By Rob Danforth

Tilling increases weeding by bringing weeds’ seeds to the surface and tilling chops up weeds which may significantly multiply the weeds from the many cuttings!

No-till gardening with raised beds or permanent earth rows and walkways saves time on heavy soil work, preserves soil organisms, and reduces erosion, fertilizing, watering, and weeding. 

Gardeners can save labour by limiting and focusing on the growing areas rather than on the entire square footage of a plot, and by adding permanent walkways which eliminate the need to till soil that has been walked on or driven over. Gardeners stay out of the growing areas and work from the sides from permanent walkways placed around and between the productive areas.

Permanent walkways eliminate the need to till, water, fertilize, and weed all areas not planted. Traditional gardening is often composed of planted earthen rows with a walkway between each row. Approximately ½ of the garden area is walkways and borders – all of which usually gets watered, fertilized, and weeded – often! Then at the end of a season (or next spring) the whole garden gets tilled for the sake of the compacted walkways and any rows stomped on during harvest and clean up.

Permanent walkway options between raised beds:

  • Organic – grass or grass clippings, shredded leaves, cut weeds (seedless), creeping thyme, straw, bark, wood chips, Dutch white clover, or nature’s choice (the last 2 must be mowed and whipped regularly to keep green growth under control). I mow Dutch clover to 1 inch every cut; grass gets mowed to 1 inch in spring and fall, but 3 inches in the heat of summer; nature’s choice gets mowed like grass, but more often if the weeds start to go to seed.
  • Inorganic – patio, flag, river, or cobble stone; bricks or brick chips; pavement or tarmac.
  • Temporary – boards of unpainted, untreated wood or a supported plank (a bridge). Boardwalks spread a gardener’s weight like skis on snow and reduce compaction; planks supported like a bridge can keep feet out of the garden. 

Caution: do not use treated wood which leaches arsenic or copper sulphate or old floor coverings which leach chemicals into the soil and leave bits of glue, rubber, synthetic fibres and possibly fire-retardant chemicals as they disintegrate due to weathering.

Tip: adding an underlay helps prevent weeds and keeps small pieces of mulch from disappearing into the ground soil. Underlays can be newspaper (3-5 sheets), cardboard, landscape fabric/geotextile. Landscape fabric lets water and air pass through and it lasts a long time; newsprint and cardboard will eventually decompose and add helpful carbon to the garden soil. Avoid plastic sheeting, or pool liners which stop water and air from getting to the soil, may encourage fungus growth, and may interfere with drainage by forming pools or canals of rainwater.

 No-till options

  • Slightly raised permanent mounds of garden soil in rows, each mound furrowed at the top and permanent paths between them. I experimented with this for 4 years – it works but there are inconveniences (see tip below). Note: A practice I have seen in some gardens is rows of high mounds of soil with rounded tops. These mounds may save you bending, and save your produce from floods, but water, compost, nutrients, and seeds are easily washed off down the sides into the walkways.

  • 4-foot-wide raised beds with fixed borders of wood (seasoned but untreated and unpainted), shale, rocks, bricks, or plastic (UV resistant) with permanent paths between.

Tip: raised beds are better than permanent earthen rows because the fixed borders help maximize the space planted by reducing the number of paths needed, gardeners have fewer chances of stepping on the productive soil, dense planting is practical, and the soil is flat rather than mounded so no fear of water, fertilizer and seeds washing off down the sides. In some cases, raised beds with permanent walkways can prevent border disputes between gardeners. Earthen rows must be re-shaped and sometimes re-claimed when water merges the sides with permanent paths.

We have used shredded leaves (passed through a leaf vacuum) for the past 8 years as a cold frame winter insulator, a plant protector, and as both permanent walkways and mulch in the garden with excellent results! The combination of no-till gardening, permanent paths, and leaf mulch makes for a very significant reduction in weeding and the mulch permits easy watering as well as moisture retention in the garden soil. Ultimately, decomposed leaves add value to your soil.

Keep calm and carry-on gardening!  Enjoy the activity as well as the tastes, fragrances, colours, textures, and verdant growth – all at your hand!