No Till Gardening – Or How Not To Garden Like A Heathen


Jeff Ell SmallA few weeks ago, I found out that I garden like a heathen.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I was burning incense in the bean rows or burying amulets in the potatoes; but evidently I’ve been growing things the wrong way all my life.

All this started when I watched a video about no-till gardening. The video is meant to convert heathen gardeners like myself who have been breaking their backs and churning their soil into dust ever since the no trespassing signs went up in Eden.

If you’ve never heard of no-till gardening, don’t feel bad. Until this spring I hadn’t either, and it’s not exactly a household word. Yet.

In a nutshell, no-till gardening is planting everything into a thick layer of wood chips or other mulch. The wood chip barrier shelters the soil from the violence and compressing that Adamic gardeners like myself have abusing the earth with for millennia.

After just a few years of this new way of gardening the fluffy layer of humus under the barrier becomes an Eden like milieu. An underground agricultural paradise of sorts where water and worm revel in agronomic bliss, while flower and fruit explode over the surface like GMO’s in a Monsanto test plot, and weeds are as easy to pull as a second graders tooth.

The no-till evangelist who hosted the video quoted Bible verses and used Biblical metaphor to make the case that no-till is God’s way to grow. I’ll admit it makes a lot of botanical sense, whether it makes Biblical sense is still up for discussion.

There’s no doubt his garden looked a lot more like Eden than my hard scrabble patch of south western Virginia clay and shale. Truth is, my garden never looks too good. Don’t get me wrong, I grow my share of food, but it’s an ugly and sweaty affair.

Within a week of working up the garden with my dad’s old Troy Built rototiller, the ground is so hard a grown man can’t get a shovel to stick into it, unless he stands on it with both feet. There is a sagging construction fence around the perimeter and pieces of old carpet laid out to kill off weeds. If my garden was a house in Detroit, the city would sell it to you for a dollar.

The no-till promotional video used lots of personal testimonials of experts and regular folks, all of whom are zealous converts to the no-till way. They extolled the benefits while stuffing their mouths with juicy fruit and chopping on crisp vegetables, and joyously pulled weeds like Stepford gardeners with toothy smiles.

Still, I’m not sure I’m ready to convert.

Understand, I’ve been fertilizing my land with the sweat of my brow and was gardening long before gardening was cool. I got into serious gardening when we were patching together a living, me working construction and my wife loving on our three kids who were tearing around the house. Eating local wasn’t hip and trendy, it was cheap and healthy; and a carbon foot print was what happened when I stepped in the ashes from the wood stove.

I tried planting money trees behind the barn, but they never blossomed. So it sure was good to have a freezer full of broccoli and a root cellar full of potatoes. We also raised pigs and cows, and ate lots of fish and venison. We even ate a woodchuck once, but thats a different story.

I suspect part of my resistance to the new way is my ancestors fault. I’m pretty sure our family is related to those ancient winebibbers whom Jesus chided for their smug ‘the old is good enough attitude’, or those colonial era farmers who were convinced that steel plows would poison their soil.

So in spite of the video evidence, I’m finding it difficult to believe that untilled, unplowed, un-compacted earth can be transformed into an organic wonderland where vegetables grow like weeds and watering becomes as obsolete as the yellow pages.

I guess I should start thinking about doing things differently one of these days. Perhaps I will soon accept that the old hard way, is not necessarily the best way. But until then, I’ve got some weeding to do.

Jeff Ell is pretty good at catching, killing, picking, and growing things to eat. He regularly finds bemusement in the outdoors and enjoys telling his stories to anyone who will listen. Jeff’s the author of Ruth Uncensored, blogs at and can be contacted via Facebook or smoke signal.