Did You Know? You Don’t Have to Till Your Garden

tilling your garden

Here is an example of our vegetable garden mulched. Look! No weeds (in the areas we had mulched when this picture was taken)

I’m excited about today’s post! It deals with tilling your vegetable garden and anything dealing with the vegetable garden gets me excited. Growing up we always had a vegetable garden and part of the spring chores before planting involved tilling. The tiller we had was a front tine tiller and only the adult men were allowed to run it. Being a girl that believes she can do anything a man can do, I convinced my stepdad Don to let me have a chance. I’m sure he chuckled to himself as he fired it up and explained to me how it worked. He warned me that it was hard to control but I just knew that it wouldn’t be a problem for me. As the tiller dragged me around the garden bucking and barely breaking the soil surface, I conceded that Don was right…using a front tine tiller was work for a grown man.

Fast forward years down the road and I purchased a rear tine tiller. This thing was like a Cadillac as compared to the front tine tiller of my youth. I tilled effortlessly, often with one hand. I loved the fluffy soil that resulted. I could plant with only the assistance of my hand…no shovels required. It was like a dream. I started learning more and more about vegetable gardening and came across what is known as sheet mulching or lasagna gardening. With these methods, you don’t till your garden. At all. Never. Ever. Could it be possible that you can retire the tiller altogether? Let’s take a look at how it’s possible to never till again. And we’ll look at some of the advantages and disadvantages.

Sheet mulching or lasagna gardening, or any of the other names that it goes by essentially works like this:

  1. Add compost in a layer on top of the soil
  2. Add newspaper or cardboard on top of the compost
  3. Add more compost on top of the newspaper/cardboard
  4. Add mulch on top of the compost


You may be wondering where the plants are in this mix. The answer is that it depends. You can either plant and then add the layers or you can put down the layers first and then plant. People often get freaked out trying to figure out how to plant in these layers but it’s actually quite simple. If you are planting seeds, pull those layers back enough to plant your seeds. Don’t cover them up with mulch…leave the hole open. As the plants grow up, add the mulch back around the plants. If you are starting with plants, pull the mulch and compost back. Use a razor knife or other implement to make a hole in the newspaper/cardboard and then plant. Add the compost and other layers back and you’re done. It’s so easy that it seems too easy to actually work. But it does. Let’s look at advantages and disadvantages of this way to plant.


  1. It eliminates the need to till your garden. Take a moment to contemplate this statement alone. Over time, tilling can degrade the tilth of your soil. It also stirs up all of those beautiful colonies of microorganisms that you’ve worked so hard to develop. Leaving the soil life undisturbed is enough reason for me to not till my garden.
  2. It reduces weeding to a reasonable level. I think that one of the reasons gardeners throw their hands up and walk away from their veggie gardens is the weeds. As summer wears on, the weeds outcompete your plants and eventually you have to hunt through the weeds to even find your plants. It doesn’t have to be that way!
  3. It reduces water needs in the garden. The second reason that people walk away from the garden is watering. Let’s face it…in the Mid-Atlantic gardening region, by the time the tomatoes start producing, the rain stops falling. And you are left watering a garden full of weeds. That’s discouraging to even the most seasoned gardener.



I can think of only one. If you are going to use wood mulch, you can’t till the garden while the wood is intact. If you do, your soil structure will be worse off then when you started. Make sure that you want to garden this way for years before you apply your wood mulch. If you are unsure that you want to garden this way for years, I think it is a wise recommendation to try a small portion of your garden using this method. After your first season, I think you’ll be convinced that this is the way vegetable gardening is supposed to be.

So go ahead, give it a try. Keep me posted on your efforts and let me know how your garden progresses. One word of caution before you begin…you’ll need to figure out what you’re going to do with all of your spare time that you used to spend tilling, weeding and watering your garden. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy gardening!

April 16, 2012Permalink 9 Comments