Oh, those seductive power tools — used properly, they eliminate a tremendous amount of labor and save precious time. Take the Rototiller, which has seduced many a gardener with its ability to create a finely worked seed bed. But recently it's been receiving bad reviews for performing the task for which it was designed: to pulverize and turn over the soil. What's wrong with this?
The answer is as complex as, well, soil. Soil is made of 50 percent minerals and 50 percent air and water. When garden soil is tilled, the pathways made by roots and soil insects, such as worms, are destroyed. But these pathways create the space air and water occupy. Without those spaces the soil structure compacts, leaving a heavy, lifeless mass impenetrable by all but the most vigorous plant life — colonizing weeds. Instead of thriving, desirable garden plants struggle.
Here are a few ideas to help eliminate tilling.
Avoid using a Rototiller unless you're preparing a new garden area from a parcel of sod.
Garden in raised beds, or at least avoid walking on the soil to avoid compaction.
Use mulch to control weeds.
Obtain, or make your own, real compost and incorporate it no deeper than two inches into your soil. The worms will do the rest.
Use organic fertilizers. Synthetics do not promote good soil structure and have been shown to be less than friendly to beneficial soil organisms. Used over time, they will acidify soil to an unhealthy degree.
How did we get here? In the days of Thomas Jefferson, it was believed that plants actually fed directly upon dirt. Agronomists allied themselves with an English country lawyer named Jethro Tull who espoused the belief that the finer you made your soil, the easier it was for plants to eat it. He should have been named Jethro Till. America fell in love with the practice of grinding the soil into as small a particle size as possible. Unfortunately, that practice also destroyed, dislocated and chopped up small invertebrate animals (such as insects, worms and spiders) and bacteria, and destroyed aeration and drainage. We had such fertile soil to start with that it took a while for it to exhaust. When it did, science introduced synthetic fertilizers and productivity again blossomed — unfortunately for the short term.
In the last 20 years, science has revealed that microscopic bacteria and fungi combine with plant roots to make nutrients available to plants. This symbiotic relationship is what improves the structure, or tilth, of the soil.
Freshly rototilled soil might look light and fluffy. However, unless you are adding copious amounts of organic matter (the only justification for tilling mechanically) it will soon return to its former compacted state, only worse! Many people use a rotary tiller to control weeds, but tilling brings dormant weed seeds to the surface and exposes them to light. This is all many seeds need to begin germinating. So the solution creates more problems than it solves. Add to this the fuel and pollution produced by the machines and the case against rototilling grows.
It can be daunting to change long-held gardening habits but, in this case, it will be worth the effort. Using soil-friendly methods, you'll soon reap the rewards of better soil structure without having to grapple with a smelly, heavy and costly machine.
Oh, by the way, anybody want to buy a slightly used rotary tiller, cheap?