I was talking with my father-in-law about gardening, and we started talking about the soil. His garden is quite rocky, which is common for the area, and he was frustrated that even with years of tilling the soil had not improved. I think it is a very common practice to till the soil before planting every spring. Many people believe that tilling will help the soil become more fluffy and workable. (And if you want to be fancy about it, you can use the word tilth.) It makes sense, tear up the soil, increase the tilth. But…


I know it is done all the time, and modern agriculture and certainly home gardeners religiously till. But I believe home gardeners do this simply because they don’t understand what they are doing. There are many reasons to till, some of which I will discuss below:

1)The primary one and most acceptable is incorporating organic matter. If you are dumping on a load of compost or growing a cover crop, you can go ahead and till or work it in. The benefits of the organic matter will likely be greater than the downside of tilling. Even so, organic matter can be applied to the surface of the soil and will gradually incorporate itself.

2)Tilling is often used for weed control. But on the small scale homeowners have, there are many other better options. Hand pulling and mulch are my favorites. Tilling some weeds can actually help them come back bigger and better.

3)Tilling is used to get rid of compaction. This can work; however it doesn’t address the cause of compaction. It would be far better to have dedicated pathways than to keep tilling year after year.

Here are some reasons not to till:

1)Tilling destroys structure. Structure is what ultimately makes our soil workable, not easily compacted, and allows for the proper flow of air and water. Tilling doesn’t help create structure: worms, critters, and plants do. Tilling will destroy the structure of the soil, and in effect decreases tilth. It might make the soil nice and fluffy for a few days, but it doesn’t last and overtime it starts creating hardpans, and more compaction.

Soi Collage

2)Tilling inhibit soil organisms over time. Would you like someone to come rip through you home with a tiller? Neither do all the organisms that live in the soil. And these organisms are awesome: they enable plants to get water, and nutrients more readily, fight off disease, add nutrients to the soil, and create structure and tilth.


Here is how I think of it. I have my original soil, with a good layer of compost on top. If I till it, it all gets mixed together. If I leave it alone, than I can start increasing my soil depth by continuing adding organic matter and have a nice rich, organic top.

Which would you want?


One thought on “Tilling

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