Reduce tillage to improve soil - East Idaho News
In the Garden

Reduce tillage to improve soil

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My tiller is idle, and I’ve become a lazy gardener. Three years ago I didn’t have time to till my garden, so I just tilled where the potatoes were to be planted and the rest of the garden went into the soil as it was. The past two years I haven’t tilled my garden at all.

This year, I even planted my potatoes in a very shallow furrow (one inch), did not cover them with soil, set my drip line next to them and hilled them with wood chips rather than pull the soil up on them. I’ve been able to harvest a few potatoes by just pulling the wood chips away from the stem and collecting the potatoes off the soil surface. Then, I push the chips back around the plant and let it continue growing and producing.

Potatoes 2
Young potato sitting on the soil surface. | Tom Jacobson,

I’ve only had one green end as the potato stolons are happy to stay below the wood chips rather than try to force their way to the surface of the hill. It’s been fun, and the potatoes are good size for the cultivars I am growing – medium- to large-sized bakers.

Tillage is a two-edged sword. Any activity we do will have unintended consequences.

We till our gardens to create a good seed bed. Seed-to-soil contact is essential for good seed germination. Tillage also destroys soil structure, making it more difficult for the good soil microbes to establish a symbiotic relationship with the young plants.

We till to incorporate organic matter into the soil, but tillage introduces high levels of oxygen into the soil and the organic matter gets “burned” up very quickly. We till to kill weeds, while the tillage action brings weed seeds to the surface and we end up with a lot of weeds in our gardens.

It’s a long list of two edges of the tillage sword.

It is impossible to farm/garden without some tillage. The act of creating a shallow planting furrow or making a hole for transplants is a type of tillage. I suppose one could just broadcast seeds onto the soil surface and try to keep them wet enough to grow and take root, but that is inefficient and impractical.

The point is to reduce tillage as much as possible.

What are some of the benefits I have seen from reduced tillage?

  • Less labor in the spring
  • Smaller carbon footprint due to less combustion engine operation
  • Greater biological activity in the soil
  • Better soil structure
  • Fewer weeds
  • More carbon sequestration in the soil

What are some of the disadvantages I have seen from reduced tillage?

  • My tiller is lonely
  • There are probably others, but I haven’t seen them yet


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