One of the key debates in permaculture gardening is whether to till or not to till the soil. Tilling involves turning over the soil and breaking it up, while no-till gardening involves leaving the soil undisturbed. Permaculture is a regenerative approach to gardening that emphasizes working with nature and creating self-sustaining ecosystems, but there isn’t a foregone conclusion that only a certain technique is usable or useful; it’s important to discuss the pros and cons of both approaches, and explore which is best for your permaculture garden.
Tilling can disrupt the delicate balance of microorganisms in the soil and lead to a loss of soil organic matter, and especially impact the mycorrhizal fungi which play a central role in the immune system of soil. No-till gardening, on the other hand, can help maintain the health of the soil by allowing the microorganisms to thrive undisturbed. The roots of plants are also able to penetrate deeper into the soil in a no-till garden, leading to a more diverse and healthy soil ecosystem.
However, not all gardens are the same; if you choose to till, you need to be aware of the disturbance effect and what measures you need to take to bring the soil back to balance.
Water is a precious resource in permaculture gardening, and both tilling and no-till gardening affect water conservation. In climates, or situations, where water is a scarce resource, tilling can lead to increased evaporation and loss of soil moisture, which is detrimental to plants and the ecosystem. No-till gardening, on the other hand, can help conserve water by maintaining the structure of the soil and allowing it to retain more moisture.
If you have to till, then water absorption and conservation needs to be addressed by multiple techniques, to reduce the impact on the structure and quality of the soil.
Weeds are a common problem in any annual garden, and tilling actually exacerbates the issue. Tilling can bring weed seeds to the surface and disturb the soil, allowing new weed seeds to germinate. In fact, the germination conditions of invasive plants are encouraged by soil disturbance; you need to know your soil, and to control the impact of pioneer plants.
No-till gardening, on the other hand, can help control weeds by allowing the soil ecosystem to naturally suppress them. Either way, the annual garden involves a certain degree of soil disturbance, at multiple times during the year; adding compost, covering the soil with mulch materials or cover cropping can help in mitigating this effect.
Nutrient availability is critical for the health of your plants, and both tilling and no-till gardening affect the availability of nutrients. Tilling can help incorporate organic matter and nutrients into the soil, making them more available to plants; but for more sophisticated plants, nutrient availability is not everything. Plants live in symbiosis with bacteria and fungi in the soil, and the latter are decisively impacted by tilling. Without its soil associates, certain plants cannot access nutrients in the soil, despite their availability.
No-till gardening, however, can lead to a buildup of organic matter on the soil surface; the gardener can intervene by cutting down the unwanted plants, leaving them to break down and therefore feed the soil, which in turn feeds the plants.
Labor and Time
Both tilling and no-till gardening require labor and time, but the amount of work involved can vary. Done by hand, tilling can be more labor-intensive; the use of heavy equipment to turn over the soil, impacts the life in the soil by the sheer force of the actions. No-till gardening, on the other hand, can be less labor-intensive, requiring only minimal soil preparation and maintenance.
The advantage of no-till is that the labor can be spread over time: composting, mulching, cover-cropping can all precede the functional time frame of an annual garden.
The decision to till or not to till your permaculture garden depends on several factors, including the ones quoted above, as well as your skills and availability. While tilling can have some benefits, it can also disrupt the delicate balance of the soil ecosystem and lead to a loss of soil organic matter. No-till gardening, on the other hand, helps maintain the health of the soil and conserve water, requiring less labor over time, as the overall situation gradually improves.
If you choose tilling, this is an operation that needs to be repeated each year, and its effects need to be mitigated. Ultimately, the best approach for your permaculture garden will depend on your specific needs and goals, and it may be worth experimenting with both approaches to see what works best for you.