No-Till Gardening Saves You Time And Carbon



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I’ve been a gardener most of my life, inspired by my paternal grandfather. In fact, some of my earliest happy memories are of his bountiful garden in his back yard in Oakland, CA. Flash forward some forty years. Today, I have my own small garden, and tilling the soil with a shovel is among my great pleasures. I can turn soil for hours at a time, breaking clods of dirt, mixing in compost. I find it therapeutic. But what is good for my soul may not be good for my soil (or yours). 

Last summer, among a group of colleagues from EDF and Vela Environmental, an agricultural consulting group, I spent a day visiting the farm of Justin Knopf, near Salina, KS. He and his family are no-till farmers -- meaning that they don’t plow or otherwise dig up their fields. They simply plant seeds in the midst of the stubble from the previous year’s crop. This helps enrich the soil with organic matter and create habitat for living microorganisms. This, in turn, allows the soil to hold moisture longer, which improves growing conditions for crops.

During our visit to Justin’s farm, we spent a happy hour in the middle of a soybean field, mucking about in a big pit Justin had dug with a backhoe. It was a hot summer day, but cool down in the pit, where we found bugs and earth worms and dead roots to a depth of six feet. That’s something you wouldn’t find if the Knopf farm was tilling the soil as I love to do.

It turns out that tilling actually causes carbon in the soil to evaporate into the atmosphere (accelerating global warming), which also destroys the habitat needed to foster living organisms. Was I wrong to do so much tilling in my little garden, I asked Justin? Well, he said gently, maybe I should try no-till and see how my crops did.

So when I returned back to my home in Sacramento, CA,  I turned one of my five raised garden beds (see the photo above) into a no till plot. This winter my family and I grew a variety of greens:  Kale; swiss chard; lettuce. I’ll be experimenting with this method of gardening indefinitely, monitoring the microfauna, soil structure and fertility. 

As for my shovel therapy, I suppose I can always take up meditation. Meanwhile, I’ve already asked Justin for some more gardening tips – this time on weed control. 

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Eric Holst

Eric Holst

Eric is Associate Vice President of EDF's Working Lands program.

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Eric, I believe your insights from the midwestern no-tillers are on the mark. Sometime you should visit the Burleigh County, North Dakota cocktail cover croppers (e.g. who are doing remarkable things.

If you would like to verify your theory about no till gardening, the Soil Carbon Challenge is a monitoring program that has been baselining innovative and committed managers since 2010, mainly ranchers so far, and is currently working in California. The Challenge is in effect a competition, not connected with any offset scheme, to see how well and how fast committed managers can turn atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter, based on field sampling and repeatable measurements over 4-10-year spans of time.

more info at

Peter Donovan
Soil Carbon Coalition
currently in San Juan Bautista

No-till does make a lot of logical sense and I can easily commit to that approach, but what do I do to prepare the planting area that is solid in unwanted vegetation? I see you have the same question about weeding as we go along :)

What to do about weeds?

Eric Holst says "They simply plant seeds in the midst of the stubble from the previous year’s crop."

Thus, if what was planted was a crop which you now wish to replace, there should not be much of a problem.

But basically I think we all have to learn a lot more about nature's ways and start to mimic what she does. For instance, natural succession: what crop can I plant now that would outcompete the weeds?

I am learning and trying to speed up the learning process. I have a solid bed of arugula which outcompeted all the weeds (I did not thin.) Now I have cut the arugula down to the ground and put in fava bean seeds (for eating, not for cover crop.) The arugula will start to grow back and then the fava beans will outcompete the arugula. Before the fava beans can be harvested I expect to get winter squash started and leave the fava beans in until it looks like I might have to cut them off.

Tilling makes it easier for the weeds to grow; thus, if you can get rid of the current generation of weeds you will eventually find it easier to control the weeds.