The Hort Report – May 2018

In Conservatory by Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory

To Till or Not to Till – Disturbing the World Wide Web

As gardeners prepare the plot of land destined to support vegetables over the next few months or so, there is some controversy as to whether to till the soil. There are two trains of thought as to the proper gardening method. Here are some issues to consider.

To Till

Pros:

  1. Tilling helps aerate the soil which helps moisture penetrate the roots and helps soil become more friable, making it easier to weed.
  2. Tilling eliminates weeds that have established themselves over winter.
  3. Compost and manure can be added at this time and dug into the soil as organic fertilizer for the crops.
  4. The soil surface looks groomed and manicured.

Cons:

  1. Erosion is more likely to take place in disturbed soil.
  2. Disturbed soil is a breeding ground for weed germination.
  3. Disturbed soil also discourages colonization of beneficial micro-organisms such as plant-eating nematodes, beetles and earthworms from establishing themselves in the soil.

No-Till

Pros:

  1. Maintaining intact soil allows moist, humus soil to become the perfect environment for earthworm habitat.
  2. The undisturbed soil encourages populations of beneficial fungi that provide plant roots with nutrients and, in turn, procure nutrients from their roots.
  3. Worms, ants and micro-organisms aerate the soil.
  4. The excretions of these colonies of micro-organisms add natural fertilizer to the soil.
  5. The thick layer of natural mulch helps prevent rapid water evaporation, giving the plants more of an opportunity to absorb moisture.
  6. The increase of plant growth hormones increases the yield of your vegetable garden.
  7. Increases defense against insect pests.
  8. No-till gardening sequesters CO2. Plants absorb the carbon from the air and it is stored as part of the root/soil structure while releasing oxygen.
  9. The best overall benefit – no sore backs!

Cons:

  1. Selective hand weeding with a digging fork may be necessary but is a gentle disturbance compared to tilling; there will be less weeds with every passing year.
  2. The garden doesn’t have a groomed appearance and looks less tidy.

Mother Nature has been maintaining forests, meadows and various landscapes since the beginning of time without any interference or help from humans. In their pre-occupation with aesthetics, humans remove the spent foliage from the garden, place them in a compost pile only to return the finished compost to the very garden in which it came.

The process of decomposition occurs naturally without help from humans. Mother Nature performs this process in layers: in the autumn with a layer of spent foliage and fallen leaves, and then in the winter with a blanket of snow. These layers insulate plants and soil by protecting them from the freeze/thaw that can damage roots. The snow also helps break down the layer of carbon.

The micro-organism machine continues the decomposition process. There is a symbiotic relationship between the soil and its microorganism inhabitants. In undisturbed soil, a naturally occurring fungus called Mycorrhizae Fungi threads its way through the soil, colonizing plant roots. It derives carbohydrates delivered through plant roots and, in turn, helps nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, to become more bioavailable to plants. It also connects plants in an underground network enabling them to communicate with each other, helping to initiate host defense against pathogens and diseases. Many plants can survive without this network of fungal threads, however, they will thrive growing in a myccorhizal environment. Some of the most important species have essential underground tasks, so keep them in mind when planting.

Happy gardening!