No Till Vegetable Gardening: The Easy Way

No-till Vegetable Gardening: The Easy Way to Organic Gardening

No-till gardening requires no digging, no turning of the soil, no back aches and maximizes garden production.

So what is no-till gardening?

That’s easy. You don’t dig up or turn the soil to incorporate organic material and/or to aerate/loosen the soil. You just spread mulch on top, plant the seeds under the mulch and water regularly. Nice and simple.

…and it really does work. I dug up some soil in my no till garden one day and to my surprise, the soil was soft and easy to dig up. Amazing!

…it was full of worms too.

I used to spend hours and many sweaty days digging in my backyard in order to prepare it for gardening. I hated how tired I got from digging in the soil. I live in Arizona where the soil gets rock hard because of the clay content. This makes it even harder to dig up. I had to use a claw hammer to break the soil up.

I always thought you had to plow or turn over the soil before planting to loosen and aerate the soil. Apparently this is not necessary at all. And it’s actually detrimental to the soil. Image that?….and I killed my back doing it too. Never again.

I wish I had of known about “No-till” gardening.

Why Digging/Turning Soil is Bad

Anytime you disturb the soil, you also disturb beneficial insects like worms. I remember every time I would dig in my garden I would see lots of worms. I didn’t think about what I just did. I not only disturbed the worms but may have cut a few in half with the shovel. Yikes!

When you attract worms to the soil, they will loosen the soil, break down plant material and leave behind the richest fertilizer known to man…worm castings. Worms will do everything needed to make the soil super rich and nourishing for plants. Worms actually do the tilling for you.

You also disturb the microbial systems in the soil. These help break down plant material and fertilize the soil. They are best left alone to flourish.

So, no till gardening is simple….just add compost and/or mulch on top of the soil, water and then plant seeds. A 2-3 inch layer of compost or mulch works fantastic. Keep the soil moist so worms and other beneficial insects are attracted.

So what kind of compost or mulch for No-till gardening?

You can use something as basic as grass clippings or a compost product like Kellogg’s N’RICH Enriching Conditioner. It all works really well. I have used grass clipping with great success. Let the grass dry out and then spread it over the soil. Now water regularly. You can make your own compost or buy it at a Nursery or Home Improvement store like Lowes or Home Depot.

What about weeds and grass?

If you are wanting to start a new garden but the ground is covered with grass or lots of weeds, you have some options.

The easiest option is to trim the weeds and/or grass as short as your can with a weed wacker or lawn mower. Water liberally. Then cover the area with thick paper or cardboard and add 3-4 inches of compost on top. The cardboard will stop weeds and grass from growing and will eventually kill and decompose them. Eventually the cardboard will decompose into the soil and enrichen it. I would recommend waiting 2-3 months before planting seeds to give it time to decompose and condition the soil.

Another option is to pull the weeds up and/or the grass. Then dump a 3-4 inch top layer of compost on top of the soil. Water regularly to stimulate decomposition and attract worms. Now you can plant your seeds.

It’s amazing how little mulch you actually need to condition the soil and reduce water evaporation. I had a small area in my backyard that I spread a thin layer of grass clipping over. I think it was less than 1/4 inch thick yet it prevented the soil from drying out 24 hours after watering… and in the hot/dry Arizona climate. The daytime temperatures were in the 90’s.

Mulch is like insulation. It reflects the Sun’s heat and locks in moisture.

What Kind of Wood Should Be Used for Raised Beds?

What Kind of Wood Should Be Used for Raised Beds?

Any untreated wood of any kind will work just fine for a raised bed box garden. Some wood like Cedar and Redwood will be more rot-resistant and last longer.

Pine is a favorite because its readily available, inexpensive and easy to work with. Because it is soft, it will not last as long as harder woods like Redwood.

*** Untreated lumber is a must for box gardens containing edibles unless you line the bed with a safe plastic.

Rot Resistant and long lasting woods for Raised Bed Gardens

Some of the harder or denser woods are ideal for raised beds because they are rot-resistant which means they will last a lot longer. Frequent watering will soak the wood causing it to start to decompose or rot. The denser the wood the slower the decomposition or rotting process.

Dense wood and wood like Cedar are desirable because the are insect resistant too. Termites will not eat Cedar. The sap from the Cedar tree is toxic to insects. Cedar makes a great looking raised bed and it smells nice. I use Cedar mulch around by house in the backyard. It significant reduced the cricket population.

Redwood is an awesome wood for raised beds, It is beautiful and very dense but it is also expensive. Redwood will most likely last 15-20 years in a raised bed garden.

Cypress is another excellent wood. It’s very similar to Cedar and is very insect and rot resistant.I love the smell of Cypress lumber. It will last a long time in a raised box garden. It’s not as expensive as redwood. It’s a great choice.

Black Walnut is truly one of the most beautiful grained woods. It makes ideal wood for outdoor projects like a raised box garden. It’s dense, easy to work with and will last a long time outdoors…15+ years

Douglas Fir and Pine are very popular and very inexpensive. These 2 are relatively soft and really easy to work with. You can buy pine boards [2×4, 2×6, 2×8] at any home improvement store and it’s cheap. Douglas Fir and Pine, even thought they are soft,  will last as long as other woods, about 10+ years. It’s easy to replace the boards when they are rotted beyond use. I just buy untreated 2 x 4’s at Lowes and use them for the sides, stacked 2 high. They will last 10+ years depending on your climate. If you choose Pine, buy something thick like 2 or 3″. Thick side boards will last a lot longer than a 1″ thick board.

Hemlock is another soft wood like Pine and is available in a 2 x 4 configuration at most home improvement stores. It’s pretty inexpensive too.

Spruce is a fantastic wood for raised beds. Spruce is the strongest wood for 2 x 4’s that you can buy. It is typically sawed for outdoor furniture since it is rot-resistant and very strong. You can buy Spruce 2 x 4’s at any home improvement store and they are the straightest 2 x 4 you will see. Spruce is less expensive than Cedar and has the same preferable qualities.

Juniper (rustic-looking) is another fantastic wood for raised beds. It is long lasting, beautiful and chemical free. Juniper is even longer lasting than Cedar and Redwood. Juniper can last last up to 50 years in contact with the ground because it has a high level of oil in it’s sap. Juniper is the best wood for longevity for outdoor projects. It comes in the following sizes at lumber yards; 2×6 and 2×8. Both of these sizes are great for a raised bed.

American Chestnut would be a great wood but it’s availability is limited to reclaimed wood. You never know what you’re getting with reclaimed wood or boards. Go with juniper instead.

Yew is a good choice but I’m not sure about its availability. It’s very good at rot-resistance and also insects attacks.

Catalpa is another wood that is pretty rot resistant even in contact with soil. It is also easy to work with. Catalpa can be a little pricey though. I have seen it priced from $2.50 – $12.40 per board foot.

Dense Woods for Raised Beds

Black Locust is very dense and very durable for outdoor applications. It is the strongest and stiffest domestic lumber. It is primarily used for outside decking. It is very similar to Hickory.

White Oak is a light colored wood that is very durable regarding rot resistance. It is most commonly used for boat building. It is easy to work with using power or hand tools. The cost of White Oak is moderate and comes in common sizes and lengths.

What About Plywood?

Plywood would not be a good choice since it is made from laminating or gluing thin sheets of wood together. The glue that is used to laminate the wood sheets will eventually dissolve after several waterings. Avoid laminated woods.

Wood to Avoid

Reclaimed or recycled wood is not a good choice unless you know the history. If you are not 100% sure of the history, avoid reclaimed or recycled wood. I like to just avoid it since there are much better choices.

CCA Pressure Treated Wood is a NO. I would recommend to NEVER use pressure treated wood for a garden in which you plan on growing edible plants or fruit. It’s just too risky. There are better choices.

Wood Alternatives That Are Safe

There are some good wood alternatives if you are against using wood.

Natural Rocks are a great wood alternative and are very safe. You can get them in brick form to make it easier to stack them. They are relatively inexpensive and will last forever. Granite, sandstone, quartz, slate and clay are good choices. I have read that bricks are fine to use also. Bricks are cheap and very durable and look great.

Concrete Blocks are OK to use but may leach lime into the soil of the raised bed. You’ll need to monitor the PH if you want to use concrete. Concrete blocks are easy to use since they are square and stack-able.

Avoid These Materials For Raised Beds

Cinder Blocks can be made with Fly Ash which is a byproduct from the Coal Industry. Since Coal contains heavy metals and other substances which are toxic, you don’t what any product that comes from Coal in your garden. Some Cinder blocks have Fly Ash and some may not but it’s not worth second guessing. Don’t use Cinder Blocks for a garden.

Railway Ties are not suitable for a garden. They are treated with chemicals to prevent rot. Creosote and CCA have been used to treat Railroad Ties. Both treatments are toxic.

Tires are full of hazardous chemicals. I don’t recommend them for raised bed gardens.

Paints, stains and finishes – beware of these. Most are hazardous. Some may be safe but why risk it when they are much more suitable materials available like bare wood.

Is It OK to Mulch a Vegetable Garden?

Is It OK to Mulch a Vegetable Garden?

Mulching a vegetable garden can provide many benefits. Mulching in general is a great method of controlling any type of plant growth and is especially effective at controlling weeds. Mulching can also increase the soil’s water retention, provide vital nutrients to the soil, prevent soil compaction, attract beneficial insects and microbes and deter pests from digging.

It has been proven that vegetable gardens with mulch are more productive than without and are easier to maintain.

Let’s talk about the benefits of mulching in a vegetable garden.

Mulching for Water Retention

Any type of mulch spread over the ground will act as a moisture barrier and keep water in the soil instead of evaporating into the air above. It’s like a Blanket over the soil protecting it from evaporation. It “seals” in the moisture and it does it very well. It surprised me.

When I started a garden in my backyard, I did not use mulch. I just tilled the soil and planted seeds. In the summer when it was hot, I had to water the garden twice a day in order to maintain a moist and soft soil. If I did not, the soil would dry out and compact into rock like clay. It was very hard to get seeds to sprout and keep plants green.

When I read about mulching, I decided to try it. I bought a bag of Kellogg’s N-Rich Soil Amendment and spread it over the garden soil. I then watered it and checked it several hours later. It was still moist. I then checked it the next day and it was still pretty moist and soft. The compost mulch was working. I could now water every other day instead of twice a day. My vegetable plants were growing and staying very green.

Mulching for Seed Germination

It took me several months to figure out how to get seeds to germinate and grow into large healthy plants. I first tried Peat Pots for several months without any success. The Peat Pots would dry out too quickly. I tried watering them twice a day but they still dried out in a hour or two.

After learning about the benefits of mulching, I tried planting some cucumber seeds in the garden and then covering the area with dried grass clippings. I used about an inch of grass clippings over the top of the soil. This worked extremely well. The soil remained moist and the seeds sprouted in 10 days. I was amazed. Now I can get any seeds to sprout in 10-14 days easily. It’s like magic.

Mulching for Weed Control

Anyone who has a garden knows what a pain weeds can be. They pop up everywhere and grow like crazy, especially after a summer rainstorm. Weeds will take over a vegetable garden in no time, if you let them. They will suck up water and nutrients leaving other plants “high and dry”.

So how can you control weeds in a vegetable garden?

Mulching will help control weed invasions in any garden. Mulch will capture airborne seeds preventing them from getting into the soil where they can germinate and grow. The seeds will sit on top and never germinate. Any seeds that find their way into the soil and under the mulch will not grow because of lack of sunlight.

If you want to easily kill weeds or grass in one area just cover it with a thick layer of mulch. It works really well. Mulching any area will drastically reduce weeds.

Another way to mulch a vegetable garden is to put a layer of cardboard down first and then cover it with 2-3 inches of mulch. This is even more effective at weed control.

Mulch as a Fertilizer

Since mulch is shredded, chopped or chipped plant material, it makes a great fertilizer when it decomposes. It will turn into compost in a short period of time. I have found that grass clipping mulch is an excellent fertilizer for gardens. It breaks down pretty fast so you have to replenish it frequently but it is very effective and decomposes quickly.

Since mulch helps retain moisture, it attracts worms and beneficial insects like nematodes. These insects will help a garden flourish. Worms are fantastic in the garden. Always try to attract worms to your garden. Worm castings [worm poop] is one of the best fertilizers known to man.

Mulch Attracts Beneficial Insects

I noticed that my garden has a lot of worms in the soil since I have been mulching. The soil stays moist and soft which is ideal for worms. Worms are beneficial for gardens. They not only aerate the soil but also leave behind castings. Worm castings are a fantastic fertilizer. Worm castings contain digested or broken down plant material plus beneficial microbes and enzymes. It’s the Perfect fertilizer and you can get it free.

Nematodes and ladybugs are also attracted to mulched gardens. I’ve never seen ladybugs in my backyard until I started mulching my garden. Ladybugs are great companions to have in a vegetable garden. They eat harmful bugs.

Nematodes are microscopic worm like organism that live in minute water pockets in the soil. They tend to be found in the upper layers of the soil and especially in moist mulch. Nematodes contribute to making Nitrogen available for plants. They also assist with nutrient mineralization via their digestive system. Nematodes and earth worms are both valuable for gardens.

Mulching to Deter Animal Digging

OK, I have a problem with cats digging in my garden. I’ve tried lots of things to keep them out with the exception of a 10′ wire fence. Cats like dry, sandy dirt or soil to go potty in. So, to deter them, make the soil wet and not sandy. Mulch will keep the soil moist, which cats hate, and make it no so sandy. Mulch has small to medium pieces of plant material like wood, sticks, stems, etc. Cats don’t like this rough type ground cover, so they will go else where. I have also found out that sticks in the vegetable garden will repel cats too. Spread some small sticks from shrub trimmings over the soil and around plants. Cats do not like walking on or digging in sticks.

The main deterrent is moist soil. Most pests and/or animals don’t like to dig in moist/wet soil.

Methods of Mulching a Vegetable Garden

Compost Mulching

Compost mulching is basically spreading a thick layer of your favorite compost over the soil. Compost is small to finely chopped organic material that has decomposed for some period of time. This will provide weed control, water retention, fertilization and attract beneficial organisms like worms and nematodes.

You can buy compost at your favorite Home Improvement store like Lowes and Home Depot or a local nursery. I like Kellogg N-Rich Soil Amendment and GardenTime Composted Mulch Soil Conditioner but most organic composts will work too.

Cardboard Mulching

Cardboard mulching is a fantastic way to kill and prevent weeds and grass from invading a vegetable garden. It is much more effective then just compost mulching.

Here’s how it works. First clear the area that you want to mulch. Cut any weeds or grass as low as possible. Now wet the area thoroughly. Next lay down cardboard from boxes over the area making sure the edges meet each other or overlap. Now wet the cardboard and cover with 3-4 inches of mulch which can be compost, grass clippings, leaves, etc. That’s it. You’re done.

Now as the mulch decomposes, it will disappear so you’ll have to add mulch every 6 months to a year depending on how thick the mulch layer is.

The cardboard makes a strong barrier against weed and grass growth by blocking out sunlight. Anything under the cardboard will die and become compost. It’s highly effective. I did this on one side of my house where weeds were taking over the yard. Now there are no weeds and only small patches of grass after 4 years. I haven’t even added any mulch after 4 years. But I need to.

Newspaper Mulching

Newspaper mulching is similar to cardboard except you use newspaper as the barrier instead of cardboard. It is more effective than compost mulching but not as effective as cardboard. If you have plenty of newspaper, it’s a great way to mulch with the intent of controlling weeds and grass in your gardens or yard.

Like the cardboard composting, you lay down a layer of newspaper several sheets thick and then wet it to keep it in place while you cover it with mulch. The newspaper will block out sunlight and kill any plant growth and prevent new growth. Newspaper will decompose eventually and fertilize the soil. Newspaper is biodegradable. It does not last as long as cardboard, so you will need to replenish it at some point. But it does work well. I have used it in my side yard for grass control.

Wood Chip Mulching

Wood chip mulching is basic and similar to compost mulching. If you have access to low cost or no cost wood chips, it makes a fine mulch. Spread the wood chip mulch over the soil about 2-3 inches deep. This will do the same as any mulch; retain moisture, decompose and fertilize and attract beneficial insects and microbes. Use whatever you have access to.