A year ago, I participated in the Master Gardener course through the University of Wyoming Extension Program, an online course with 167 participants for 14 weeks. It opened up a whole new world of gardening for me, especially in the no-till, no-dig method of gardening. I was a tiller fan until then; now I have restructured my approach to soil preparation. My question to you today is what difference does it make: to plow or not to plow?
To answer this question, I’m going to give you information about what I learned from one of the Master Gardener classes. It was taught by Washakie County-based University of Wyoming agriculture and horticulture educator Caitlin Youngquist, PhD. She explained that the ground beneath our feet is a whole living system of microorganisms, plants, decaying materials, insects and worms. This system is mutually beneficial to the air we breathe, the plants we enjoy, and the soil in which they grow. The energy and carbon dioxide that plants extract from the air is converted by photosynthesis into growing plant tissues and what is not needed is excreted into the soil through the roots, including nitrogen, phosphate, carbon and sugars.
This in turn feeds soil microbes which break down soil materials into small particles for the tiny root hairs of plants to absorb needed minerals, water and nutrients from the soil. Microscopic threads formed by soil fungi attach themselves to the fine hairs of plant roots, extending their reach into the soil for water and nutrients. Soil fungi form a sticky substance to stabilize soil clods (aggregates) to capture carbon in a form usable by plants. In the no-till/digging method, soil microbes, earthworms, arthropods and nematodes work together to break down organic matter such as leaves, rotting roots, compost into usable building blocks for plants . They do all the digging for you! When plowing is introduced into the soil, this whole system is destroyed. Leaving this living system intact gives our gardens a boost, fines the soil, retains moisture, reduces weeds and ultimately leads to better yields. Without the start, it takes longer for seedlings to become established and enter production.
For those of you who are skeptical like me, I encourage you to try a no-till section in your gardens or flower beds this spring. Ideally, preparation should be done in the fall when your garden has stopped producing. There is no need to completely remove all of your plants or pull them out by the roots. Dead roots become food for soil microbes. One option is to cover your garden with cardboard or newspaper, then cover it with a thick mulch of hay, straw, leaves, compost, grass clippings, aged manure, wood chips or sawdust. If no fall preparation has been done in your garden, you can still do it between your rows this spring.
When it’s time to plant, remove the mulch just enough to plant your seeds or seedlings. Once your seedlings have emerged, mulch can be pushed back around the plants to retain moisture. In the first year, you may need to slightly lift the soil where the seeds/seedlings will be planted with a shovel, pickaxe, wide pitchfork or digging fork if you have soil compaction. Leave compost between rows of plants to reduce weeds and retain moisture. Try planting clusters of carrots, onions, beets, etc. to conserve water and reduce weeds. Rule number one above all else is to leave no bare ground. Bare soil during fall tillage becomes a magnet for weed seeds, topsoil blows away and erosion occurs.
How will you know if it makes a difference? It may take a few seasons, but if you persist with this type of soil preparation and planting, you will eventually have nice loamy soil to plant. After doing a round of this type of soil preparation, loosen the soil and inspect it. The best sign is the presence of earthworms, increased soil structure, fewer weeds, increased production and beautiful flowers. This method results in less work and more enjoyment of your garden.
There are fun videos on the internet that detail no-dig, no-till gardens, like Gardener Scott at youtube.com/watch?v=We67veUla0Y and Steven Cornett on using a wide pitchfork at youtu.be/LnlUxesnhfI. For more information on the Master Gardener program, see the University of Wyoming Extension website at wyo.edu/mastergardener/index.html. The good news is that there is one planned for this fall.
Judy Stallman is a Sheridan County Master Gardener.