Okay then, you’ve either recently gotten in the possession of some space for gardening and some time to kill, or you’ve finally decided to use the garden you’ve already had instead of leaving it for weeds to infest. Or maybe you are seriously undertaking the ancient trade of farming and want to start in your own garden. Whatever the case, you need to till your garden first. This will ensure that your plants can grow in perfect condition and have access to enough nutrients to prosper.
What is Tilling?
When the soil is too compacted, farmers have a harder time planting seeds. It is is also not possible to add amendments to the soil when it is clumped together. So when you need to break up the compacted soil, you till it into finer soil and turn it over. This is especially needed if the garden area soil is made up of a lot of clay which tends to compact easily.
How deep do you need to till your garden?
Exactly how deep you till it will depend on your goals. If it is a new garden bed, then around 8-10 inches is best. A shallower depth of 4-8 inches is preferred if you are mixing in the amendments. This will depend on your plants root depth as well, so look into that.
The process of tilling also removes weeds and unnecessary plant roots and plant parts from the garden soil.
When to Till?
The best time for tilling a new garden is in the spring, at the end of the growing season. This is when the soil is dry and the environment is warm. The exact time will depend on your region’s weather conditions. This may be as early as March or as late as May for you. Tilling the soil when it is wet will make things worse. It will more easily clump together so you’d best leave it for dry and warm weather.
To make sure it is dry, try to insert your trowel in the ground. If it’s easy to penetrate, then it’s still wet underneath. But if it’s dry to the touch and hard to dig in, then you’re good to go.
You can also pick up a handful of the dirt and squeeze it in your hand. Now poke it. If the dirt falls apart, that means it’s dry enough. If it doesn’t, the soil isn’t ready for tilling.
How to Till a Garden – Electric Tilling
Electric tilling might be a good choice for you, especially if you’ve rented it for a small plot, such as your garden. They are not as powerful as the gas tillers, but they are light, and they do their job quietly.
Wear boots and goggles to protect yourself from injuries caused by sharp sticks and rocks that can be pelted at you at high speeds. You should actually remove rocks and large objects by hand so that they don’t ruin the forks. Larger weeds need to be removed, as well, else you might help their seeds spread.
The worst thing to do is to have to go over the same row you’ve tilled, effectively compacting it again. So make sure your cord reaches all parts of the garden before you start.
Push it gently as if you are mowing the lawn. And remember not to over-till. You don’t want to break up the soil so much it becomes easier to compact later.
A Word of Warning and the Negative Effects of Tilling
Tilling and turning the soil over has been an inseparable part of our farming tradition going back as far as the early days, and many stand by this tradition, but in the last few decades, the idea has been challenged. The benefits attributed to the yearly practice of tilling is aeration of the soil, killing and removal of weeds, the mixing and deep insertion of fertilizer, compost and other organic materials and amendments to the soil.
Can You Over Till a Garden?
One reason people till is to kill weeds. This benefit is not to be understated. However, you literally dig up another problem by doing this. More weeds! Lying deeper in the soil are seeds that grow to replace those weeds if stirred awake. They only need light and air to germinate and cause problems for you. Lo and behold, tilling creates this very opportunity for them.
You might want to handle weeds with mulches, individually pulling them out, or doing them in by using a sharp hoe. Yank out the larger ones, hoe regularly for the smaller ones, so only a few will ever grow to be so large. Do this, and you’ll actually end up with fewer weeds than if you tilled the soil.
Another reason people till deep is to insert all the organic material and compost into the soil. However, depending on the plants you’re growing, they probably don’t go that far down to get their nutrients anyway. Most plants only need their nutrients to be a few inches deep. Rain and water will carry it lower anyway.
But hasn’t it struck you as odd that wild plants don’t need this type of human intervention to grow on soil?
The reason for this intervention is that farmers undo the aeration of the soil simply by walking back and forth on it, not to mention all the farming equipment and tractors that roll around on it. Adding pressure on the soil squeezes the air out. Tilling just solves this problem while creating other problems.
One major drawback to tilling is that you may be killing the earth’s natural little tillers. Earthworms! Along with other soil-dwellers, they dig and move around in the dirt throughout their lives, creating holes for the plants’ root systems to breathe, without actually turning the soil and exposing the weed seeds to light.
Final Verdict on Tilling a Garden
It might be strange to come across an article that guides you on tilling then warns you against doing so. Truth is that tilling has its time and place. As stated earlier, sticky clay soil might clump up too much, so it requires tilling. If the soil has been heavily compacted, then tilling is necessary.
Best practice is to not do it past once or twice, then keep the foot traffic to a minimum and only walk on a designated non-farming path. Keep the plants close enough so that you don’t need to step on the soil, and you don’t have to worry about aeration ever again.