Garden Tilling

Garden tilling can be done by hand or machine.  The purpose for tilling is to improve soil structure and prepare it for planting.

Cultivating soil takes time in the beginning but is important for the ease of growing your garden. 

Not preparing soil upfront will lead to problems later.  As easy as it seems, there are a few things that need to be considered to properly till. 

It is also recommended to check pH of soil and nutrient levels so soil quality can be improved while cultivating.

Gardening Hand Tools

Cultivating is concentrated where most plant roots grow naturally in the top 8 inches (up to 20 cm) of soil.    Do only what is necessary because
it is possible to over-till resulting in:

  • Soil structure and organisms can break down.
  • Dormant seeds are waiting to germinate.
  • Perennial rhizomes and stolons are also capable
    of producing a new plant.

1)  Starting a garden or butterfly meadow and getting rid of weeds:

  • When applying weed killers wait two weeks before digging.
  • If necessary, cover area with plastic or another physical
    barrier for a few growing seasons if weeds are problematic.

2)  The best time to till is in the fall -

  • Allows soil to settle over winter. 
  • No air pockets, which can dry plant roots. 
  • Allows soil to rebuild with organisms.

3)  Soil moisture is important.

  • Don't till when garden soil it too wet.  It's harder to till
    and it breaks down soil structure where compaction occurs.

If tilling soil in spring place hand in a patch of soggy soil.  if it is too cold to keep hand in soil for one minute it is too soon to till.  If soil temperature is warm enough, test to see if soil forms a ball.  If a ball easily forms, garden tilling will be difficult because soil is compacted.  Wait until soil gets a little dryer when the ball falls apart.

Gardening Hand Tools

Garden tilling:

  • Manual methods allows for deeper digging bringing up deeper soils which builds a better nutritional base for soil.  Recommended for gardens and smaller areas.
  • Using garden cultivators or electric tillers can over-till, chops rhizomes and may, depending on machine, not dig deep enough.  Recommended for larger areas.
  • Mark border if necessary.

Manual tilling can be strenuous.  Consider what is best for one's health. 

1)  Manually Turning Soil

This most common method of garden tilling where one simply starts digging and mixing soil around.  Remove weeds and rocks.  Place fertilizer, manure and/or soil amendment in soil then continue to stir this in.  Manually turn soil on an irregular basis, or only when necessary.  To do this routinely could harm roots of wanted plants and stunt their growth.

2)  Deep/Single Digging Soil

Before starting know soil pH.  There are many soil testing methods available.  Deep digging will completely turn the soil over, removing the first layer and break it up. 

  • This removes the first 10-12 inches (25-30 cm) of soil from area.  It can be done manually or by using small tillers rotating only three or four complete turns.
  • Place soil in wheelbarrow.  Remove sod and as many rocks as possible.
  • Apply fertilizer, soil amendment and/or well rotted manure.
  • Replace soil.

3)  Trench/Double Digging Soil

As with single digging, testing soil pH is important.  This method will require pH testing a few times.  I have read many publications and there are different definitions along with different methods of double digging.  Manually this is physically strenuous so many people opt for garden tillers.  With regards to the health of your soil, many experts feel this is more damaging than it is good. 

Soil is alive and rototilling has been proven to break down organic matter, micro-organisms, necessary fungus that promotes soil structure, water and other soil life like worms.  With exception, for most gardeners this probably isn't necessary.  Consider this if working on a raised garden bed of about 12 inches.

If opting for this method when cultivating soil it is important to note with this method the sub-soil shouldn't be brought to the surface, therefore don't dig in shallow soils.

I have not needed to double dig and therefore highly recommend gardener's do their own homework regarding this method.  Bits of information I did read and think are good ideas:

  • Spread out top soil or amendments on top of the area that would be dug into.
  • Apply gypsum after soil is removed from trenches once they are dug up.
  • Apply manure and compost on the surface once soil is placed back in trenches.
  • Mulch

After opting for this method the soil needs to have plenty of time to settle.  Wait at least four weeks, six is better, before planting.

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