There are three basic methods all gardeners must consider when preparing garden soil for spring planting. Those three methods are: tilling, double digging and/or leaving the soil alone. There is debate as to which method is the best, but it all depends on what type of soil you already have, what you are planting and your personal preference.
To Till or Not to Till
The first garden I ever planted, I used an older front tine Briggs & Stratton front-end tiller. My Mom had a front-end tiller, so I thought that was the way to go. Little did I know what I was getting myself into! I learned several valuable lessons over time, but most important, never get too close to field fencing with a front-end tiller. By the end of my first season, the tiller had yanked out ALL my fencing around the garden plus it took most of the day untangling the wires from the tiller tines! This was an arduous and costly method of refreshing my soil. Another important note is not to till soil if it’s too wet; if you grab a handful and it remains in a ball, it’s probably too wet to till and will just end up in big clumps. You want it to crumble, not clump. If it’s too wet, just wait for a few dry days to even it out.
Disturbing the Soil Can do More Harm than Good
Since the invention of the rotor tiller — best thing since sliced bread! — everyone has been tilling their gardens and beds in preparation for planting. It’s far faster and less labor intensive then plowing or double digging by hand. But there is now some debate if it is even beneficial to disturb your soil at all. If science proves it is not, the entire of concept of tilling could be considered more work than it is worth.
The soil we all take for granted as just plain ‘dirt’ is in fact alive with lots of invisible tiny beings! There are a huge number of live beneficial organisms that are living in our native soils; it’s like a whole different world down there. Did you know that a teaspoon full of soil contains not millions, but billions of live organisms? Bacteria are super stars in the garden soil; they decompose dead organisms and minerals and also convert chemical compounds in the soil so plants can use the nutrients more readily. For example, through nitrogen fixation, bacteria take nitrogen from the air and turn it into ammonium, an easier form of nitrogen for plants to absorb.
Mycorrhizal Fungi are some of the strangest critters of all and are like little soil explorers. Their classification is neither plant nor animal, but something in between. They have a symbiotic relationship with plants and about 90% of all living plants on earth require this relationship to survive. The mycorrhizal fungi attach their hyphae (follicles) to a plant’s root tips and ‘seek out where no root has gone before’. They are almost microscopic in size, but can be seen when there is a large quantity of them. If you have ever gone out into the forest and pulled up mossy soil around a tree, you will see what looks like fine white hairs. This is mycorrhizal fungi at work. They are some of the smallest and largest organisms that grow. In fact, one scientist discovered a fungus that covered more than three square miles! The benefit of these fungi is that they seek out water and nutrients where the host plant’s roots are too big to go. They then transport water and nutrients back up to the plant’s root tips and in turn, the host plant will send sugars back down to the fungi, making everyone happy. Mycorrhizal fungi help strengthen the plant, enabling it to be more drought resistant and ward off the bad nematodes that attack the root system of the plant.
The problem that mycorrhizal fungi have is they need to live in undisturbed soil and stay rooted to the host plant; when the soil is tilled, the entire ecosystem living there is disturbed. There is a solution to the problem – Lane Forest Products sells Mycorrhizal Fungi tablets and water soluble granules for a very reasonable price, at all three store locations. I have used the tablets when I plant my fruit trees and I also use the VeggieBoost Compost (which has mycorrhizal fungi in it already) from LFP to mulch around the fruit trees I just planted this year. My trees are doing very well.
But Wait, There’s More…
Protozoa and beneficial nematodes already in healthy soil act like soil hunters and are nutrient recyclers — they consume other organisms, controlling over population and they produce microbial “manures” that are an excellent plant fertilizer.
And then there is the lowly earthworm. They really are considered soil engineers. They work the soil and break down organic matter, making soil strong and more fertile. They help aerate the soil and help it with rain runoff by naturally drilling holes so water can permeate down through the soil. Fishing is another favorite past time and there’s nothing like gathering up fresh greens from the garden and frying up a couple of Kokanee for dinner caught using my own earthworms!
My opinion: whether you use a tiller, double dig your soil or choose to just leave it undisturbed and mulch the soil, it will be fine. There may be some compensation as needed, like adding mycorrhizal fungi or a good compost or compost tea to inoculate the soil with “good bugs,” however, I think that I will be doing some experimenting in my own garden this year and will report the results sometime this fall.
Happy Gardening Everyone!