By: Heather Rhoades
These days, tilling dirt is a matter of personal choice. There are some people in the world of gardening who believe that you should be tilling your soil at least once, maybe twice a year. There are others who believe that tilling your soil at all can be harmful to your soil in the long term. For the purposes of this article, we are assuming that you wish to know how to till a garden on a yearly basis.
When to Till a Garden
Before you can learn how to till a garden, you need to know when to till a garden. For most people, the best time for tilling dirt is in the spring. Before tilling your soil, you must wait for two things: the soil must be dry enough and warm enough. If you don’t wait for these two things, you may cause more harm than good to your soil and plants.
To see if your soil is dry enough, pick up a handful and squeeze it. If the ball of soil in your hand falls apart when poked, the soil is dry enough. If it stays together in a ball, the soil is too wet for tilling.
To see if the soil is warm enough, stick your hand or a finger a few inches (5 to 7.5 cm.) down into the soil. If you are unable to keep your hand or finger in the soil for a full minute, than the soil is not warm enough. You can also simply measure the soil temperature. You need the soil to be at least 60 F. (15 C.) before tilling and planting.
How to Till a Garden
After you have determined when to till a garden, you can start tilling the dirt.
- Mark out the area where you will be tilling your soil.
- Start at one end of the marked out area with your tiller. Much like you would when you are mowing the lawn, go across the soil one row at a time.
- Slowly make your rows. Don’t rush tilling your soil.
- You will only be tilling the dirt in each row one time. Don’t go back over a row. Excessive tilling can compact the soil rather than break it up.
Additional Notes on Tilling Your Soil
If you plan on planting cool weather crops (like lettuce, peas or cabbage) next year, you’ll want to do some of your tilling the fall before. The soil will not be dry enough or warm enough to till in the early spring when these plants need to be put in the ground.
Knowing when to till a garden and how to till a garden will help your garden grow better every year.
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Dirty Secrets: 9 Ways to Improve Garden Soil
I’m a soil scientist and a former faculty instructor for Oregon State University’s Extension program, where I’ve taught and consulted with farmers and gardeners. My own half-acre garden in southern Oregon is my laboratory where I experiment to find new ways to improve the soil.
After spending years learning how to make garden soils light, fluffy, and easy to work, I wrote Building Soil: A Down-to-Earth Approach, a guide to everything you need to know to improve soil. Here are 10 of my top tips to improve soil:
2. Pick the Correct Spot
Almost all vegetables and most flowers need 6-8 hours of full sun each day. So you need to observe your yard throughout the day to figure out which spots receive full sun versus partial or full shade. Don't worry if your lot is mostly shady: You won’t be able to grow tomatoes in shade, but many other plants (such as hostas and outdoor ferns) love it. Don't skip this step, because in order to thrive, your plants need to have their light requirements met. Check plant tags or ask the staff at your local garden center to help you understand out how much sun a plant needs.
Three additional tips: Pick a relatively flat spot for your garden because it’s more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to deal with a sloping garden. Check for windbreaks (such as your house or your neighbor’s house) that will keep plants from being harmed by strong winds. And put the garden where you can't ignore its pleas for attention: Outside the back door, near the mailbox, or by the window you gaze through while you're cooking. Bonus if that place is close enough to a water spigot that you won't have to drag a hose across the entire yard.
Tilling Pros in the Garden
Bonnie’s viewpoint: There are many reasons to till soil. In fact, professional farmers recommend tilling twice per year – spring and fall. Here are some good reasons for tilling the garden.
Warms spring soil. Among the many tilling advantages is the fact that soil warms more quickly in spring when tilled. This means an earlier jump on the growing season. Tilling increases air in soil and stimulates the activity of aerobic bacteria. That helps break down organic matter more quickly, releasing heat as energy.
Amends soil in fall. When you till in fall, you can also add organic matter such as the season’s dying vegetable plants. These will gradually compost in the soil, increasing nutrients and tilth. Compost, leaf litter, grass clippings and other organic amendments are powerful sources of nitrogen and carbon, two elements necessary for plant growth and good soil composition.
Aerates the soil. If you are looking for more benefits of tillage, try the fact that it aerates soil. Loosening the soil not only provides a good footing for newly germinated roots but it helps water, nutrients and oxygen reach those roots. No-till systems create a bed that has excess runoff, which can carry away topsoil and leave crops parched. Tilled soils have pockets that can secrete water but they also allow excess water to percolate down through soil which avoids sodden roots.
Helps with weed control. If you are not a fan of weeds, and most of us aren’t, weed prevention is another of the tillage pros. Early tilling can chop up annoying weeds when they are young, preventing them from getting a foot hold in the garden. Fall tilling will reduce perennial weeds by chopping them off at the knees so-to-speak and keeping the plant from retaining energy during its winter dormancy.
Eliminates potential pests. Another of the tilling advantages is that it can disrupt soil-borne larvae and insects that will emerge in spring and have their way with the garden. Many pests overwinter in soil and tilling will kill many of these.
How to use a tractor mount rotary tiller in your large vegetable garden.
Whether you’re replanting a garden from last year, or in the process of putting in a new garden, a Frontier Rotary Tiller (US CA) is ideal for getting that seedbed broken into the perfect texture for planting. Frontier offers 13 models of rotary tillers with working widths ranging from 42 to 121 inches (1.1 – 3.1 m).
A rotary tiller uses a set of curved tines attached to a rotating shaft that is powered by your tractor’s PTO to dig into your garden soil, churning it into a fine, essentially clod-free seedbed. You can adjust the working depth of your tiller by adjusting the skid shoes. Generally speaking, the larger the tiller the greater the maximum working depth. In a large vegetable garden, however, tilling to a depth of no more than 6 inches (15.24 cm) should be sufficient.
When it comes to working width, you want a tiller that is at least as wide as the outside measurement of your rear tractor tires. Otherwise, you may end up with some areas in your garden that aren’t tilled as well as others. So make sure you pay attention to each pass, making sure you overlap each one.
If you’re starting a new garden, then ideally you plowed it in the fall and let the overturned soil mellow over the winter. Spring is the time to use the rotary tiller. Since this soil has never been tilled before, you should go over it two or three times until the soil is tilled 4 to 6 inches (10-15.24 cm) deep and is free of any large clods.
Whether you’re tilling a new garden or re-tilling one that perhaps hasn’t been planted in awhile, start slowly and don’t till too deep. Going too fast means your tiller won’t have time to grind the soil the way it should. Once you’ve been over the ground a time or two, you can increase your speed and working depth.
The tailgate on your tiller is also adjustable. A more open tailgate will allow larger dirt clods to come out, giving you a slightly coarser soil, and provide a less level surface. The type of soil you have and what you intend to plant will impact how coarse you want the seedbed to be.
And remember, always read the Operator’s Manual before operating any piece of equipment and follow all operating and safety instructions.