What if I told you there was a way to garden that produced great veggies and flowers, didn't take much work and looked pretty good, too? You'd probably think I was pushing some garden gimmick. But I'm not trying to sell anything but an idea: It's called no-till gardening. And it works.
What is no-till?
Once a common way to garden, no-till was largely forgotten with the advent of synthetic fertilizers. It's now back in the forefront of gardening.
As its name suggests, no-till gardens are created without yearly tilling. In fact, except for tilling the ground the first year of planting (which may not be necessary depending on how compacted your soil is), you won't need to till again.
Here's how to do it:
• Spread a 1- to 2-inch layer of compost over existing garden soil.
• Cover the compost with a layer of mulch 2 to 3 three inches thick. (Use an organic mulch that will break down and become compost. Wood chips are a good choice.)
• Plant young flower and vegetable seedlings directly into the soil beneath the compost, using a spade.
Why does it work?
No-till gardening works because the compost and mulch slowly break down and feed the soil. It doesn't provide the sudden jolt that a fertilizer does, but it provides a nice, even delivery of nutrients. The no-till method not only reduces the need to fertilize, but it also cuts down on the need to water because the compost helps hold moisture and the mulch prevents the sun from drying out the soil. In fact, you shouldn't need to water more than once a week on all but the hottest weeks of the year. Plus, the mulch helps control weeds.
And some adherents say that no-till gardening is better for your soil because unlike tilling, which breaks up the earth and allows it to erode, no-till gardening adds organic matter to the soil, which in turn adds nutrients and retains moisture.
Problems to avoid
As with any gardening technique, there are a few things you'll need to think about before you start.
• Planting from seed doesn't work well. The seeds -- which would be planted in the soil underneath the compost and mulch -- may not make it through those layers intact.
• Every year, you'll need to add a new layer of compost and mulch. (Adding mulch alone works fine, but adding compost will probably make for faster-growing plants as it rots and delivers nutrients to the soil.)
• Over time, the level of soil where you are no-till gardening will rise. If you're planting perennials, you can continue to plant in these beds. If you're planting vegetables or annuals, you could continue to add layers of compost and mulch each year or scrape off the top layer before you replant in spring.
Where to learn more
If you want to read more about no-till gardening, I recommend "Weedless Gardening" by Lee Reich, which does an excellent job of explaining the technique. Other useful books are "Lasagna Gardening" by Patricia Lanza and "All New Square Foot Gardening" by Mel Bartholomew.
Jeff Gillman is an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Minnesota. He's also the author of two books, "The Truth About Garden Remedies" and "The Truth About Organic Gardening" (Timber Press, $12.95).