Sometimes I hear seasonal ‘buzz’ words for the season. This spring, the buzz word I keep hearing is till – should I, shouldn’t I, why do I, what happens if I don’t? 

All great questions! Perhaps the most important thing to remember is there is no one correct way to grow a garden. Gardeners successfully grow fruits and vegetables using lots of different management practices – no doubt about it!  So it is my job to help gardeners understand all their gardening choices, the pros and cons of each, and let them decide which ones are best for them to use. That being said, here is a little discussion on tilling the garden.

new garden2

When should I till?

It IS logical to till (rototill) the garden when: A gardener is…….

  • Trying to prepare a new garden area – this can also be done in the fall.
  • Trying to loosen-up heavily compacted soil – this can also be done in the fall.
  • Trying to mix-in several inches of organic matter – this can also be done in the fall.
  • Trying to weed a large land area (till-in existing weeds) prior to planting garden plants or planting garden seeds – this helps to give garden plants the competitive advantage over weeds.

soilsWhen shouldn’t I till the garden?

It IS NOT necessarily logical to till (rototill) the garden when:

  • A soil test reveals a clay-dominated soil texture (for example sandy clay, clay, or silty clay) and the garden soil is saturated with water (tilling wet clay-dominated soil will produce clods).
  • The soil workability is adequate and the gardener wants to preserve existing soil structure.
  • The gardener has experienced difficulties with soil compaction in past growing seasons and believes that tilling may have contributed to the compaction problems.
  • The garden contains weeds with above or underground spreading parts (field bindweed, quackgrass).

Avoid Tilling

Why do gardeners till the garden?

Reasons I have heard from gardeners on why they till (rototill) their gardens include:

  • My parents or neighbors always did so I just assumed tilling was necessary.
  • I thought I needed to till in organic matter to incorporate it into the soil.
  • My friend who grows a great garden every year told me I needed to till mine in the spring.
  • Just as farmers till their fields to prepare them for spring planting, I till my garden to get it ready to plant.
  • I utilize shallow tilling practices to help control certain pests (like cutworms).

farm plow

What happens if you don’t till your garden?

A few things to consider before tilling your garden include:

  • Tilling destroys soil structure.
  • Tilling can increase soil compaction since it breaks apart soil aggregates.
  • Tilling clay-dominated soil textures when wet can produce clods.
  • Tilling can contribute to weed pressure in the garden by chopping up spreading weed parts (rhizomes, stolons, tubers) or by surfacing once dormant weed seeds that had not previously germinated because they were buried in the weed seed bank prior to tilling.
  • Tilling can be done in the fall when soil tends to be drier and can be a great way to control populations of certain garden pests since it brings them to the surface where they can freeze or desiccate.


Take home message, till your garden when it makes sense but consider other methods when it works against you.