Why Rototillers May be More Harmful than Helpful in an Organic Garden

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Rototillers can be more harmful than helpful in an organic garden.

The most important thing you can do, in my opinion, to grow a healthy, disease and pest-free garden is to build your soil. Therefore, the most important thing you can do to keep your garden pesticide and chemical fertilizer free is build your soil. And unfortunately, rototillers destroy soil rather than build it.

Soil is amazing and reflects the complexity of its Creator. It is so much more than weathered rock. Healthy soil also contains the decaying remains of dead plants and soil organisms, air, water and living organisms. It is these living organisms in particular that bring health to your soil and are destroyed by roto-tilling. It is said that a teaspoon of soil can contain billions of organisms! These organisms include fungi, bacteria, earthworms and anthropods. Listen to some of what these organisms do for your soil: they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere so that your plants can now use it, they aerate the soil, they break down toxins, suppress soil-borne diseases, and decompose organic matter. Some fungus even form symbiotic relationships with plant roots where each benefit from the other.

Ironically, we till to break up compacted soil, and in the end we compact it by tilling. Rototillers finely grind the soil killing the living organisms that are vital to soil health. Because the particles are so fine, aeration is diminished and soil structure is destroyed. The nutrient content of the soil is now compromised making fertilization necessary. Plants will be less healthy making them more prone to disease and pests. You can see how this downward spiral would make growing a garden organically more difficult.

If you are clearing a large area for a new garden and find it necessary to use a rototiller, try to make this the one and only time. Hand digging is preferred; although it may disrupt the soil organisms, it does not destroy them. I prefer no dig methods of gardening such as lasagna gardening. This is a wonderful way to build a garden that builds soil, and eliminates the back breaking task of digging a garden.

300 x 250To learn how to build a garden that builds healthy soil, be sure to check out my eBook The Art of Gardening: Building Your SoilYou really can become a better gardener, and you really can grow healthy, nourishing produce. It’s all about the soil! Click here to buy now.

 

Another good resource is Healthy Soils for Sustainable Gardens, a Brooklyn Botanical Garden Guide edited by Niall Dunne. Also recommended is Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for this post. I would like to practice no-till gardening as I am just starting really, with vegetable gardening, and will have to create a new gardening space this year. I am hoping to start a community garden in my neighbourhood and while I was hoping to establish raised beds, it might be cost-prohibitive and we’ll likely have regular garden patches formed from tilling up the soil. As we have a large number of areas to break up, I imagine we’ll have to use a rototiller as otherwise the work would be enormous. Do you think this is a bad way to start out? Should we just be hand-digging it?

  2. says

    First of all – Wow!!!!! What a fantastic goal. Your neighborhood will be blessed because of your efforts. I tried to be careful when I wrote this post to not make it a “thou shalt not” post. I wanted to share the best case scenario, but we all know that life is not that easy. Will you be the main decision maker for the garden, or will there be a board who makes decisions? Will each person have autonomy over their own plot, and to what extent? Is each person willing to hand dig his own plot, or better yet make a lasagna garden (see the link in my post)? Lasagna gardening can be done without the sides we normally think of as necessary in raised beds. If the decision is made that a rototiller needs to be used, my best recommendation is to do that the first year only. It would be wise for the size of the beds to be such that they can be worked without ever stepping into them so that the soil is not compacted. Then build on the beds each year with mulch, compost, rotted manure, etc. to build the soil. If you are careful about compaction and keep adding organic matter, you will not ever have to dig again. I look forward to following your journey!

  3. says

    I didn’t realize you had left a reply, sorry to take so long to check! Thanks very much! I am planning on forming a committee to make the decisions in the garden, but I have a feeling most of the responsibility will fall to me. I had read that you can do “raised bed” gardening without the sides, but I guess I hadn’t thought of doing it myself. It’s a good idea. I don’t like the idea of tramping down the rows and compacting the soil in the beds, and I do like the idea of long narrow beds, so I think your suggestion is a great one. I can just plan the beds the way I would have if I was going to build raised beds, and amend the soil accordingly, but not bother with the expensive sides. I’ll check out the lasagna gardening link you posted as I’ve read briefly about it but not in detail. As a conservation biologist, I love the idea of it. Our province is highly dependent on our agricultural industry and things like fall ploughing cause major issues with soil fertility, siltation of streams, wind-borne erosion, etc. So on a large scale some of the tilling practices really bother me–it only makes sense that I would try to avoid it in the garden we’re planning. Thanks so much for your advice! I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!

    • says

      Rosalyn, I cannot wait to see your progress! After my first reply to you, I viewed a documentary that I think you will love. It’s called Back to Eden and it’s found here: http://backtoedenfilm.com/. I would like to implement this gardener’s ideas, although I think I would do it in raised beds. Either way, what an innovative person!

  4. says

    I just read a review for that documentary and I have it open in another tab to watch later this evening when my little ones go to bed! I’m looking forward to it. :)

  5. says

    OK I just came upstairs after finishing watching this documentary with my sister (who is not really into homesteading and I pretty much dragged her in to watch it with me) and we were both SO impressed. It’s funny because when I was working on forest inventory a couple of summers ago with our forestry department, part of my job was measuring woody debris (as an indicator of soil health) and I completely understood at the time why it was important to have it there, but I completely didn’t think of it in this way. I also liked the idea of mulching for weed suppression but didn’t really think past that. Now I SO wish I had asked the tree service guys for the wood chips that they mulched in my driveway last year when we had a tree cut down and others trimmed! I am hosting our first community garden committee meeting next week and will strongly suggest we take this approach. I also think that we will do it in raised beds. Thanks again for suggesting it. I am definitely a believer! And I’ve very much enjoyed our conversation about it!!

  6. says

    I’m glad you were inspired! Me, too. My husband, the lawn lover, wants to make our entire yard a garden now. Little by little. If you decide to go this way with the community garden will that delay planting for this year? I think the mulch will need to decompose for a while. What we have been doing for the past few years is similar, except that we use straw, leaves, compost, etc. Both methods are considered sheet composting. We have planted directly into our new “lasagna” beds with success. They do require more watering the first year because the water seems to run right out of them when new. I can’t wait for your new posts and to see the progress however your project goes!

    • says

      I thought that if we put a thick layer of soil/compost under the wood chips, we’d still be able to plant. I am super excited about it! I’ll keep an eye on the water, I’m hoping to install a drip irrigation system, would that help? Thanks for all your advice and I’ll definitely keep you posted! And just in case I didn’t comment, I loved your lasagna gardening post and shared it with a friend who loved it as well. :)

      • says

        Rosalyn, I don’t have any experience with drip irrigation and we ourselves are trying to make some decisions regarding it. I’m quite amazed by Paul’s garden in Back to Eden and how he only waters small plants. I think it may take years of building soil the way he does to get to that point. Another AMAZING farmer is Sepp Holzer in Austria. Are you familiar with him? Google him and watch his videos if you have a chance. He says that plants become dependent on the water we give them and then do not grow deep roots. I have a tendency to water every day in hot weather, but I understand that it is better to water very deeply only once a week. Some habits die hard, ya know?

  7. says

    Well, your plants in the top picture certainly attest to the healthy soil in which they are growing, so well done! And I garden in raised beds, for vegetables, and I don’t use any wood for the sides–I just pile the dirt up where I want it, and it works fine. Of course, I garden in the Pacific Northwest, where there is a lot of clay in the soil, so don’t know if this would work in real sandy soil, but for me it works just fine.

  8. says

    I had no idea but I’ve not used one of those
    machines.. I have always used my spade
    to turn the soil… The first photo is amazing.
    Thanks for sharing this info.
    Nice garden
    sandy

  9. says

    This is really interesting. I have done strip-tilling for my garden before, but it is so labor intensive to not use the rototiller that I end up using it many times. We’ll see how this spring goes.

  10. says

    First of all, your garden is beautiful! We also do not till our gardens, I just keep adding mulch and letting nature do her magic… when I plant I use a shovel. I too just learned of the Back to Eden Method of gardening and was instantly hooked! I’m starting a backyard flower farm enterprise this year comprised of 8 4×12 raised beds. The beds will be placed directly onto the lawn in a 30 by 25 foot area. The first layer will be cardboard to keep grass out of the beds. Then a layer of not entirely composed organic material, the next layer will be compost that has been scooped right out of our chicken run and the top layer will be chipped organic material to hold moisture and keep weeds at bay.. The beds will be 12 inches deep. i’ll be growing mostly cut flowers, herbs and possibly a few climbing beans on poses here and there for vertical interest in the garden. Thank you for sharing this post with the Farmgirls! I loved it!

  11. wendypchef says

    Thanks for this. My soil is very rocky – I did the lasagna method, and when I grew carrots they were super stubby because the ground beneath wasn’t loose enough. I have an organic gardener coming to put in beds, and he advised rototilling, plus adding a lot of compost and worms to the top of them. So, I guess it comes down to knowing your soil. Once the initial beds are in we don’t anticipate needing to till ever again.

  12. Lori Winter says

    Fantastic post! My husband and I learned about the benefits of no-dig gardening (and the harmful aspects of tilling) while traveling in New Zealand working on permaculture farms. We’ve been hand digging a veggie garden in our new backyard now that we’re back home. Thanks for the concise explanation of why not tilling is the way to go!

  13. says

    I’ve started no-till gardening this year and it’s going really well! When I wanted to make new beds in the fall, I covered them with newspaper, cardboard, wood chips, and old leaves. Didn’t dig or do anything about the very thick, hard-to-kill grass. In the spring I lifted up the mulch and the ground beneath was grass-free, soft, and teeming with earthworms! I did find I had to remove the mulch and lightly cultivate with a hand rake in order to make a seed bed, but otherwise these beds have gotten no tilling at all! The beds I made in spring did need to be dug to get the sod off, but that’s all I did. They’re sitting under newspaper and leaves decomposing some more and waiting for tomato planting time. All I can say is, so far this is working much better than my compacted, hard-baked, earthworm-free beds of last year. We dug those by hand and broke up the soil as much as possible — only to find that they packed right back down with the first rain. So over the winter, I piled huge heaps of dead leaves on them and didn’t dig. Now the soil texture is SO much better, worms are living there, and I’m hopeful things will grow much better there this year.

    • says

      Yes, you can certainly move forward this way. Covering your garden with mulch for the winter is always a good idea. If you make paths for walking and never walk where you plant, tilling becomes unnecessary, and gardening becomes easier!

  14. says

    Thank you for this. This is our 4th year of gardening. My husband decided to invest in a rototiller last year thinking it would help our garden. At first I thought it was the excess compost we used, then the unusual heat, but as I read and read, I realized we had destroyed our soil. I let everything die and heal and rest for a few months. We started again in late Oct- Nov and now have a beautiful garden. We’re expanding and putting in more boxes where we had tilled. I can’t wait. This is something I wish I had known a year ago, but it was a hard lesson to learn.

    • Susan says

      That’s part of life, CE. There are always lessons to learn, aren’t there? The point is that we remain learners and never think we’ve “arrived”.

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