaking in the soil before one plants.
    I’ve been aware of this method for a while, but have been surprised by how quickly it has become dogma, particularly within sustainable landscape circles.  When teaching a class on soil preparation, I mentioned tilling and watched as many of the students recoiled in protest.  “Isn’t tilling bad?” one student immediately asked.  I was taken aback.  ‘No-dig’ is not just an idea, but a doctrine, a creed, a badge of one’s eco-credentials. Proponents spread the message with revolutionary fervor. 
    So is it time to put your tiller on Craigslist?  Let me weigh in on this complex issue and hopefully provide some clarity.  The gardening world has more than its fair share of old wives tales and superstitions.  This is particularly true with anything regarding soil.  We understand so little about what goes on in the soil, yet we dig, till, fertilize, and amend it with reckless zeal.  When it comes to soil cultivation, what’s true?
    Jordan Lockman

    I like it. Funny, how common sense it is. If your soil is compacted you may need to till, but tilling loose soil makes it more compacted. One of those strange places between agriculture and landscape architecture.

    I am experimenting in my veggie garden with no or minimal tilling and it seems to work well when there is a bed that was previously tilled. So tilling yearly can be bad, but tilling initially is necessary a lot of times.


    Brett T. Long

     No-till gardens are great, but have obvious limitations. Heaping composting material on top of existing grades probably won’t be appropriate on many projects. However these are valuable tools in sustainable gardening.

    Jon Quackenbush

    I never till my garden, though I do use the garden claw a lot to loosen things up a bit when I am planting.

    Love those microbes!

    Les Ballard

    If someone hasn’t done tests, they should do.  So, results please – what is right? 

    Trees get water and nutrients from fungi in the soil in layers and turning a double spit before planting will disturb these.  Also, the job of replanting after felling is not conducive to digging.  For veggies etc., folk want the max. possible growth medium and the fungi do not play a part.  For these you do dig and mulch and create a fine loam with air in it. Folk plant carrots to win prizes in 30 foot drainpipes and put their pumpkins on a drip, even get the family in to urinate on them.  Lettuces are grown with no soil (hydroponics) and, with cheap heat and light, it could be done in old mines.  Indeed, the golden triangle in Yorkshire IS in caves and forces rhubarb.  All gardeners will want different things and so do plants.  Spreading mixed wildflower seeds over a brownfield site to reinstate the meadows there originally, just won’t work.  You need to reinstate the soil type too, not to mention the levels of those pesky worms that dont like working in a post industrial landscape with bits of iron, brick, concrete, glass and rare metals in the soil.  So, as with most things, pending the test results, using your common sense seems to be a good idea. 

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