When to till garden?

Learn How to Till Your Garden

By Emily Murphy

When creating a space for a new flower bed or veggie garden, it’s important to first prepare the soil. This is especially true if you’re working with compacted or clay soil. Tilling and adding compost give you a head start to a better growing season.

When to Till a Garden

It’s best to till a new garden in the spring when soil is dry and weather is becoming warm. For some, this may be as early as March, while others may have to wait until May or early June depending on the region and climate. Tilling wet soil damages the valuable, existing structure which you’ll need as your garden grows. Insert a trowel into the soil to determine when it is dry. If it’s difficult to insert and the soil feels dry to the touch, it’s ready.

How to Till a Garden

Follow these 11 steps to best till your garden:

    1. It’s best to prepare your spring garden in the fall and sheet mulch before rains set in.

To sheet mulch, first determine where your new garden will grow, remove any large weeds or shrubby plants, and wet soil using Gilmour’s Heavy Duty Front Control Watering Nozzle and Flexogen Super Duty Hose.

    1. Next, place a layer of cardboard over the soil surface.

The cardboard is a natural weed barrier and a source of carbon.

    1. Top the cardboard with one to two inches of weed-and-seed-free grass clippings and organic compost.

Then add a 1- to 2-inch layer of mulch over the compost, using leaves, bark, or another organic mulch.

    1. Again, wet the newly sheet mulched area using your watering nozzle and hose.
    2. Let nature do its work through fall and winter until spring.
    3. When weather warms and the soil is dry, double-dig your new garden area.

This is much easier to do after a season of sheet mulching. To double-dig, dig a 12-inch-wide trench with a spade that reaches to the depth of the spade (about 8 inches). Dig the trench from one end of your new garden to the other end, placing the soil from the trench on a nearby tarp or in a wheelbarrow.

    1. Use a garden fork to loosen the soil at the bottom of the trench.

Once loosened, but not turned, sprinkle a 2-inch layer of compost into the trench and gently work it into the soil.

    1. Next, dig another, separate trench directly adjacent to the first trench.

Again, dig this trench so it runs the full length of the new garden. As you dig, place the soil from this second trench into the opening of the first trench. It’s best to avoid mixing the soil when moving it from one trench to the other, so let it slide off your spade rather than turning it. This will help maintain beneficial soil structure.

    1. Work the base of the trench with a garden fork and spread a 2-inch layer of compost.
    2. Repeat steps 8 and 9 until you’ve covered the entire area of the new garden.
    3. Fill the final trench with the soil from the very first trench (the soil placed on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow).

Before planting, spread a final 2-inch layer of compost over the entire bed.

Benefits of Tilling Garden Soil

When you sheet mulch in fall and double-dig in spring, it prepares a planting area that is ready to grow a fabulous garden while working with nature. Soil is habitat for microbes and animals like worms that do much of the work of maintaining healthy soil. When we double-dig instead of using a machine like a rototiller, we till in such a way that is least destructive to soil health while adding aeration and organic matter.

Garden Tilling FAQ’s

How deep do I till a garden?

Double-digging adds aeration and organic matter to soil as deep as 18 inches. This is twice as deep as a typical rototiller, giving plants and their root systems the very best start.

How do I prepare garden soil?

Remember to first prepare garden soil with sheet mulching, this will make the work of double-digging in spring far easier. It also adds organic matter and helps manage weeds in advance. Sheet mulching is also a great method for converting lawn into a garden. Simply place your sheet mulching layers over the grass.

How do I turn soil?

It’s best to not turn soil often. Most soils develop over years, forming layers that are home to a variety of animals needed to grow healthy gardens. When we move soil in the double-digging approach to tilling, we add aeration and organic matter while disturbing natural soil ecology as little as possible.

To till or not to till the garden is a question gardeners in the past did not have. Growing up on a homestead, our garden has always been cleaned up, fertilized with composted manure, and turned over. We did that every spring. Teens and young adults in our rural town would form work crews to help to dig the gardens of those who were not able to do that by themselves. Digging up the garden seemed to be a necessity of life. Today rototillers have replaced these working volunteers, doing the job much faster, with less manpower, and yet it still is a big job. But …

Is digging and tilling necessary?

The natural No-Dig gardening movement is growing with great results. One of the acknowledged ho-dig growers is Charles Dowding. In his many books, he shows how no-dig gardening saves time and work. In return, it produces a better harvest and creates a richer soil with very few weeds. Who doesn’t want this kind of result?

Let’s look at the question, to till or not to till the garden, closer. Here we try to explain when tilling could be a good idea, and when it can and should be avoided.

You should not till your garden when …

… you want to build up a great soil for many years to come. Even though tilling can help you to plant an immediate garden, it will ruin your garden soil in the long run. It makes the soil harder.

Intense gardening in the same spot, year after year, is only possible if you do not disturb the soil with constant digging and tilling. Roots in a tilled garden always hit the hardcore at a certain depth, then they split and compete with each other.

Seeds from weeds brought up through the tilling will grow and after a few short weeks, the freshly tilled garden is just as hard, dry and weedy as it was before the tilling. A real vicious cycle. You can break that by stopping the tilling and covering the soil.

You do not have to till your garden when …

… your garden soil is covered. For covering use natural mulch such as compost, rotted manure, wood chips, straw, or seedless hay. You will need 1-2 inch (3-5cm) of compost mulch to cover the soil in late fall.

Compost seems to be the best and easiest cover to work with. It can be an all plant compost or a mixture of well-rotted manure and compost.

In dry climates, wood chips work well for mulch, make sure you use the right woodchips for the garden because you will be planting into them in spring.

The cover will keep the soil moist and soft and the weeds down. In spring there is no need to till or dig the garden. As soon as the snow melts, you can start planting. The soil will not dry out, weeds will not grow, and all you would need is raking the compost surface before planting, to disturb and kill any tiny weed seedlings.

If you feel like the soil is too hard you can work it with a Broadfork, or simple garden fork. Do not turn over the soil. The covered soil is maybe not as soft as freshly tilled soil at the top, but is much softer all throughout than tilled soil will ever be.

You do not have to till your garden when your soil is covered.

You can till your garden when …

… you have a new garden area. Most no-till gardening methods recommend just to cover the area with cardboard and/or newspaper, add compost and mulch and it is ready to be planted. Brett L. Markham in his book Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre compares double digging a new garden to a no-till garden system. In 3 years there is no difference, but he says digging helps to speed up the process.

So if you start a garden in a weedy and hard area, and you are still at least a few weeks away from planting time, you can till it, cover with cardboard and/ or newspaper (optional) and mulch it. In a few weeks, you will have great soil to plant in.

However, do not use a tiler if you have nasty weeds that multiply through roots. Here it really is better to dig, not to till, making sure all the roots are gone otherwise you will multiply the weeds. See also how we converted a hay field into a garden.

You should till the garden when …

…the garden is bare, with some weeds, dry and hard, and it is time to plant. This is the situation of most traditional gardens. My parents’ garden looked like this every. single. spring. Maybe your garden looks like this, too.

This is the time to till your garden for the very last time. Tilling brings immediate results. Till it and plant. But after the harvest in fall, you can convert your garden into a no-till garden. If you cover your garden, you will not have to till it ever again.

You have two choices, to till or to cover your garden soil with a thick layer of mulch. A tilled garden soil wears out over time, a covered soil builds up and gets better.

Hope this helps you to understand tilling and no-tilling a bit better and helps you to have a better garden with less work.

Here is some good information on no-till methods: Organic Gardening, Back to Eden, Gardening without work.

See how we replaced our lawn with food production.

We invite you to subscribe to Northern Homestead and follow us on Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest for the latest updates.

The soil is the precious life-blood for any and all things you plant this year. Before you start digging away, there are a few things you should know. The purpose of tilling is to mix organic matter into your soil, help control weeds, break up crusted soil, or loosen up a small area for planting. You do not need to till or break up the soil very deep; less than 12 inches is better.

Tilling too often or deep can do more damage than good to your soil. Enthusiastic rototilling done too early in the season can result in the earth’s becoming hard and unable to retain moisture. Any heavy tilling when the soil is wet is also destructive to soil structure. The soil will become terribly compacted and dry out too fast.

So when is the best time to begin working the soil? Take a handful and squeeze it into a ball. Then press your finger slightly against the ball. If the ball crumbles, it is time. Even if you have clay in your soil, this test is the best to use.

What is the best way to till your soil? If your garden is medium- or small-sized, a shovel or spading fork is the best way. But if you want to use that rototiller, just remember, not too deep and only when the soil is ready. And no matter how you break up your soil, you’ll want to add in some compost or organic matter to provide plants with more nutrition for better growth. Or, help boost your harvest by mixing a 3-inch layer of Miracle-Gro® Garden Soil for Vegetables & Herbs into the top 6 inches of native soil.

When the time is right to work the soil, your gardening year will have truly begun.

To Till or Not To Till

Even if a gardener owns a garden tiller to help with the hard work, building a bed of healthy soil can take months, if not years, of planning, preparation, and careful attention.

To cut back on that effort, some people turn to the no-till or no-dig method of gardening and farming.

No-till gardening has certain advantages, but it might not be right for every garden plot. Before you decide to till or not to till, it helps to think about the soil you have and the needs of your crops.

What Is the No-Till Method?

No-till gardening is a method that people consider when they want to take a back seat and let nature have more control. The no-till gardener or farmer raises crops through multiple growing seasons, never once disturbing the land with tillage.

When done correctly, no-till gardening can benefit your soil in several ways:

  • Reduces the amount of moisture lost when soil is turned
  • Prevents soil erosion and loss
  • Leaves beneficial organisms like worms undisturbed

The no-till method involves spreading compost or other amendments over the topsoil. The expectation is that nutrients from those amendments will gradually filter into the soil through irrigation and the burrowing movement of worms, insects, and other living beings.

What Should I Consider with the No-Till Method?

For all its benefits, the no-till method also requires gardeners and farmers to exercise a good deal of care.

No-till gardeners will have important considerations to keep in mind:

  • Likelihood of weeds
  • Need for mulch
  • Delayed seed germination
  • Caution when walking on soil

Weeds present the biggest challenge that no-till farmers and gardeners face. Tilling or cultivating your garden helps tear weeds apart and break down their root systems. Without tillage, weeds have more time to establish themselves and grow.

Weed growth can be reduced with the use of mulch, or a cover crop to use as a form of “living mulch.” Mulch covers the ground and takes up the space that weeds would otherwise try to occupy; it also blocks sunlight from reaching seedlings. However, when spreading mulch, there is a risk that it will contain weed seeds as well. Keep an eye out for any invasive growth in your garden.

Generally speaking, mulch will inhibit weeds from getting started in your soil. At the same time, it also might delay the growth of your crops. When applying mulch, take care to leave room for your developing crops to get the air and sunlight they need.

Finally, one detail that’s easy to forget is that you shouldn’t walk across a no-till garden plot the way you might step across a traditional garden. The weight of your body can compress and compact the soil. Without tillage, there’s no way to break it up into the loose, healthy soil your plants need to grow.

Why Should I Till My Garden?

Tilling is a solution for the most persistent problem that gardeners have to handle:

  • Breaks up hard soil
  • Eliminates weeds
  • Delivers nutrients deep into the soil

If your soil is rocky or heavy in clay content, no amount of compost, fertilizer, or mulch you lay on top of it will turn it into the best soil for your crops. Plants need loose soil for their roots to grow and spread, and tilling is the most efficient way to break up a densely packed garden bed.

By tilling your garden before you sow your seeds, or running a cultivator between your garden rows during the growing season, you also pulverize and destroy any weeds that might have taken root. This leaves more space and more nutrients available for your developing crops.

Tilling helps nourish your crops in yet another way. Because a tiller’s tines dig deep into the ground, they blend organic matter into the soil where it can decompose faster to provide earlier and more plentiful biomass to your plants.

The choice to till your garden ultimately should depend on the state your soil is in. No-till gardening can reduce the loss of soil and moisture and spare you some physical labor. However, to ensure the long-term health of your soil, don’t be afraid to dig deep, especially with the help of a tiller.

NEXT: How to Pick the Perfect Rototiller

Do’s and Don’ts of Tilling

Spring at last! Winter has passed, and now it’s finally time for you to get back to your garden. But before you start to plant, your soil may need some TLC to get back to prime condition, as plants need an extra boost of nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorous, to recover from winter. Tilling is one simple garden chore that can add these nutrients and loosen the soil to promote healthy plant growth. Cultivating on an annual or semi-annual basis not only eliminates weeds, it also loosens and aerates the soil for better moisture absorption and faster plant growth.

Before You Till

You should always check the state of your soil before tilling. Avoid tilling in wet soil as soil compaction can occur and lead to poor root penetration in the growing season. If it rains, it’s best to wait a few days to allow soil to become semi-dry. To determine if soil is in working condition, simply pick up a ball of soil; if it falls apart in your hand when you poke it, then it is dry enough to be tilled. If it stays together in a ball, then it is too wet and needs more time to dry.

Once you’ve completed an initial tilling of the area, it can be beneficial to water the area and let the newly worked soil set for a day or two before making a final, deep tilling pass. This ensures a well aerated bed for planting.

Tilling Don’ts

  • Do not pick a spot of land and start tilling right away. Before you select your garden location, call 811 to be connected to your states’ One Call Center, which can locate and mark utility lines before you dig.
  • Do not leave any debris in the garden. Clear away rocks, sticks and other loose foreign items that can be hazardous to you and the tiller’s tines.
  • Do not leave sod mixed in with the soil. The grass can become tangled in the tines and must be removed. Also, grass may begin to resurface as temperatures rise.
  • Do not till excessively during the year. Excessive tilling can lead to compacted soil and poor garden production.
  • Do not start to plant right away. Leave the soil alone for a day or two so any compost, organic materials or soil enhancements have time to decompose and provide nutrients into the soil.

Tilling Do’s

  • Always read your owner’s manual prior to using your tiller. All models are slightly different, so you’ll want to read the directions to ensure you’re operating properly.
  • Use a shallow tilling depth for dry, compacted soil or a medium setting for soft ground.
  • Engage the drive and slowly create parallel lines, similar to the process you follow when mowing the lawn. Once you finish the parallel rows, rearrange the tiller to its deepest depth and create rows perpendicular to the rows you just made.
  • Till about 6-8 inches deep, unless your plants benefit from a specific depth. Consult your seed packets or local nursery for more information.
  • If you are tilling a smaller, established landscape bed consider using a front-tine tiller. This design allows for the tiller to cut, dig and turn soil in smaller areas.

Cultivating-Why How & When

Why You Need to Cultivate:

  • Sun and wind dries the soil surface into a crust. Cultivating breaks up the soil surface, allowing easier penetration of air, nutrients and water deep into the soil where plant roots can access them.

  • Air that is able to penetrate the soil surface is also important to the micro-organisms in the soil that perform all kinds of important tasks improving the soil and creating nutrients for the plants.

  • Cultivated soil makes it easy for newly germinated seeds to sprout through the soil surface.

  • Although cultivating will bring some weed seeds to the soil surface to germinate, cultivating will also pull up and expose young weed sprouts. These young seedlings will die when left exposed on the soil surface. Weed seed germination is also interrupted by cultivating.

  • The removal of weeds decreases competition for water and nutrients, leaving everything for your plants to feed as needed.

  • By improving moisture penetration and therefore retention, cultivating reduces the need for supplemental watering.

  • A cultivated garden looks neat and fresh.

How to Cultivate:

  • Loosen the soil only a couple of inches deep when you cultivate. Cultivating too deeply only encourages the surface to dry out faster. Hand tools are ideally suited to the job.

  • Do not disturb plant roots, causing damage to your plants. Cultivating between the rows and not getting too close to your plants will prevent damaging roots.

  • Specific methods of cultivation are explained along with appropriate tools below.

When to Cultivate:

  • Only surface cultivate as necessary, over working of the soil is of no benefit. If you can clearly see that the surface has crusted over and that many weeds have sprouted, it is time to shallow cultivate.

  • Do not cultivate when the soil is wet, it will only cause further compaction. The soil should be quite dry, more dry than you think it should be is better than too moist.

  • Before you seed a bed. In particular, small fine seeds will have an easier time sprouting in cultivated soil.

  • Before planting flowers and vegetables.

  • Whenever you top dress the soil with compost or organic fertilizers, shallow cultivating will loosen the top crust of soil and integrate the added nutrients, reducing runoff from rain. Let the earthworms and micro-organisms do the work of fully integrating the nutrients into the soil.


Deep tilling or double digging poor soil is deep cultivation necessary when preparing a new bed or when adding large amounts of organic amendments every few years. Tilling will cultivate the soil 8-10 inches deep, perhaps more if you are preparing a new bed in poor soil. Shallower tilling of 4-8 inches is necessary when you are mixing soil amendments into a garden bed. This is ideally accomplished at the end of the growing season. Fall tilling allows you to amend the soil with rough organic amendments that will decompose slowly the following season, an ideal feeding situation for your plants next season. However, do not till in fall unless your intention is to add relatively large amounts of organic amendments to improve the soil. Some gardeners prefer not to upset the natural building of micro-organisms and earthworms other than when preparing a new garden bed. But digging in soil amendments every few years in fall can be done to a rather shallow depth, allowing the soil critters to do most of the work. Then spring till to prepare for planting. See the article about preparing the garden for winter for more details.

Why You Need to Till:

  • Soil becomes compacted over a period of years from rain and foot traffic.

  • Air pockets created by the loosened soil allow for air and water to be held for the plants to use.

  • The air is also important to the micro-organisms in the soil that perform all kinds of important tasks creating nutrients for the plants.

  • Loosened soil makes it easy for roots, and root vegetables, to spread out and grow in the soil. This is especially important in clay soil.

  • Preparing the garden bed for spring planting.

  • Shred and turn under a cover crop.

Not all gardeners agree about the necessity, frequency and depth of cultivating and tilling. All the above are generally accepted practices. Recently some small farmers have adopted No-Till Methods to disturb the soil as little as possible. This may be more important in acreage farms to reduce erosion problems. Weeds are taken care of with either herbicides or cover crops. But it may not be practical for backyard gardeners without proper no-till drills or chisel plow equipment.

Cultivating Tools:

Follow These 10 Steps to a Magnificent Garden

Starting a garden is one of the most rewarding things one can do. Whether you’re planting fragrant florals or starting a vegetable garden, anyone can benefit from getting their hands a little dirty. But it can be difficult to know where to start. Our steps ease you into gardening and reward you for your efforts with beautiful visuals, delicious flavors, and colorful blooms.

Image zoom

1. Consider Your Options

Do you want to plant a vegetable garden? An herb garden? A flower garden? If you choose vegetables and/or herbs for their contributions to your dinner table, identify which ones your family will eat or is willing to try. If you want flowers for their flair, color, and fragrance, decide whether you want annuals that bloom most of the summer but need to be replanted each spring or perennials that have a shorter bloom time but return year after year. All are valid choices but have different maintenance requirements. One bit of advice: Start small until you know what you’re getting into.

2. Pick the Correct Spot

Almost all vegetables and most flowers need 6-8 hours of full sun each day. So you need to observe your yard throughout the day to figure out which spots receive full sun versus partial or full shade. Don’t despair if your lot is largely shady. You won’t be able to grow tomatoes in shade, but many other plants (e.g., ferns and hostas) love it. This step is important to ensure your plants have their light requirements met so they can thrive. Check plant tags or ask the staff at your local garden center to help you understand out how much sun a plant requires.

Three additional tips: Pick a relatively flat spot for your garden because it’s more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to deal with a sloping garden. Check for windbreaks (e.g., your house or your neighbor’s house) that will keep plants from being harmed by strong winds. And put the garden where you can’t ignore its pleas for attention—outside the back door, near the mailbox, or by the window you gaze through while you dry your hair. Bonus if that place is close enough to a water spigot that you won’t have to drag a hose to the hinterlands.

Image zoom

3. Clear the Ground

Get rid of the sod covering the area you plan to plant. If you want quick results (e.g., it’s already spring and you want veggies this summer), cut it out. Slice under the sod with a spade, cut the sod into sections to make it easier to remove, then put it on your compost pile to decompose.

It’s easier to smother the grass with newspaper, but it takes longer. (In other words, you should start the fall before spring planting.) Cover your future garden with five sheets of newspaper; double that amount if your lawn is Bermuda grass or St. Augustine grass. Spread a 3-inch layer of compost (or combination of potting soil and topsoil) on the newspaper and wait. It’ll take about four months for the compost and paper to decompose. But by spring, you’ll have a bed ready to plant—no grass or weeds and plenty of rich soil.

4. Improve the Soil

The more fertile and friable the soil, the better your vegetables will grow. The same holds true for other plants. Invariably, residential soil needs a boost, especially in new construction where the topsoil may have been stripped away. Your soil may be excessively wet, poor and infertile, or too acidic or alkaline. The solution is often simple: Add organic matter. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost, decayed leaves, dry grass clippings, or old manure to the soil when you dig or till a new bed (see Step 5). If you decide not to dig or are working with an established bed, leave the organic matter on the surface where it will eventually rot into humus. Earthworms will do most of the work of mixing humus in with the subsoil.

To learn more about your soil, have a soil test done through your county cooperative extension office. They’ll lead you through the procedure: how much soil to send from which parts of the garden and the best time to obtain samples. Expect a two-week wait for the findings, which will tell you what your soil lacks and how to amend it.

5. Work the Soil

Working the soil is essential to preparing new beds for sowing or planting because it allows roots to penetrate the soil more easily to access water and nutrients. There are two methods: tilling and digging.

Tilling consists of cultivating soil with a mechanical device such as a rototiller. This is a good method when you need to incorporate large amounts of amendments. However, it can also disturb microorganisms and earthworms. So it’s better to do too little than too much. Excessive tilling, working soil when it’s too wet or dry, damages soil structure and plant roots.

Digging is more practical for preparing small beds. Dig only when the soil is moist enough to form a loose ball in your fist but dry enough to fall apart when you drop it. Use a sharp spade or spading fork to gently turn the top 8 to 12 inches of soil, mixing in the organic matter from Step 4 at the same time. (Walking on prepared beds compacts the soil, so lay down boards temporarily to distribute your weight.)

Image zoom Start seeds early for a headstart next spring.

6. Pick Your Plants

Some people pore over catalogs for months; others head to the garden center and buy what wows them. Either method works as long as you choose plants adapted to your climate, soil, and sunlight. You can even surf the Internet for plants to purchase. Here are a few easy-to-grow plants for beginners:

  • Annuals: Calendula, cosmos, geraniums, impatiens, marigolds, sunflowers, and zinnias
  • Perennials: Black-eyed Susans, daylilies, lamb’s-ears, pansies, phlox, purple coneflowers, and Russian sage
  • Vegetables: Cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, and tomatoes

7. Plant Your Picks

Some plants, such as pansies and kale, tolerate cold, so you can plant them in autumn or late winter. Tomatoes and most annual flowers, on the other hand, prefer warm temperatures, so don’t plant them until the danger of frost has passed in your area. Midspring and midautumn are good times to plant perennials.

Many plants, such as lettuce and sunflowers, are easy to grow from seed directly in the garden. Be sure to read the seed packet for information about planting time, depth, and spacing. If you’re an adventurous beginner, get a head start on the growing season by sowing seeds indoors a few weeks before the last frost date. There are containers or flats designed especially for seedlings and seed-starting soil mixes available at garden centers. Follow seed-packet instructions and place the containers on a sunny windowsill or under grow lights if you don’t have window space. Be sure to keep the seeds and seedlings moist but not wet, or they may rot.

An easier method of starting your garden is to buy young plants, called set plants or transplants. Dig holes in your prepared bed based on tag instructions. Remove plants from the container by pushing up from the bottom. If the roots have grown into a big ball (a condition known as being root-bound), use a fork or your fingers to untangle some outer roots before setting it into the hole. Pat soil into place around the roots, then soak the soil with water.

Image zoom Baker Creek Heirloom Farm/Watering Can project

8. Water at the Right Time

Seedlings should never be allowed to dry out, so water daily. Taper off as the plants get larger. Transplants also need frequent watering—every other day or so—until their roots become established. After that, how often you need to water depends on your soil, humidity, and rainfall; although once a week is a good place to start. Clay soil dries out more slowly than sandy soil. Sunny, windy conditions dry out soil more quickly than cool, cloudy weather. Still not sure? Feel the soil 3 to 4 inches below the surface. If it feels dry, it’s time to water. Water slowly and deeply, so the water soaks in instead of running off. To minimize evaporation, water in the early morning.

9. Protect Your Garden With Mulch

To help keep weeds out and moisture in, cover the soil with a couple of inches of mulch. You won’t have to water as often, and by preventing sunlight from hitting the soil, you’ll prevent weed seeds from germinating. Choose from a wide variety of mulches (each with its own benefits), ranging from shredded bark to river rock. If you use an organic mulch, such as bark, compost, or cocoa bean shells (which smell good, by the way), it will nourish the soil as it decomposes. For a vegetable garden or bed of annuals, choose a mulch that decomposes in a few months. For perennials, use a longer-lasting mulch such as bark chips.

Image zoom

10. Keep it Up

Your garden is beginning to grow. Help it reach its full potential by keeping up with garden chores. Water the plants. Pull weeds before they get big. Get rid of dead, dying, and diseased vegetation. Banish destructive insects by picking them off the plant and dropping them into a bucket of sudsy water (e.g., tomato hornworms), hosing them off, or spraying on an insecticidal soap purchased at a garden center. Support tall plants (e.g., tomatoes) with a trellis, stake, or a tepee. BTW: Harvest vegetables as soon as they’re ready. And remember to stop and smell the… well, whatever it is you’re growing.

BTW: If you enriched the soil with compost before you planted, you may not need to do any additional fertilizing. Then again, some vegetables (e.g., tomatoes, corn) are heavy feeders and may need a quick-release fertilizer every three to four weeks. Ask an expert at the garden center for help and always follow package directions carefully.

A Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Vegetable Garden

Now that you know the basics, you will feel confident growing vegetables. The plants develop quickly, and they respond generously to consistently good care. Only two or three months after planting, you’ll be picking as much delicious produce as you can eat—with enough extra to share with friends, family, and neighbors (especially zucchini!). No other form of gardening offers such bountiful rewards.

A Beginner’s Guide to Container Gardening

If you don’t have the right space for a garden bed, try container gardening. Growing plants in decorative pots, hanging baskets, and window boxes allows you to exercise your green thumb in small spaces. Just as with traditional gardens, though, keeping a container gardening looking its best requires good drainage, rich soil, and regular maintenance.

No, You Do Not Need To Till Your Garden; Do This Instead

Tillers can be helpful, especially if you have an enormous plot of land you are going to plant. In fact, a tractor would probably be even better.

If you are like me and have a garden less than 1-2 acres you may not need to till. Tilling your small garden could actually be doing more harm than good.

Tillers have several negatives:

• The first is that they disturb the natural layers of the soil. There are all sorts of things going on under the top soil layer that are good. That brown soil, that red clay soil. They all have benefits and are in a certain order. When a tiller busts through the layers, it throws things out of whack.

• They stir up dormant seeds that were sleeping deep in your soil. (Guess what happens when they wake up?)

• They’re heavy.


• They need gas.

• They have to be started. (Anyone else have trouble with those pull-cords?)

• Even though they loosen the top few inches of soil, tillers actually pack down the soil underneath the top. Using a tiller can create hardpan. Ugh.

• They don’t work very well in raised beds.

There is another way …

I have a tool that no one else has heard of. Well, no one I know has ever heard of it. You guys may all own one.


It’s a broadfork. It’s as big as I am.

It’s a giant, 2-handled tool. There are 5 curved spikes (tines) at the core of its power.

What is a broadfork used for?

• Broadforks lift and separate clumpy soil.
• They loosen settled soil.
• They can even bust through densely packed soil (like hardpan).
• They aerate the soil by creating gaps, space and air in the dirt.
• Broadforks improve drainage.
• They loosen weeds — making them easier to pull.
• Broadforks are especially nifty because they do all this without disturbing the natural layers of your soil.
• They don’t mix up the layers of soil. This preserves the topsoil structure.
• They also won’t bring every dormant seed in your garden up to the surface to germinate and grow.

A broadfork is pretty handy to have around.

Think of it as a way to till your garden without the disadvantages of a tiller.

Since building our raised beds we have not tilled our garden once. I add new organic material from our cows (manure) and our chickens (coop cleaning) and our kitchen (compost) from time to time. But other than that, we don’t do much to our garden soil from year to year. We have designated paths in our garden for walking so the beds don’t get packed down from walking. This keeps our soil loamy and light for the most part.

But …

I have noticed over time, our soil is becoming more compacted. If your beds were heaping with beautiful soil a couple of years ago, but now it looks as if someone stole half your dirt … this could be the reason. No one stole your soil.

It is just sinking.

It’s settling.

It’s becoming more compacted.

If no one is walking on it, why is it getting compacted? There are actually several reasons:

• Gravity
• Rain
• Snow
• Hail
• Plants
• Roots
• Debris
• Mulch
• The soil itself
• Cats
• Dogs
• My children
• and more!

Not walking in my beds has definitely helped the beds become less compacted less quickly, but it hasn’t prevented it entirely. My beds are in good shape, but I can tell the soil has settled. I can tell the dirt is harder to work in. I want my soil to be fluffy, workable and light again.

My beds need a little lift. They need fluffing. They need some space. They need to be aerated.

Bring me a broadfork!

So, today I grabbed my broadfork and got to work loosening my soil.

How Do You Use a Broadfork?

To use a broadfork, the operator (that’s me!) steps up on the crossbar; my body weight is what drives the tines into the ground.

Once the tines are fully immersed in the soil, I step backward, pulling backwards on the handles. This causes the tines to lever upwards through the soil. This action loosens the dirt. It lifts and separates. At the same time, it leaves the soil layers intact rather than inverting or mixing them, keeping my topsoil structure intact.

As I pull the handles back, I can see the soil move and breathe. I give the handles a little wiggle to loosen things up. Then slide the tines out of the soil. The soil will be noticeably higher than the dirt around it.

After working a bed with the broadfork, the weeds come right out. It destroys any hold those roots had. Today, I worked through the beds with the broadfork and my children went behind me and grabbed most of the weeds.

The broadfork is easy to use and does a good job.

My beds are prepped and ready to grow some awesome veggies.

Get old fashioned tips and recipes delivered straight to you! Just subscribe via email (here) or “like” the blog on Facebook (here) or even sign up to follow the blog on Twitter (here).

Happy Gardening!

(Katie Woods photo)

Some gardeners rototill each year out of habit or tradition, thinking it’s the right or necessary thing to do. Others may avoid rototilling to avoid disturbing the soil structure.

Benefits of rototilling

Rototilling is one method of turning up the soil before you plant your garden. It’s also an efficient way to distribute fertilizer. Colorado State University Extension says that regular tilling over time can improve soil structure.

In the fall, leaves and other organic matter can be rototilled into your garden’s soil to improve it, according to Colorado State University Extension. Add a couple of inches of top dressing — composted materials or peat moss — and rototill it in after leaving it on top of the soil for a couple of weeks.

Disadvantages of rototilling

Rototilling can destroy soil structure. Plant roots need air spaces to grow, but tilling too much closes those spaces. Farm and Dairy online columnist Ivory Harlow adds that tilling can deplete the soil’s nutrients.

Turning up soil through rototilling can disturb worm burrows, bringing them up to the surface where they will die, University of Illinois Extension explains. Worms play a vital role in the garden because they provide nutrients for the soil and also aerate it.

In addition, rototilling too early in the season, before the soil temperature warms up, can cause the soil to compact. This will make it difficult for summer watering to be effective, according to Oregon State University Extension.

To rototill or not to rototill

Do you need to rototill your garden? Here are some questions to ask yourself before you break out the tiller this spring:

Why do I want to rototill?

If this is the first year for your garden, rototilling is a good idea for loosening up the soil and getting it ready for planting.

If your garden’s soil has good tilth from last year and you don’t need to add amendments, don’t rototill this year.

Rototilling as a weed control method may only help with annual weeds but not perennial weeds. Rototilling will make certain perennial weeds increase in number, according to University of Minnesota Extension.

Instead of rototilling as a method of weed control, consider using a hoe or your hands to turn weeds under. Using newspaper or black plastic on top of soil can discourage weed growth, as suggested by Farm and Dairy online columnist Ivory Harlow. If you rototill to control weeds, additional methods, such as herbicide application, may be necessary.

If you’re adding compost to your garden’s soil, you can do so with a shovel or a spading fork instead of rototilling, Oregon State University Extension says.

Has my soil been tested? Do I need to work fertilizer into the soil?

Test your garden’s soil. Once you have the results of your soil test, you’ll know how to amend it properly and you can determine if you need to rototill.

If your soil test indicates that you need to add fertilizer or lime, rototilling is one method of doing that. University of Vermont Extension says that you may need to rototill to a depth of 8-10 inches to work in the recommended amendments.

What is the water content of my soil?

If your soil is too wet when you rototill, you run the risk of ruining the soil structure. Working with soil that’s too wet can create soil compaction.

Determine the moisture of the soil. Roll a handful of soil into a ball. Bounce it off of your hand. If the soil sticks together, it’s too wet. If it crumbles with a little pressure from your fingertips, it’s dry enough to be worked, Oregon State University Extension explains. If your soil contains clay, tilling when the soil is workable is crucial.

Have my seeds already been planted?

Be careful tilling if you’ve already planted your garden. You don’t want to disturb plant roots with a rototiller. If you’re going to till after you’ve planted your garden, don’t till deeper than 2 inches below the soil’s surface.


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!

How To Till A Garden: Tilling Your Soil

These days, tilling dirt is a matter of personal choice. There are some people in the world of gardening who believe that you should be tilling your soil at least once, maybe twice a year. There are others who believe that tilling your soil at all can be harmful to your soil in the long term. For the purposes of this article, we are assuming that you wish to know how to till a garden on a yearly basis.

Before you can learn how to till a garden, you need to know when to till a garden. For most people, the best time for tilling dirt is in the spring. Before tilling your soil, you must wait for two things: the soil must be dry enough and warm enough. If you don’t wait for these two things, you may cause more harm than good to your soil and plants.

To see if your soil is dry enough, pick up a handful and squeeze it. If the ball of soil in your hand falls apart when poked, the soil is dry enough. If it stays together in a ball, the soil is too wet for tilling.

To see if the soil is warm enough, stick your hand or a finger a few inches down into the soil. If you are unable to keep your hand or finger in the soil for a full minute, than the soil is not warm enough. You can also simply measure the soil temperature. You need the soil to be at least 60 F. (15 C.) before tilling and planting.

After you have determined when to till a garden, you can start tilling the dirt.

  1. Mark out the area where you will be tilling your soil.
  2. Start at one end of the marked out area with your tiller. Much like you would when you are mowing the lawn, go across the soil one row at a time.
  3. Slowly make your rows. Don’t rush tilling your soil.
  4. You will only be tilling the dirt in each row one time. Don’t go back over a row. Excessive tilling can compact the soil rather than break it up.

Additional Notes on Tilling Your Soil

If you plan on planting cool weather crops (like lettuce, peas or cabbage) next year, you’ll want to do some of your tilling the fall before. The soil will not be dry enough or warm enough to till in the early spring when these plants need to be put in the ground.

Knowing when to till a garden and how to till a garden will help your garden grow better every year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *