No-Till Gardening Saves You Time And Carbon

Eric Holst


Image by the author

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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