Simplify the Job With No-Till Gardening

a no-till, no-weeding garden

By Emily Diehl

When my mom was first teaching me to garden, when I was around ten years old, she would begin by hauling out the tiller and pushing it in the grass for hours to break up the soil. She came inside sore, exhausted, and overheated. When summer came and the plants were growing, the weeds also grew. They took over, and most of the work we did was weeding Bermuda grass--the gardener's nightmare.

That was until last fall, when I started my freshman year of college and began volunteering at the school's farm. While taking a gardening workshop, I learned a new technique that saved us from this torturous work. The technique: no-till gardening.

Also referred to as "layer gardening," "lasagna gardening," or "weed-free gardening," this type of garden bed is formed on top of the ground instead of in it. The benefits of this are spectacular. First, the soil in the typical backyard is not going to be very fertile. While it can be made fertile, it takes a lot of work and time. As my instructor pointed out, the soil can also be polluted with chemicals, trash, etc. With no-till, the gardener has more control by choosing exactly what is in their soil. Second, as the name suggests, there is no tilling whatsoever, which not only saves your back but is also better for the ground and beneficial worms.

Here's how it works. The first step is killing the grass by smothering it, rather than using harsh chemicals or a tiller. First, you need to cut the grass as short as possible, then place layers of cardboard on the ground. The layers must overlap by several inches, otherwise the grass will find its way between the spaces. The cardboard not only kills the grass, but it also attracts worms which will break up the dirt. Next, make a boarder for your garden to keep the soil in and the weeds out. You can use any boarder you like, such as cinder blocks or wood. I have seen raised beds made from wood panels that are a few feet high, but they don't have to be that tall. I like to keep it cheap. For one bed, I used old firewood and for another I used limestone rocks that I found in construction zones.

Once you have made a boarder, water down the cardboard and begin piling on some compost. This can be either fully or partially composted. It will eventually break up with the cardboard, and it will be excellent food for the worms and plants. For the workshop, we used coffee grounds, but that is only recommended for plants that don't mind acidic soil. You could also use vegetable cuttings or any other composting materials. When I did this at home, I used manure and wood shavings from our horse stalls.

Continually water down the garden bed as you go. In the workshop, we then added worm compost. At home, I did not have worm compost available, and so I used fully composted manure. You could find compost fairly cheap, but, if you have the time, you can prepare your own with manure, vegetable, and/or paper ("brown") materials. Leaves are also great for composting. This is not only free but is also pretty fun.

We then mixed the compost with perlite to keep it evenly moist and then added some top soil. Depending on what you're are planting, you may not need this. Add whatever materials are necessary for what you are planting. After we wetted our bed, we layered some wet straw (could also use hay) around the edges to keep the structure together. Because the bed was higher than the border, the straw kept it from spilling over. All we had to do after that was plant and surround the plants with straw. If you transplant, you simply have to bunch the straw as close as possible to the small plants, but if you plant seeds, especially small seeds, you will have to give them a little more space. As the layers break down, the plants will benefit from the lower materials. The cardboard will disintegrate over time, and the worms will have loosened the soil enough for the roots to develop. If you layered the cardboard correctly, you should have little-to-know weeding.

And there you have it--a no-till, no-weeding, and perfectly fertilized garden.