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We’re big advocates of no-till organic gardening. Preparing your garden beds for spring and summer using no-till organic methods is a bit different from traditional approaches. We’ll show you how in this article!


Tip: How to Prepare Your Garden Beds For Spring and Summer

What if I told you that you could grow baskets full of organic produce without having to till your soil? Or fertilize? Or pick weeds?

Sounds too good to be true, right?

A nice summer harvest from GrowJourney's cofounders' no-till organic/permaculture garden. Preparing garden beds for spring and summer by GrowJourney

A nice summer harvest from GrowJourney’s cofounders’ no-till organic/permaculture garden, aka Tyrant Farms.

Well, it actually is true. At GrowJourney, we’re big proponents of no-till organic gardening and farming practices.

Large-scale (farm) and small-scale (garden) no-till

Researchers at Rodale Institute have shown the innumerable benefits of no till organic farming at a large scale in their 30 year trials.


And piles of research have also proven the benefits of using similar no-till methods in your garden, as we’ve written about here.

These aren’t simply abstract ideas. They’ve been put to use around the world, tested scientifically, and proven to be enormously effective — and ecologically regenerative.

We’ve put these methods to use in our own gardens, and have personally experienced the many benefits of no-till organic gardening.

No-till farms vs gardens: same principles, different methods

If you’re using no-till organic methods on a large scale — such as on a farm — that typically requires you to use “green mulches,” aka cover crops. (Not so with food forests and some other no-till methods.)

Cover crops also work on a small-scale, such as in your garden, but you can opt to use “brown mulches” such as leaf and wood chip mulch. Both brown and green mulches feed the soil microorganisms that make soil a living, functioning system (aka “the soil food web”). These microorganisms then feed and protect your plants.

A few of the critters that comprise the soil food web.

A few of the critters that comprise the “soil food web.”

Using mulch in your no-till garden

In our area of the country, trees are abundant, and provide a range of beneficial “waste” products for gardeners. We like to use chopped fall leaves as a mulch and as carbon-rich “browns” in our compost. (The “green” component of compost is nitrogen-rich food scraps or green yard clippings.) 

However, our favorite garden mulch is wood chips. We use untreated and preferably hardwood wood chips that we get for free from local tree service companies. 

Wood chips offer the added benefit of making a visually attractive edible landscape, unlike bare exposed dirt which doesn’t tend to be very attractive.

Can an edible, organic no-till landscape also be beautiful? We think so. This is a photo of one of the front yard garden beds of GrowJourney's cofounders. Squash, strawberries, nasturtiums, alliums, Camellia sinensis, grapes, elderberries, tomatoes, and other edible plants can be seen where grass used to grow. How many more species can this multifunctional landscape support relative to a monoculture grass lawn? How much more carbon can be sequestered? How much more human food can be produced?

Can an edible, organic no-till landscape also be beautiful? We think so. This is a photo of one of the front yard garden beds of GrowJourney’s cofounders. Squash, strawberries, nasturtiums, alliums, Camellia sinensis, grapes, elderberries, tomatoes, and other edible plants can be seen where grass used to grow. How many more species can this multifunctional landscape support relative to a monoculture grass lawn? How much more carbon can be sequestered? How much more human food can be produced?

Beauty is an important function in a garden, but beauty isn’t very important on a large farm that doesn’t have to worry about what the Joneses or the HOA think.   

If you’d like to get wood chip mulch for free, call your local tree service companies. They will often even drop wood chips off at our house for free, since it saves them the municipal disposal costs.

If not, they sometimes have piles of free wood chips at their business that they’re happy for you to come get with your own truck and pitchfork. 

How much wood chips should go on your beds? 

Heirloom squash growing in a heavily mulched, no-till organic garden bed.

Heirloom squash growing in a heavily mulched, no-till organic garden bed.

Why use wood chip mulch? A review of the scientific literature by Washington State University, Puyallup Research and Extension Center concluded that using wood chip mulch:

  • Improves soil moisture
  • Reduces soil erosion and compaction
  • Helps maintain optimal soil temperatures (up to 50 degrees F in some extreme environments!)
  • Increases soil nutrition
  • Reduces salt and pesticide contamination
  • Increases binding of heavy metals
  • Improves plant establishment and growth by enhancing root establishment and transplant survival and increasing overall plant growth performance;
  • Reduces disease
  • Reduces weeds
  • Reduces watershed pollution
  • Reduces pesticide needs
  • Improves aesthetic appeal (*as the researchers stated, it’s much harder to quantify this benefit, but let’s face it: rows of exposed plowed dirt are ugly; mulched beds with edible plants makes a much more attractive landscape)
  • Saves money (less inputs, higher plant survival rates, less plant maintenance, larger crop yields, etc = big savings)

That’s a lot of benefits! 

Preparing your garden beds for spring with mulch

“Ok, all that sounds great,” you’re thinking… “But what does this have to do with preparing your garden beds for spring?”

A lot! Assuming you’re using no-till organic methods.  

A recently transplanted tomato seedling in a mulched no-till bed. Notice how the mulch has been pulled back away from the base of the plant. You don't want to pile mulch up next to your seedlings or you risk rotting your plants. Preparing your garden beds for spring

A recently transplanted tomato seedling in a mulched no-till bed. Notice how the mulch has been pulled back away from the base of the plant. You don’t want to pile mulch up next to your seedlings or you risk rotting your plants.

Pick the option below that sounds most like you, then get growing, er going!

Scenario 1: You already have garden beds with healthy soil. 

If you already have established garden beds with good soil biology (e.g. your plants have grown well without any fertilizer), then your job is simple. Just top-dress your beds with 6″ of wood chip mulch in the spring, and plan to do the same thing again in the fall.

When transplanting your seedlings into the bed, simply:

  • pull back the mulch,
  • make a small hole in the soil,
  • plop in your seedling, and 
  • be sure not to pile the mulch back around the stem of the seedling since this could cause the stem to rot, thereby killing the plant (see tomato seedling image above).

Keep the mulch very shallow right around the immediate vicinity of your plants’ stems and deeper further away from your plants.

Scenario 2: You already have garden beds, but your soil isn’t very healthy. 

If you’ve struggled to grow healthy disease-free plants or have had to use fertilizer to get your plants to grow, Scenario #2 describes you.

Before putting on your wood chip mulch, you’re going to want to give your soil a microbiological boost by putting 2″ of quality compost on the soil surface. (You can also substitute quality worm castings which you can buy online.) A third option is to apply a deep soil drench of actively aerated compost tea (AACT).

As soon as that’s done, top-dress the bed with 6″ of wood chip mulch and you’re ready to start planting. Add another 6″ of wood chips every fall and spring, and use compost, worm castings, and/or compost tea every 1-2 years as needed.

Scenario 3: You don’t have garden beds, but you want to make them in time to plant this season.

There are multiple methods you can use to make new garden beds:

  • raised beds,
  • in-ground beds,
  • sunken beds (if you live in a really hot dry area),
  • lasagna beds,
  • hugelkultur beds, etc.

Regardless of the type of garden beds you make, *top-dress it with 4-6″ of wood chip mulch when you’re done.

*Definition – “Top-dressing” means what it sounds like. Place the wood chips on the surface of your soil. Do NOT till the wood chips into the soil as this will temporarily rob your soil of plant-available nitrogen. When you top-dress your mulch on to the surface of your garden beds, worms, fungi, arthropods, etc will slowly break down the mulch for you, aerating the soil and bringing bioavailable nutrients to the rhizosphere of your plants as they work. And they work 24-7 for free!

We hope this gardening tip was helpful! If you have any questions, please ask it in the comments section below.

Edible landscaping reading recommendations

If you want to do edible organic landscaping so you can have an attractive garden in your front yard, we highly recommend getting any or all of these five edible landscaping books:

Also, be sure to check out these other edible landscaping articles on GrowJourney:

Happy gardening!

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