Comparing No-Till Gardening Methods: Back to Eden, Ruth Stout, No Dig, Hugelkultur

This year we have jumped into a whole new way of gardening, and it has changed my entire perspective on how to grow healthy and abundant crops. Today, we’re going to talk about no-till gardening, and I will cover four different no-till methods you can use, and their pros and cons.

The Problem with Tilling Soil

Tilling breaks up the soil so that you can quickly plant in loose soil, but the problem, is that over time this “loose” soil becomes hard, dry, and nutrient deficient. Even light tilling disrupts the surface and destroys beneficial microorganisms and bacteria that live there. It essentially disrupts and even removes the life of the soil. Why is this life so important? It creates a balanced ecosystem that supports the immune system of your plants. A plant with a healthy immune system is less susceptible to disease, pest issues, and also more flavorful and full of nutrients.

Last year, we tilled our garden, and I have noticed a HUGE difference in the health and life of the soil in our tilled bed in comparison to our no-till beds that we added this year. We tilled our garden because we simply thought it was the only option. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

The good news is that there are many alternative options to tilling, and all of these options ADD to the soil, increasing the nutrients, instead of taking from it. In this post I am going to cover four no-till methods that we are using, share a little about each method, and also discuss the pros and cons.

no till garden with back to eden, ruth stout, hugelkultur
no till garden with potatoes growing in ruth stout bed

In our garden we are using all four of these methods as well as others, and a combination of them. We have Back to Eden garden beds, a Ruth Stout bed where we are growing tomatoes and potatoes, and a big Hugelkultur bed that we recently shared on the blog and YouTube.

We’re also incorporating the No Dig method into our Back to Eden beds, by moving aside the wood chips, laying down mushroom compost, direct seeding in the compost, and then putting the wood chips back once the seeds have germinated. In addition to these four methods, we are mulching with grass clippings, using a few raised beds, and even planting in a bed that was tilled last year.

Comparing No-Till Methods Back to eden, ruth stout, hugelkultur, no dig

Back to Eden Method

Back to Eden gardening is all about heavy mulching with wood chips and maintaining a consistent ground cover over your un-tilled soil. The idea is that through maintaining the ground cover, the bacteria and microorganisms living in the upper layers of the soil are protected, and are more packed with nutrients that your plants will need. On top of that, the wood chips allow for the soil to retain more moisture, which decreases the need to water. In addition, the mulching blocks weed seeds from germination, which decreases weeding. When weed seeds do germinate, they are easy to pull out of the soil because of the loose mulch. Another aspect of using this method, is that over time the soil will improve as it retains moisture and as the wood chips break down, continuing to add nutrients back into the soil. With this method, there is less of a need to crop rotate, and also a decreased need to add fertilizer.

Pros

  • Little to no weeding
  • Wood chips fertilize the soil as they break down, feeding the plants
  • Wood chips increase moisture retention & improve drainage by absorbing moisture
  • Composting wood chips increase bacteria and fungi in the soil, bringing life into the soil
  • Wood chips are often free and delivered by the municipality or a local tree company
  • Decreased pests and disease as plants develop healthier immune systems
  • Difficult for any weed seeds to germinate in the wood chips
  • Wood chips insulate heat, helping perennials overwinter in suitable regions

Cons

  • Requires a lot of work for setting up
  • Takes a couple of years for the wood chips to break down to support a thriving garden
  • Requires a lot of wood chips, 6-8”
  • Difficult to direct sow
  • Increase of slugs, who like the moist environment of wood chips

Ruth Stout Method or “no-work” gardening method

The Ruth Stout Method involves heavy mulch with vegetable matter, particularly rotting hay or straw, and having that on top of the garden year round. Ruth Stout wrote a couple of books about this method. In Gardening Without Work, she wrote, “My no-work gardening method is simply to keep a thick mulch of any vegetable matter that rots on both my vegetable and flower garden all year round. As it decays and enriches the soil, I add more. The labor-saving part of my system is that I never plow, spade, sow a cover crop, harrow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray. I use just one fertilizer (cottonseed or soybean meal), and I don’t go through that tortuous business of building a compost pile.”

You can purchase her book here.

tips for starting a garden

Pros

  • Rotting hay breaks down quickly, adding organic matter to the soil and releasing nutrients
  • If you have livestock or farm animals, rotting hay may be readily available (we use rotted hay that our goats have wasted and have let sit in their goat pen)
  • Mulching heavily with rotted hay increases moisture retention. Decreased watering!
  • Rotting hay adds bacteria and fungi to the soil, and attracts earthworms! Our Ruth Stout bed has more earthworms than any other bed thus far
  • Works really well for potatoes!
  • Decreased pests and disease as plants develop healthier immune systems
  • Straw/hay acts as an insulator retaining heat

Cons

  • It can be difficult to source organic hay that has not been sprayed. Herbicide damage is becoming more and more common with compost, hay, or straw that has traces of harmful chemicals damaging and killing crops. First signs tend to show up in plants like tomatoes and beans. For more information, read this.
  • Hay or straw is generally not free
  • As with Back to Eden, direct sowing is difficult, mulch must be moved aside
  • Increase of rodents who like to burrow in the hay or straw

Hugelkultur Method

Hugelkultur (hoogle-culture) is simple, making a raised bed out of rotted wood. It encompasses permaculture by using organic material that will continue to feed back to the soil and create more and more growth over time. I found a great article that covers Hugelkultur in detail, which you can read here.

Pros

  • Rotting wood acts a sponge for moisture, decreasing the need for watering
  • Soil warms up faster in the spring for earlier planting and growth
  • Loose soil that is well-aerated
  • Composting wood adds heat to the bed, increasing growth and germination
  • Increased surface area for planting (able to plant on the slopes and sides)
  • Easier on your body to plant in (similar to a raised bed)
  • Build soil fertility
  • Improved drainage
  • Use wood and debris that cannot be used for other purposes (e.g., rotting wood that cannot be burned)
  • Rotting wood feeds the soil and the plants for many years, without a need to fertilize
  • Little to no need for weeding
  • It’s SO fun to plant! I really enjoyed the planting process

Cons

  • Setup is extremely time and labor intensive (aka the best work out of your life)
  • The first year or two can be less abundant than desired
  • It can require purchasing top soil or compost, which can be expensive
  • It may not be as aesthetically pleasing as other methods (I tried to make mine as pretty as possible!)

No Dig Method

No Dig has many similarities with the Back to Eden method, except instead of adding mulch to the soil, you add organic matter, compost, to smother out the weeds, and to add a loose layer of soil to plant into. The No Dig method is practiced a lot more in the UK, with experts like Charles Dowding utilizing the method. Charles Dowding even has a No Dig market garden, proving that you can run a business with no-till.

Pros

  • Earlier and faster success than other methods because compost supplies readily available nutrients to plants
  • Soil immediately looser and easier to plant in
  • High crop yield in the first couple of years
  • Utilize homemade compost through animal waste, food scraps, leaf mulch, grass clippings, etc.
  • Less weeds, and the weeds that do germinate are easy to pull out
  • Easy to plant in, and to direct sow
  • Harvesting root vegetables and tubers is easier as the soil is loose
  • Soil warms up faster in the spring for earlier planting

Cons

  • Expensive if you have to bring in compost for a large garden
  • Without mulching, there is less moisture retention. More watering required than the other methods.
  • Initial setup requires considerable labor
  • Need to add more compost every year, no mulch to break down and feed the soil
  • Critical to pull any weeds before they go to seed, or the area will quickly be overcome by weeds

That’s all for now friends,

All my best,

Jenn

What methods are YOU using in your garden? Tell me all about it in the comments below!

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no till garden methods: back to eden, ruth stout, hugelkultur, no dig
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