To till or not to till, that is the question! 

Now, what is the answer? Depends on who you ask. 

Surprisingly enough, tillage is quite the polarizing subject in the market garden community. 

You have no-tillers, low-tillers, deep tillers, and shallow tillers. 

There are a lot of opinions out there on the type of tillage you should employ in your market gardens. I am going to try and break them down so you can make the choice that is best for you.

Let’s start at the beginning.

What Is The Purpose Of Tilling a Garden?

Tillage is the general form of soil preparation in agriculture. It includes working the soil; incorporating lime, fertilizers, and manures; turning under green manures and crop residues; and any other mechanical process involved in preparing the land for raising crops. 

How Do You Start A Garden Bed?

Right now, our market garden site is a hayfield, so we have to start tillage from the very beginning – plowing.

Plowing with a moldboard plow is a popular method associated with farming. 

In the process of plowing, the soil layers are turned over, either wholly or partially, depending on the adjustment of the plow. 

Since this process alone does not produce a suitable planting surface or sufficient mixing action to fully incorporate fertilizers or organic materials, supplementary operations are necessary.

Plowing is commonly followed by discing and harrowing. The idea is to loosen the soil; incorporate air, organic matter, and fertilizers; and remove weeds in order to prepare a clean seedbed.

As a result of tillage, the air, moisture, temperature, chemical, and biological levels of the soil are modified.

There are two main types of tillage: deep tillage that goes down as much as 2 ft. and shallow tillage which disturbs no more than the top 6” of soil, and preferably only the top 3-4”.

deep tillage

Deep Tillage

Deep tillage can aerate the soil or mix the subsoil with the topsoil.

As well, deep tillage can aerate the soil to a considerable depth – improving drainage, increasing rooting depth, making soil nutrients more accessible for the roots, and initiating a process of topsoil deepening, which greatly increases the fertility of the soil.

Chisel Plow

The chisel plow consists of a strong metal frame bearing a series of curved, soil penetrating chisels about 2” wide and 24” long that can be fitted with different tips.

When pulled through the ground, the chisels penetrate to depths of up to 16”, but they do not turn over the layers like a moldboard plow.

They simply lift and loosen the soil and break up hardpan and compacted soil.

This is not a small scale piece of equipment. Using it once a year for deep tillage will involve renting a tractor or hiring an operator.

We plan on hiring an operator in the early spring to plow our market garden site since, as I previously mentioned, is currently a hayfield.

Eliot Coleman recommends the chisel plow in the initial years of creating fertile soil for vegetable growing.

After the first few years, you should be able to gain the same tillage effect with the roots of green manures.

Deep-rooting green manure crops are very effective at improving conditions in the subsoil.

Deep rooting not only improves the soil physically by loosening it but also increases its fertility by bringing up more nutrients from the lower strata.

The root channels remain long after the green manure has decomposed.

They help improve the soil’s porosity and water holding properties as well as preventing future hardpan formation.

The Broadfork

The broadfork is a long U-shaped fork consisting of a 2 ft. wide spading fork with a 5 ft. long handle at either side of the fork. The teeth on the fork are 4” apart and are 12” long.

It is used to loosen the soil about one foot deep without inverting or mixing it.

The broadfork is a manual tool that is quite simple to use. The operator steps on the crossbar, using full body weight to drive the tines into the ground, then steps backward while pulling backward on the handles, causing the tines to lever upwards through the soil.

A good worker can broadfork a whole plot (16 beds, each 100ft. long) in about 2 hours’ time.

The broadfork is a simple and economical solution that ensures well-aerated soil.

Vegetables like sweet corn, root veg, and crops with extensive root systems like tomatoes are greatly benefited by deep tilling.

The broadfork should be used prior to surface tillage, and preferably during the previous fall for sections of the rotation where the earliest crops will be planted.

As with any tool it should be used with eyes open: if there appears to be no difference in crop response, or a difference is apparent only on certain crops, then adjust when, how much, or how often you use the broadfork.

Advantages of Deep Tillage

The advantages of deep tillage are:

  • Breaks up soil compaction
  • Provides soil aeration
  • Aids the soil structure
  • Extends crop rooting depth
  • Increases the range of soil nutrients available to plant roots
  • Helps deepen the topsoil which greatly increases soil fertility

Disadvantages of Deep Tillage

The disadvantages of deep tillage are:

  • Custom operators with chisel plow may be hard to locate
  • In some soils, the broadfork may be impractical

shallow tillage

Shallow Tillage

Shallow tillage is the preparation of the top few inches of soil.

Eliot Coleman uses the rotary tiller for shallow tillage. It has many advantages over the traditional plow, disc, and harrow.

First, it does the work of all three conventional implements in one operation.

Second, it does the work at a speed that makes it considerably more efficient overall.

Third, it does the job better.

The Rotary Tiller

In rotary tillage, the soil is prepared by means of specially shaped soil-working blades which are rotated by a powered axle.

A rotary tiller mixes and incorporates fertilizers, plant residues, and organic amendments (manures and composts) uniformly throughout the tillage depth and leaves them in contact with the greatest number of soil particles.

This thorough mixing distributes organic materials and assures the availability of minimally processed fertilizers.

However, there are some drawbacks to the rotary tiller that needs to be mentioned as well.

There is evidence that the rotary tiller can be detrimental if overused. Extra aeration of the soil quickens the decomposition of organic matter, which can be good or bad depending on when it is done. 

Spring tilling can have a beneficial effect. Early in the season the soil is cool and may benefit from tilling to help warm it up.

Later in the season, most of the soil will be undersown to green manures. When there is early green manure, the extra air, and thorough mixing will help decompose the residues faster and make the soil ready for planting of the following crop sooner.

Power Harrow

On the power harrow, multiple sets of tines rotate on a vertical axis, which tills the soil horizontally.

The power harrow mixes the surface soil like you had would if you put your fingers in a circular pattern, stuck the tips of them shallowly into the soil, and turned your forearm.

It works the soil by stirring instead of mixing as a tiller does.

The result is that soil layers are not inverted and no vertical compression of the soil can lead to hardpan formation. 

The power harrow is great for bed preparation as it incorporates any crumbly amendment like compost to a shallow depth very effectively.

The result is a perfectly conditioned bed ready for transplants and direct-seeded crops.

The downside of the power harrow is it is very large and heavy and difficult to maneuver in tight spaces.

The Two-Wheel Tractor AKA The Walking Tractor

A walking tractor is a 2 wheeled power source. This piece of equipment will give you enough power to do an excellent job tilling under almost any conditions. 

The walking tractor also can be equipped with a wide range of other implements such as seeders, rollers, mowers, hillers, pumps, and harvesters if your farm operation requires them. 

Both Eliot Coleman and J.M. Fortier choose to use the walking tractor for a small scale farm because:

  • it is less expensive than a 4 wheel tractor
  • it is smaller and easier to work with
  • it is much easier to learn to operate
  • can pivot on the spot, allowing for better use of space.

Advantages of A Walking Tractor

The advantages of a walking tractor are:

Economics: the initial cost is less than a four-wheel tractor

Performance: top of the line models till as well or better than many tractor=mounted tillers

Flexibility: a walking tractor is basically a power source on wheels and it is adaptable to many needs

Simplicity: it is much easier to operate than a full-sized tractor

Maintenance: less overwhelming and complicated with a full-sized tractor when repairs are needed

Lighter Weight: creates minimal soil compaction and leaves no deep wheel ruts

Smaller Size: far more maneuverable and less headland is required to turn at the ends of rows

No-till Market Farming

For small scale farmers, tilling creates clean seedbeds that a small seeding tool can carefully and evenly drop seeds into.

There are still no tools that can direct seed into a bed with mulch.

You still need a clean seedbed in order to run a seeder, and if you’re willing to put in the work, there is a way to do it without tillage.

However, it should be mentioned that if you’re preparing your beds for the first time in the season, you should use a broadfork or pitchfork to first loosen the subsoil in your bed.

Here is Curtis Stone’s no-till method using non-mechanized hand tools.

1. Remove Previous Crop Residue: Pull out all the previous crop from the bed. You must remove it all because hand tilling will not work if there is too much residue. Pull from the base of the plant and shake the soil off so that you’re not moving soil around.

2. Stirrup Hoe the Roots and Loosen the Top Inch for a Fluff Seedbed: Take a stirrup hoe and run it up and down the bed, loosening up soil along the entire bed. This is like rototilling by hand at a very shallow depth.

3. Sprinkle in Soil Amendments and Rake out Leftover Debris: Add appropriate soil amendments for the bed and rake them in.

Now your bed is ready to plant again. Once you get good at this technique you should be able to turn over a 25 ft bed in 30 minutes

No-till Using the Tilther

What the heck is a tilther?

Well, it is a very specialized tool. An electric drill powered mini tiller that is 18” wide to be exact.

The tilther does not rototill in the traditional way in that its tilth is very shallow, about an inch.

The main purpose is to prepare a new seedbed in a similar way to a tiller but the tilther fluffs up the top layer of soil so that your seeding tool can operate smoothly through the bed and you can work soil amendments into the surface at the same time.

Here’s how to use it:

1. Remove previous crop residue

2. Sprinkle on soil amendments

3. Use the tilther to mix in amendments

4. Make one pass with a landscape rake to level out the bed.

Bottom Line

There are many options when it comes to the type of tillage you can do in your market garden.

The best kind of tillage is the one that works for you.

In many cases, you will be doing a mixture of deep, shallow, and no-tillage techniques depending on the requirements of your market garden. 

Use the tillage type that is right for the task at hand. If you’re plowing a field for the first time, you might want to use a tractor. Prepping your beds, use a shallow or no-till method if it’s suitable.

It’s really up to you, your land requirements, and your preference.

It’s important to stay educated and learn from other farmers, they may use a tillage technique that would work well on your farm and vice versa. 

Please, do your research! I consulted books by Eliot Coleman, J.M. Fortier, and Curtis Stone for the information presented in this article.

These are only 3 of many experts you should consult before making important market farm decisions, especially as a newbie (like us!)

What type(s) of tillage systems do you use in your market garden? What do you like or dislike about them? Let us know in the comments below.

Stay Local,

Kathy & Jon

your friendly neighbourhood growers


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