Should You Start by Tilling a No-Till Vegetable Garden?

Here’s a shot of my no-till garden three years after its creation.

“When creating no-till garden beds, do you think it’s best to till once and never again, or just use a never till method?” Question from Anthony of Bentonville, Arkansas

Answer: There are lots of benefits to going no-till with vegetable beds, especially when it comes to weed and weed seed control and the encouragement of soil beneficials. For me, creating a good no-till garden started with a big investment. I dug deep, enriched my beds to the hilt, and lifted and bermed my planting areas. (Lifting soil is especially important if your garden’s topography is low.)

Here’s my five-step method for starting a no-till garden.

  1. Till deeply: Creating a good vegetable bed is all about adding lofty tilth and good fertility for extra drainage and deep rooting. In my opinion, you cannot accomplish this without initial tilling. For excellent no-till bed longevity, you have to start by lifting and aerating your soil as deeply as possible.
  2. Double dig: Move the lofty tilled topsoil aside and double dig areas that you plan to plant. This is easier if your beds are on the smaller end, but at bare minimum, double dig the areas where you plan to grow root crops. (Click here to read more about double digging.)
  3. Amend all of your backfill: Amendments rich in organic matter and microbes are essential for the longterm health of your garden. Work as much good stuff, like Black Gold compost, earthworm castings, peat moss, and even composted manure, into your backfill as possible and till it in.
  4. Define pathways, fill, and berm: If you have a large or relatively large garden space, it’s nice to establish paths for easy garden access and harvest. Most gardeners choose a row or block design. I always like my pathways to stand a bit lower than my beds to encourage deep rooting, so I berm up fill in the bed areas.
  5. Cover: As a final step, I cover my walkways with black & white newspaper or non-waxed corrugated cardboard and cover the paper with a thick layer of seed-free grass clippings, straw, or even pine straw. You can even plant nitrogen-fixing clover in the walkways. Then I add a thick layer of compost along the top of the beds to detur weeds.

Each year, I clean up and refresh the walkways and add fresh compost as a mulch. Invest in your no-till garden like this in the beginning, and you will be wowed by the results.

Happy gardening!

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist


Double Digging for Flawless Root Crops

Root crops such as ‘Lunar White’ carrots will be long, straight, and easy to pull when grown in your newly double dug beds.

Root crops grow best in soil that is as fertile and deep as possible. Higher soil organic matter and tilth will yield longer, straighter carrots, heftier rutabagas and prettier parsnips. Double digging is the best technique to maximize bed depth, and early spring or midsummer are great times to prep your beds for spring or fall root crops.

The best way to maximize soil depth and quality is through double digging and ample amendment with lots of organic matter. Double digging is the process of digging deeply to ensure soil is light and porous down deep. Begin by designating a reasonable area to dig. Then with a good, sharp spade, remove the top 8 to 10 inches of soil and place it on a tarp so it can be easily returned to the garden. For the “double” stage of digging, use a hefty garden fork to work up the soil as deeply as possible along the floor of the garden where the soil was removed.

Double Digging - 3 Steps - Jessie Keith
1) Trench double digging is a faster, less arduous method of double digging. Just double dig a trench where you want to plant. 2) All double-dug soil should be friable, clump-free and amendments thoroughly worked in. 3) Double dug bed spaces will be slightly raised upon completion and should be easy to dig deeply into.

Once light and worked up, add a half and half mix of Black Gold Garden Soil and Black Gold Garden Compost Blend—one bag each for around a 5’ x 5’ garden area. Finally, work in additional bags of soil builder and compost at the same ratio into the soil on the tarp and add it back into your double dug garden.

This method is a lot of work but yields superb root vegetables for years to come. Follow up by planting rows of your favorite fall root crops, like carrots, daikon radishes, rutabagas, beets, and parsnips, and cover the seed lightly with Black Gold Seedling Mix before watering in.

Enjoying Root Vegetables - Jessie Keith
1) Kids enjoy helping harvest root vegetables and eat them too. 2) Long, straight ‘Kinko’ Carrots harvested directly from the fall garden.