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No Till Garden

How to Create a No-Till Garden

by The Old Farmer’s Almanac staff

Tired of the yearly soil tilling? Sore from pulling weeds every day? 

Consider trying a different gardening technique that requires no turning over, eliminates weeds, and reduces water consumption. 

What Is No-Till Gardening?

No-till gardening (also called layer gardening or lasagna gardening) is a method through which instead of cultivating the soil every year, you simply spread a new layer of compost on top.

Why Use the No-Till Method?

The no-till method saves time and energy while preserving the overall soil structure. The soil is then able to better retain water and is resistant to erosion. Since there is no cultivation involved, there are fewer weeds because new seeds are not brought to the surface to germinate, and any that grow are easy to remove in the soft soil. A no-till bed is essentially a compost heap and thus is rich in nutrients that make your vegetables strong and healthy, requiring no extra fertilizer.  

Before You Begin

Choose the area that you want to use for your new garden bed. It can be an existing bed, open soil, or even a patch of lawn. You’ll need to avoid stepping in the soil, so design your bed(s) with plenty of walking and kneeling space for easy access to your crops. You can begin at any time, but it takes several months to a year for the new bed to be usable. The best time to start is in the fall so that the soil has an entire winter to prepare.

Necessary Tools and Supplies

  • Shovel
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Gloves
  • Kneeler
  • Cardboard boxes (remove all tape)

Soil Ingredients

You will need a mix of some (not all) of the items found below for both “green” and “brown” compost materials.

“Green” Compost Materials

  • Grass clippings
  • Fresh manure
  • Coffee grounds
  • Plant trimmings
  • Vegetable excess

 “Brown” Compost Materials

  • Black-and-white newspapers (color ink is toxic to plants)
  • Dead leaves
  • Straw
  • Woodstove ash

How to Start a New No-Till Garden Bed

Flatten and lay out cardboard boxes over the entire planned (or existing) bed area. The cardboard will kill all grass and weeds underneath and deteriorate after about 3 years. Spread 1- to 2-inch layers of alternating mixed green and mixed brown compost material over the cardboard until the pile is about 8 to 10 inches high. Optionally, you can continue adding layers to a height of 2 to 3 feet as the pile will shrink over time due to the slowly composting organic material. It does not matter whether you end with green or brown material. Leave the new bed for several months to a year, or until bed has compacted and composted into dark, rich soil. 

Future Labor

At the beginning of each growing season, spread a 1- to 2-inch layer of mulch or dead leaves over the top of the bed. The mulch helps to prevent any remaining weeds from growing and keeps the soil cool and moist. After the harvest in the fall, pull out all of the plants from the season and spread them over the soil. They will add to the existing nutrients and help the next year’s vegetables to grow.