I was chatting today about composting with a dear gardening friend when the subject of tilling came up. We laughed about how we tell people that we’re “lazy” gardeners who don’t want to work that hard in our gardens. While that’s a quick and easy answer, it’s really only a half-truth. The whole truth is that it’s simply not necessary (or desirable) to till garden beds. Turns out that Mother Nature knows how to mix soil with the best of them.
The compost that you add to the beds can be placed and spread out right on top of the soil; no mixing is needed. Let your friendly neighborhood worms do the heavy lifting for you. Worms are good at their job, and if you’re tilling with any regularity you could be killing up to 90% of your garden worms.
This isn’t a good thing (in case you were wondering). You want worms for decomposition, aeration, and filtration in the garden. Tilling also kills other beneficial creatures such as spiders. In the context of a garden, spiders are very desirable.
While there’s nothing wrong with turning compost or other soil amendments into the first couple inches of soil, deep-tilling (roto-tilling) is somewhat of a controversial practice. Deep-tilling describes the slicing and dicing of soil particles over and over. And truth be told, roto-tillers have their place. If you need to break up that front lawn, go ahead and give it a go-over—but just once, OK? There are other instances that call for deep-tilling, but as a general practice, it’s taboo anymore.
So in one camp there are the gardeners who believe that tilling is a necessary procedure to help create a loamy soil. The gardeners in the other camp say that tilling breaks up the aggregates in the soil, not to mention messing with the relationship between mychorrhizae and plant roots. I personally fall into the no-tilling-gardener-category. But then, I’m kind of lazy.