DCGP is currently transitioning from offering a tilling service to low and no-till practices over the next two years ('23 & '24 seasons).
After much careful research, long term feedback from gardeners, experiential learning & conversations within the Land Stewardship Committee, DCGP has decided to implement a gradual transition to more gentle and less destructive soil management and regenerative practices.
How did we come to this decision, you may ask?
One of the largest influencing factors was the inadvertent spread of soil pathogens and noxious weeds between both plots and gardens. We have had the presence of Clubroot disease in our gardens for over half a decade now, and despite very careful cleaning and sanitizing of our tiller machinery, it is inevitably the main vector of transport for microscopic Clubroot spores.
Noxious weeds such as Common tansy, Garlic mustard, Quackgrass & Horseradish, which spread via their root networks (rhizomes) multiple exponentially when severed by a tiller, increasing the weed pressure significantly for a gardener.
Other factors include:
81% of gardeners did not till their plots (signalling that other soil practices are much more prevalent)
Over half of plots tilled last year were new gardeners (signalling that educational & awareness components may be lacking)
Over half of plots tilled last year were at Cook Home garden, which has a quite large weed pressure (signalling a potential coalescing issue with weed management that tilling is likely influencing)
Inaccessibility of our industrial-sized tiller into small gardens, raised beds, fenced in spaces & potential underground obstacles
Destructive nature of tilling: it tends to be harmful to beneficial fungus, bacteria & other soil organisms
Potential compaction of soil & decreased aeration over time (a particular problem during an extra-rainy Spring, when timing tilling for dry ground can be difficult)
Carbon emissions: our tiller is gas-powered and therefore emits greenhouse gases, which are not environmentally friendly (and compound greater long-term climate volatility)
Staff time: our staff have limited hours, and the significant time spent tilling is time taken away from other soil regenerating tasks & gardener support
Maintenance, transportation & operation of our tiller consumes a lot of capital, time & energy
DCGP wants to assure you that this decision has been carefully & constructively thought through, and that we are dedicated to serving our gardeners in the best ways we can. Ultimately, we want to have the best soil conditions possible with the least amount of work for our gardeners; prevailing wisdom in the gardening/food cultivation world has shown that regenerative soil practices are a beneficial way to go about this.
What services will we be offering during Spring 2023?
We will be continuing to offer tilling this year, to help ease the transition towards low and no-till gardening. This is specifically targeted towards people that have traditionally tilled their plots due to factors such as a physical limitation or the need to incorporate more organic matter. We recommend that new gardeners do not order tilling, as it's a great opportunity to start out gardening with low and no-till practices in place (and hopefully, less weeds to pick!)
We will be attempting to use a broadfork wherever possible - the results are similar to machine tilling, but are less invasive and destructive to the soil. A broadfork is also able to be fully sterilized in between uses, versus the large and complex surface area of a tiller.
We will be firmly adhering to the April 15th deadline for tilling sign-up/payment, so please be mindful of this date if you are considering the option of tilling.
Can gardeners till their own plots?
While DCGP recommends against gardeners machine tilling their plots, gardeners are able to independently till their own plots. There are tiller rental resources (London Road Rentals, Home Depot, Menards) and landscaping and gardening business that will till for hire.
What will be changing in the 2024 season?
DCGP will no longer be offering machine tilling (potential exceptions: construction of new garden spaces, pollinator habitats, garlic project prep). Services such as cardboard/straw/mulch pick up or delivery will likely be offered. DCGP is working towards decentralizing our tools (having them "live" at each garden), so having broadforks and digging forks available for soil aeration and turning-over will be a key component. During the 2023 & 2024 seasons, we will be providing educational opportunities and workshops detailing the specific practices of low and no-tilling and regenerative soil practices. We intend to help gardeners adapt and grow into these new practices as much as possible.
For those of you considering tilling this year:
To till or not to till?
To till or not to till?
It is up to each gardener to decide for themselves whether they are tilling or not. See some of the pros and cons of tilling below.
Pros of Tilling
Aerates the soil
Breaks up roots, organic matter, and compacted earth
Chops up weeds and reduces weed pressure immediately after tilling
Smooths and loosens the soil, increasing the ease of direct seeding and planting starts
Tilling is most beneficial when you are able to get out to your plot promptly after tilling to insure weeds do not reestablish themselves. It is best to remove pieces of weeds from a freshly tilled plot and plant desired plants, and/or cover the soil in some way, to reduce the likelihood of weeds growing back. Keep in mind that tilling does not "get rid of weeds," but instead cuts weeds up and spreads them around. This kills some plants, but spreads others.
Cons of Tilling
Harms beneficial fungus, bacteria, and other soil organisms
Creates compaction deeper down
Spreads weed roots like quackgrass, sunchokes, and horseradish, increasing their prevalence later in the season
Can increase overall weed pressure by bringing buried weed seeds to the surface
Many consider no-till gardening a more environmental method of gardening because of its benefits to soil health. Other methods can be used to suppress weeds and prepare a garden bed such as sheet mulching (aka lasagna gardening), solarizing with black plastic, and using a broadfork. Books describing these gardening methods and garden tools are available in the DCGP office.
Advice from DCGP
If you are new to a garden plot ask DCGP staff what kind of condition it is in, and if they advise tilling. If you have been caring for a plot for several seasons and are weeding regularly, try a year without tillage. You might find with keeping up with weeds is actually easier when you don't till!
The deadline to sign up and pay for spring DCGP tilling is May 1, 2022.
Plots will be tilled in May. Plots wanting tilling must be cleared of all tools, infrastructure, large plant residues and other debris. DCGP Land Stewardship Committee will do its best to provide a schedule of tilling time and date at each garden. However, tilling is subject to weather, soil, and staffing schedule changes, so gardeners are encouraged to clear their plot early and keep it clear until their plots have been tilled.
Tilling is NOT possible for raised beds. Gardeners at HARRISON, DENFELD FOOD FOREST, ROOFTOP and GARY NEW DULUTH should not register for tilling.