Five Steps to Creating a No-Till Vegetable Garden

The author’s no-till garden in early spring after compost and straw have been applied. (Image by Jessie Keith)

To till or not to till? Why ask this question? Tilling does good things for the soil. It increases needed aeration and porosity, allows the easy incorporation of organic amendments, and it makes all the little green weeds at the top of the soil go away. But it also has its disadvantages. Tilling draws dormant weed seeds from the soil’s subterranean seed bank to the surface, which can mean more weeds. It encourages soil erosion and disrupts all manner of beneficial creatures and microbes underground, which support healthy soils and plant roots. In time, the no-till approach can save time, money, and greatly reduce weeds. These are the reasons it is trending.

Soil Quality Determines the No-Till Approach

If you have good garden soil, starting a no-till garden is simple. Those with poorer soils need to do a bit more work.

There is more than one way to establish a no-till garden. And one’s approach is often related to soil quality and topography. Those with good garden soil can opt to simply clear weeds from the ground, add thick compost and fast-to-degrade mulches for vegetable gardening (straw, leaf mulch, etc.), fertilize, and start planting. Others with poorer clay (or sandy) soils, like me, need to feed the soil for the beforehand. It’s ironic, but my successful no-till garden needed to start with, well, tilling, in addition to double digging, and amendment. Lifting or berming the soil is also important, especially if your garden’s topography is low.

Creating a No-Till Garden

Ample soil amendments and mulches will enrich your no-till garden and keep it weed-free.

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. For excellent no-till bed longevity, I started by lifting and aerating the soil as deeply as possible.


  • Tiller
  • Amendments, such as peat, compost, and castings (add at least a 1:4 ratio of amendments to ground-soil)
  • Hard rake and shovel
  • Straw
  • Mycorrhizae
  • Fertilizer
  • Tarp
  • Wheelbarrow (for moving mulches and amendments)
Till in amendments to at least a 1:4 ratio of amendments to ground-soil until well-combined, and airy.

Here are the five steps that I took to establish my no-till garden.

  1. Till deeply: Creating good garden soil is all about adding air pockets, loft, and good fertility to encourage drainage and deep rooting. If you have heavy soil, you cannot accomplish this without initial tilling and amendment with lots of organic matter. Till on a day when the soil has enough moisture to sink a shovel into but is also a bit dry. I recommend double or triple tilling the new garden area to break up the soil as much as possible.
  2. Double dig: Extra deep digging is time-intensive and should be reserved for areas where you plan to plant deep-rooting vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, and other root crops. Move the lofty tilled topsoil onto a tarp beside the bed and dig another few inches deeper and break up the soil further. (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. Shovel lots of organic matter, like Black Gold compost, earthworm castings, peat moss, and even composted manure and mushroom soil, into your backfill, and till it in. I also recommend adding a granular vegetable fertilizer and an endomycorrhizal inoculant, which can be purchased in powder form. Beneficial mycorrhizal fungi help plants grow better by allowing them to more efficiently access water and nutrients.
  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, so I berm up fill in the bed areas using a hard rake. This gives beds an even deeper pad of lofty soil and ensures that they will not be walked upon.
  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 leaf mulch or pine straw. You can even plant nitrogen-fixing clover in the walkways. Then I add a thick layer of compost to the beds to detur weeds, and fresh straw to the pathways to stop weeds and keep them from getting muddy after rain.

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

Raising Beds to New Heights

Other garden types, such as raised beds, do not require tilling either.

There are other no-till options for vegetable gardening, but I prefer the freedom of a large garden bed with tidy straw walkways. Traditional raised beds, hugelkultur, strawbale gardening, even container gardening don’t require tilling. Here are articles about each gardening type, if you want to learn more.

Raised Beds: Respecting the Law of Return

Hugelkultur Layered Vegetable Gardens

Do You Have Tips for Straw Bale Gardening?

Succeed with Container Vegetable Gardening

Invest in your no-till garden from the beginning, and it will reward you in the future. Support it with fresh mulch, feed it well, and watch your harvests explode!

Double dig areas for root vegetables, and add a layer of protective compost over beds each year.

Turning, Tilling, and Amending Your Organic Garden

Gardens can be turned by hand or mechanically tilled. The results and investments of time and energy are very different. Sometimes they can be done in conjunction, other times one or the other is more appropriate.

If you don’t have a spading fork, now is the time to buy one. This unique tool looks like a pitch fork, but the tines are straight and much thicker. For anyone serious about mixing an organic garden by hand, this is your most important purchase. Do not scrimp on quality because a good fork will last for decades. The spading fork turns soil more easily because the tines break up clods automatically, unlike a shovel which actually helps to cement heavy soil together.

A rototiller an essential workhorse used for larger in-ground gardens, tilling thoroughly and deeply with minimal effort.Tillers are too heavy for raised beds and won’t turn tightly enough to be of good use. Lightweight Mantis tillers are the exception, but they are still no replacement for the fork.

At this stage of garden preparation, three mistakes are common. Gardeners often fail to get enough amendment, they don’t till or turn the soil deep enough, and they work the amendments into just the top few inches of soil. Roots need deep, fertile soil for best root development, so the deeper your soil is worked and amended, the better.

Getting Started

BG-GRDNCMPST-BLND_1cu-FRONTThe first step is rough-turning by hand or rough tilling. It eliminates compaction that built up over winter from rain and snow. Some gardeners let the ground sit open for a week after rough-tilling before going to the next step. This allows time to fully aerate the soil and exposes underground pests so they die or can be easily removed.
To get the most of the rototiller, go slow to allow it to dig down and open that lower layer of soil. When tilling by hand, till at least as deep as the length of the spading fork tines. The result will be a rough, irregular surface that allows amendments to settle deep into the nooks and crannies.

The next step is to spread your Black Gold Garden Compost Blend and other amendments evenly over the entire surface. For in-ground gardens, this is the a-ha moment when you realize you haven’t got nearly enough to cover it all at least three inches deep. Raised bed gardeners may discover they’ve overfilled the beds with soil, and there’s with no free board left on the edges to contain the additional organic matter. Be sure to resolve these issues before proceeding, and use this formula to determine the amount of amendment to add over a given area.

Amendment Application Formula

([area to cover] ft2 x [depth in inches desired] x 0.0031 = ___ yd3).

Example: If you wanted to cover a 20 square foot area with 2 inches of compost, the result would be: 20 ft2 x 2 inches of compost x 0.0031 = 2.48 yd3.

Till the amendments in as deeply as you can, then do it again in the opposite direction. This is to catch any undisturbed strips or pockets missed between previous passes. When using a spading fork, strive for even tillage, working backwards across the soil, so you aren’t standing on newly turned ground.

After tilling the last time, use your heavy garden rake to level the soil, removing the remnants of last year’s plants. If you are planting from seed, go over it again with a fine leaf rake to get the surface ready to be sown.

Because organic gardening is about feeding the soil, consider yourself the chef. Tilling in amendments is the process of serving a healthy meal. When this all comes together in a gourmet creation, the miracle of life in your organic garden begins.