Four Basic Principles of No-Till Growing
Although no-till market gardening may manifest itself in many different shapes and forms—from cover crops to hay mulch to cardboard gardens—there are some basic principles that seem to prevail throughout.
Regardless of your style of no-till, it is these ideas that you are likely employing to decide how exactly to run and maintain your gardens ecologically.
So below is a brief breakdown of those ideas. Some may use the following principles consciously or unconsciously, but I rarely run into a no-till grower who doesn’t follow these basic guidelines.
Gotta Make a Living
By contrast to the “market gardener”, a lot of backyard gardeners may choose not use tillage. This is often as much a practical choice (getting a tractor or tiller into a yard is pricy or inconvenient) as an ecological one. So they may use straw or hay to cover the soil and plant into that, or compost, or cardboard, or a combination.
For production agriculture, however, the no-till market gardener—also known around this site as a no-till grower because it’s faster to type—must scale that idea to be efficient and profitable. Making a living is the goal of that no-till grower, and an important guiding principle in no-till market gardening: one’s methods must be profitable for the farmer and soil alike.
So where the backyard gardener can choose a method and enjoy the fruits of their labor, the no-till grower must choose a method that is ecologically and financially sound on their scale. Indeed, here’s what that looks like...
Keep the Soil covered as Much as Possible
Because the sun is the ultimate sanitizer, the soil must remain covered to function at its highest level. However, what constitutes a cover material varies and honestly has to vary. In fact, the subjective nature of the term “as possible” in all three of the next tenets may frustrate some diehards but is wholly essential. Every situation is going to be different. Access to cover materials will vary based on region and proximity to towns so not everyone can cover in the same way. Therefore, “keeping the soil covered” for one farmer may mean with cover crops because there are no good compost or mulch suppliers around, or they’re one too large of a scale of compost covering, whereas another grower may use straw because they have an organic wheat farm down the road. These terms are loose and subjective so as to not limit the possibilities of what can count as cover material, or no-till as a whole.
In fact, “Avoid Dogma” is an important principle that I have not included, but is worth strictly adhering to as well.
Disturb the Soil as Little as Possible
There are innumerable fungal connections threading below the surface of living soil and help your plant to root, eat, fend off disease, and grow. There are also plant roots, nutrients, microbial and microbial lifeforms. So one of the most important principles to no-till growing is doing everything possible to retain those connections, as well as the air pockets through which worms move, the liquid carbon and other gases stored below soil surface. For some, their no-till technique may still require a broadfork or breaking new ground with a disc, or lightly “tilthing” the surface inch of their beds after crops come out, whereas others disturb only when planting by pulling back a bit of mulch and inserting a transplant. Again, if the goal is “as possible”, the execution can be entirely flexible.
Keep the Soil Planted as Much as Possible
There is almost nothing more beneficial to microbial life than living plant roots. You will recall from biology class that the leaves of plants covert sunlight and carbon dioxide through photosynthesis into delicious treats on which beneficial fungi and bacteria feed and grow. Without roots in the ground, however, these mycorrhizal organisms—that is, beneficial microbes that live strictly off of plant roots—die out. So although it is not essential to grow year-round, it is certainly advantageous, therefore keeping something growing as much as possible is often a significant goal for the no-till grower.
Notably, that “something growing” does not have to be cover crop either—for some no-till growers their cover cops are also just cash crops. Instead of rye, it’s fa a beans or garlic or peas or mache or any number of hardier crops. Either way, no-till growers try to keep something in the soil sequestering carbon and feeding microbes as often as is reasonable to achieve all of the other above goals.
“No-till market gardening” is certainly not limited to these ideas, they’re just a place from which to grow.