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No-till Gardens

The new front garden, lasagna style

The technique of gardening without digging up the soil has been around for a long time. Ruth Stout had a best seller on her hands when her book “How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back” came out in 1955. Two more recent books that explain how to have a productive garden without breaking sod and breaking your back are “Lasagna Gardening” by Patricia Lanza and “Weedless Gardening” by Lee Reich who lives right here in Massachusetts..

These three approaches are similar, but their differences show that there are many ways to go about not tilling the soil. The lesson to be learned is that there is a lot of wiggle room in starting and maintaining a no-till garden.

Several years ago I extended the size of my very small vegetable garden using what is called the lasagna method. Instead of breaking sod or rototilling the area I mowed it  as closely as I could early in the spring. Then I watered that piece of ground well because I was going to cover it and needed to begin with good damp soil.

Next I spread partially finished compost that I had in my pile. (If you don’t have your own you can now buy good compost by the truckload.)  I watered again. Then I layered on sheets of cardboard.  Many instructions tell you to use anywhere between 6 to 12 layers of newspaper to make a weed barrier, but I have never found this sufficient. Hence the cardboard which needs to overlap generously. Water again.

Finally comes a layer of soil. I bought a couple of yards of loam and spread that over the cardboard. The loam was not particularly fertile but that didn’t matter because the plant roots were going to grow into the decomposing cardboard and the compost. If you didn’t have access to soil you could order more compost for the planting bed.

The bed is now ready for planting, seeds or seedlings.  If you need to plant a tree or shrub in a lasagna bed, you will have to either leave an opening in the cardboard or cut through it to get your plant roots properly into the compost and soil.

Since the plan is to practice no till on a permanent basis you need to lay out permanent paths at the same time.  My original paths were not sufficiently wide the first time. The garden produced so abundantly that it looked like a green thicket and I hardly knew where to put my feet to harvest. Since then my paths have been nearly three feet wide.

Over the gardening season mulch with organic materials like shredded leaves or more compost. This will help maintain soil fertility while keeping down weeds.

Another way of beginning a no-till garden is to plant in bags of topsoil.  The first time I saw this system was at a demonstration garden at the Berkshire Botanic Garden a number of years ago. Recently Storey Publishing sent me a copy of “Starter Vegetable Gardens: 24 No-Fail Plans for Small Organic Gardens” by Barbara Pleasant. Not all the gardens in this excellent book are no till, but the very  first one, The Easy Care Bag Garden,  requires cardboard (or newspaper) and eleven 40 pound bags of organic topsoil to get started.

This first small garden, 8 by 19 feet, includes snap peas, regular peas, nasturtiums, scarlet runner beans, parsley, tomatoes, lettuce, basil, bush beans, thyme and rosemary.  And a compost pile. When early cops like peas are harvested, greens like spinach, kale, bok choy, and arugula can be planted in those spaces. Of course, you can always substitute crops that are more to your taste.

The plan for this garden continues for two more years. The first bag beds become in-ground beds, and new bag beds are set up. The first enlargement is to 18 by 19 feet and in the third year to 18 by 26 feet.

The trick to maintaining a no till garden is to keep mulching. The mulch will keep down weeds while slowly adding nutrients to the soil, and encouraging the worm population. Worms will enrich the soil with their castings (manure) and aerate it at the same time.

“Starter Vegetable Gardens” has plans for 23 other gardens, from the small Marinara Medley that includes tomatoes, peppers, basil, onions, oregano and parsley to much larger Sweet Corn and Company plan.  Along the way there is information about bugs, watering, short seasons, and stretching the season techniques as well as the requirements of many vegetables. This book does serve as a useful basic reference for any gardener.

Storey Publishing generously sent me a copy to giveaway to my readers. If you would like to win a copy of “Starter Vegetable Gardens” all you have to do is go to my blog, www.commonweeder.com and leave a comment at the Giveaway post. I would love to hear about your own garden plans for this season, but all you must do is let me know you want to win the book  When you post your comment you’ll have to give your email address which will not appear publicly, but which I can use to reach you if you win and get your street address. The lottery will close on Friday April 22, Earth Day at midnight. The winner will be chosen on Saturday, April 23.

Between the Rows  April 16, 2011

4 comments to No-till Gardens

  • I’ve done no-till gardens twice. The first one I used newspaper and let it sit over the winter before planting it. The second one I used cardboard and planted it the same day that I put down the cardboard/compost/dirt/mulch (that is not recommended, but it’s what happened). Both have turned out really well and are less bothered by weeds than the beds that were tilled up when we first landscaped the yard.

  • Pat

    Mary – It’s good to hear others talk about their success with no till. I have two friends with goats. They have a lot of goat-manurey bedding and they plant right in that. It takes Ruth Stout’s technique up a notch.

  • Very cool! I just started in no-till this year and had a horrible time finding good resources to help me get started. I have been blogging about the transformation also, although I didn’t even mention the permanent beds part (I garden in raised beds), which I should have. Thanks for posting a good resource!

  • I meant “permanent pathways” part

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