Starting a garden, or creating new garden space, especially on lawn, can be a challenge. The decision to till, or use a no-till gardening method such as lasagna gardening, depends on personal circumstances. For my first garden on our new homestead, I experimented with sheet composting using a layer of cardboard covered with straw. In this article, I address some of the advantages and disadvantages to both tilling and no-tilling methods of starting your garden.
It’s a hot summer day, sometime in the early 1970s, and I am on my hands and knees in the dirt, crawling through the oasis that is my mother’s organic garden. In one hand I am holding a cucumber, the top chewed off, with the other hand I am snagging beans off a curly green vine. I am fascinated at how the tendrils of vine curl around the pole and string, reaching and pulling themselves skyward toward the sun.
It’s comfortable in the shade, and the earth beneath my dirty knees is cool and damp. I sit, Indian style, munching my stolen snack. I imagine I am living in the wild, and this is my shelter.
I have carried this memory through the years. Sometimes I wonder if the garden was as magnificent as my childhood memories have made it. But I have photos of my mother standing in front of her 1/4 acre garden, the sunflowers towering over her head, the marigolds bright at her feet. I wish she were still with me, to guide me as I plan my garden oasis.
Starting From Lawn – Sheet Composting
Already it seems like years since we left our townhouse in the suburbs, my little illegal compost pile tucked away in the corner of our tiny backyard, hoping none of the neighbors would snitch on me to the Homeowners Association.
But that was only last spring. Now, less than a year later and I have 2 and 1/2 acres to play with. The big question is, where to begin?
Everywhere there is overgrown lawn. For this season, I decided to begin with the lasagna gardening, also known as sheet composting.
This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase through these links, I receive a small commission at no cost to you. Thank you for supporting Seeking Joyful Simplicity. ~Michelle.
Starting the garden with the no-till method creates beautiful garden soil with less physical effort than digging or tilling. However, it does require time and patience for the mulching materials to break down. Let’s compare tilling verus no-till methods:
Advantages of Tilling
- Breaks up compacted soil and clay
- Good for killing surface weeds
- Mixes amendments and compost into the soil for faster planting
Disadvantages of Tilling
- Exposes greater surface area of soil to sun and wind, causing it to dry and harden
- Increases erosion through sun and wind
- Alters soil structure
- Soil more compacted from process of tilling and digging
- Moves dormant weeds to the surface where they have a greater chance of germinating
Advantages of the No Till Method
- Preserves the soil organisms that perform the work of breaking down raw materials into nutrients for the plants.
- Preserves the natural soil structure – allowing soil to retain more moisture naturally
- Prevents soil erosion
- Reduces soil compression
Disadvantages of the No Till Method
- Takes much longer to build soil suitable for planting
- More strategies needed to control weeds
In addition to tilling and lasagna layers, there are other methods for starting your garden, and you can read more about Transforming Lawn into Garden Here.
Sheet Composting – No Till Gardening – Lasagna Gardening
I decided to start the first garden beds just outside our front door. In permaculture planning, this is zone 1. It is the area where I will spend most of my gardening and harvesting time. South facing, far enough from the house and trees to avoid shade, easy access to water, and level.
Using the empty boxes from our move, I broke them down and removed all the plastic tape. Once flattened, I spread them out over the planned garden areas. So far I have two areas – the first (or south bed, as I now call it) is about 230 square feet. The second bed (north bed) is about 250 square feet. I still have more unpacking to do, which means more empty boxes. I hope to add a third space of about 200 square feet between the south and north beds. (The large tree in the photo is on the north side).
I kept the boxes in place weighted down by large stones. The next step will be to apply a layer of straw mulch directly over the boxes, followed by composted manure, topsoil, and more straw mulching to hold moisture. These form the layers in the lasagna gardening method.
Ideally, this process of sheet composting – lasagna gardening would have started much earlier for a rich supply of ready soil for spring planting. This year we will invest in outside resources – bringing in the manure, soil, and mulch, but our plan is to eventually have a self-sustaining system using a combination of composted animal bedding and cover crops. So much to learn!
No Till Gardening – The Results
Using the no-till method created rich, loose soil that was ready to plant. Our final garden was created using a combination of tilling, hand-digging, and sheet composting. The soil in the lasagna gardening layers is loose, rich, and filled with earthworms. The annual vegetables produced in abundance and the area needed very little weeding.
As we continue expanding our gardens, we are using the no-till method to create the best soils. If you are starting your garden, or want to add more garden space, the no-till method is a great strategy for building healthy, weed-free soil.
Cindy Connor goes into detail about practical strategies for soil building for any size garden –
Amy Stross covers strategies in The Suburban Micro-Farm
Anna Hess has excellent resources on building healthy soils in her Ultimate Guide to Soil Series.
Have you tried the no-till approach, and what were your results?