No-till vegetable gardening

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Home gardeners are well aware of the value of good healthy soil needed to grow nutritious vegetables and fruits. Cleaning up debris and weeds in the vegetable garden in preparation for spring planting is very important. Mulching with thick layers of organic matter will keep the weeds down and mulching provides the best way to insure a healthy garden.

Master Gardeners have long advocated the nurturing of macro- and microorganisms and the preservation of soil structure through minimum soil disturbance. One of the seven principles that is gaining huge popularity in the home food garden is minimum soil disturbance. Handed down from the farm community is the no-till principle of caring for soil. No-till farming isn't new, it's been in practice for hundreds of years.

What are the advantages of minimum soil disturbance that the gardener is trying to achieve? Tilling actually creates a compacted layer beneath the tilled area. The soil particles are all squished together, creating an airless and impermeable layer that roots do not penetrate.

Tilling brings up weed seeds. No-till reduces the need for weeding. No-till saves water. A thick layer of mulch allows for shading of the soil. This reduces water lost to evaporation while maintaining moisture at the root level.

No-till doesn't disturb earthworms, fungi and other beneficial macro- and microorganisms. Undug soil retains, versus releases, carbon dioxide and, by adding compost, the soil's carbon absorption ability is increased.

The following is a list of materials used for mulches:

  • Grass clippings: Cut grass before it goes to seed. Let the clippings turn brown; you will get the mulch effect without adding nitrogen. As plants begin to fruit, nitrogen should not be added. When using grass clippings for mulch avoid those that have had an application of weed control products.
  • Newspaper: Makes great mulching material; avoid using paper with colored inks. The drawback in the Columbia Basin is that newspaper can easily blow away in the wind.
  • Compost: Needs to be “finished” compost, so as not to attract pests. Compost is good for an early season mulch, but as the plant begins fruiting, you should withhold sources of nitrogen. Gardens have been known to be over-composted.
  • Straw: Is a good source of carbon, excellent mulching material.
  • Leaves: A valuable source of carbon, leaves make excellent mulch. Apply in thin layers, or intersperse with other materials to prevent matting. Sprinkle soil on top if needed to prevent leaves from blowing away in a strong wind.

This will be my first year of trying no-till. It will be hard to change the routine and leave the rototiller in the shed. Through the years spring tilling has become a habit, a habit that probably won't be hard to break considering the amount of time I'll save.

For gardening questions, contact the Master Gardeners at the WSU Grant-Adams Extension office at 754-2011, Ext. 4313 or email your gardening questions to ga.mgvolunteers@ad.wsu.edu. Visit our web page at grant-adams.wsu.edu.

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