Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Chapter 25 - To Till or Not To Till

"People say that tilling the ground is environmentally wrong and destroys the soil structure.

But my ground is so rock hard that I can't get a shovel into it.   
Is it wrong to use a tiller?"

The  front garden after tilling
 and planting

We get this question all the time.

There are very few things that are totally wrong.

Many people swear by tillers for tough, hard ground - especially our clay.

Sometimes you just have to break up the ground.

Gone are the big, man size tillers of the past that spewed soot and needed a lot of muscle to manage.

A small, easy to handle tiller (like Mantis by Troy Built) runs about $350 and is a much better choice.  They're environmentally friendly and help you break up hard soil that would be covered in weeds if not tended.

The front garden before
tilling and planting

 There are also great tillers that you can pull with a sport utility vehicle or lawn tractor.

Yes, tilling changes the structure of the soil - but so do a lot of things like walking on a lush green lawn and we do that all the time.

Don't be afraid to get into the garden and move that soil around.  Our Virginia clay, by the way (sorry for the rhyme)  is among the richest and most nutrient filled soil around but, because of its structure, the nutrients are not usable.  You're really doing your plants a big favor unlocking the nutrients by tilling your soil.

With that said, there are wonderful ways to garden with out tilling.  You can build a bed on top of the hard ground instead of trying to dig it up.  Here's how:

Lay some flattened card board boxes, newspaper or even straw flakes over the area you want to plant. (No need to actually build a raised bed planter but you can if you want to.)

Put a couple of inches of organic matter (like aged leaves, grass clippings and/or compost) on top.

Organic matter being put on
 top of the garden soil

Cover that with a couple of inches of top soil.

Repeat organic matter layer then top soil layer.

Voila! You're ready to plant.

 In the fall, top the bed with a couple of inches of compost.   Add more in the spring.   Keep adding leaves, grass clippings and compost spring and fall.

Over time, your bed will settle and earth worms will start to work their magic.   Eventually, the hard clay underneath it all will be soft and gorgeous but by then your garden will be so beautiful you'll have forgotten all about the clay.

Should you use a tiller?

Take a look at you garden. 
Decide what will work best for you and how much you're able to (and want to) spend on machinery.

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