No-Till Mulch Gardening for the Home Garden or Small Farm

Looking for a green thumb from whom to gleam some gardening advice? Have I got a suggestion for you! I know a lady who is easily the most intimidating gardener I know. She's overseen the prolific growth of forests the world over, coral reefs, open plains, feathered brush and waving grasses. A little secret about her methods: She's used a no-till, no-plow, pesticide- and herbicide-free approach for all time. 

That's right, folks. Primo gardener, green-thumb extraordinaire.... MOTHER NATURE. She's got it all figured out. It's time to pay attention.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Tilling and plowing is sooooo yesterday! We're causing more harm than good with these methods, when there is a much easier way that adds compost to your garden, suppresses weeds, feeds your plants and recycles household garbage like cardboard and paper shredding.

Earliest versions of our human relatives trotted bipedally more than three million years ago out of evolutionary soup, out of their autobiographical stint as apes and into a new role as bull in the china shop of Planet Earth.  One of the biggest victims of that flurry of activity was soil, which has lost a full 1/3 of its volume since humans became self-appointed kings of Earth's castle. It can take more than 500 years to create about one inch of topsoil; it takes far fewer to destroy it. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) projects that the world by 2050 will have only 1/4 of the topsoil it had in 1960; we could run out of the stuff 20 years after that.

When we rip out all the trees in an area, plow a field, refuse to compost and practice intensive, monoculture farming, we kill topsoil. Plowing, digging and tilling disturb the mellow balance of bugs, worms, fungi and microbes doing their underground dance. These practices kill the soil's ability to absorb water and prevent the damage wrought by unchecked flooding. They break apart the structure of the soil, which for all time has been layered top-down with mulch, compost, untouched soil and subsoil

Insects such as earthworms, termites and ants travel through soil and mix it while they do. These critters change the way the dirt is formed in a beautiful, symbiotic dance that is the definition of awesome. Earthworms gobble up soil and other organic residues (food scraps, for example) and as they digest and expel this heady mix, the worms make nutrients more accessible to plants. This all happens while the worm is gently turning soil over, aerating the dirt and making water absorption easy as pie for the soil. Tilling disrupts that.

At Better Farm, each fall we pull annuals out of the ground and toss them in the compost pile. Then, we load the rows of our main garden with hay. The winter snow compresses that hay, which breaks down as fertilizer for the ground beneath.

Each spring, we go out again, line between garden rows with cardboard, and add fresh hay, raked-up leaves, tiny twigs and other brown lawn debris to the rows. Here's that process in action:

It doesn't look like much now, but here's the view by mid-summer:

Of course, this doesn't all happen overnight. It can take months to a year to get finished compost.  We like that because it's gradual food for our plants—as they grow, we continually add hay and compost around their bases to continuously get rid of weeds. And, we are always adding cardboard between rows. This is a great way to keep paper out of the "waste stream" too—hit up your local businesses for a ton of free cardboard.

And if you're short on hay, stop in at any local farm. Farmers often have wet or partially decomposed hay they don't have a use for. You can get it for free and feed it to your garden. Mother Nature will thank you.


Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.